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Politics ᐊ ᓃᑳᓂᔅᑭᑭᓂᐧᐃᒡ ᐊᐱᑎᓰᐧᐃᓐ

Amendments to Cree legal foundation on the horizon

BY Patrick Quinn Aug 16, 2023

Changes may soon be coming to the Cree constitution, which was enacted alongside a governance agreement with Canada in 2017 to advance Cree self-determination in Eeyou Istchee.

“We will be engaging with the communities in the fall to do a tour talking about the governance review we’re doing, asking for community participation in personalizing, enhancing and further developing the constitution,” Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty told the Nation

Former Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come signed the Agreement on Cree Nation Governance on July 18, 2017, and called it “reconciliation in action.” It provided jurisdiction to independently create laws and more efficiently govern Category 1A lands without being bound by the Cree-Naskapi Act, a federal statute adopted in 1984. It also provides the Cree power to collect their own taxes, although there is no obligation to use it.

While the governance agreement removed federal oversight on those lands and provided long-term stability by defining financial arrangements with Canada until 2040, rules regarding internal governance were moved from the Cree-Naskapi Act into the Cree constitution.

“Our constitution sets out a basic framework of Cree values and procedures that will continue to evolve to incorporate distinctive Cree forms of governance,” Coon Come stated at the time. “This is a key development, for our constitution is not subject to the consent or approval of Canada or Quebec. It is a purely internal Cree document; one we can amend ourselves alone.”

The Cree constitution begins with an affirmation of Cree fundamental values and principles before outlining how laws, resolutions, meetings, elections and fiscal management are to be administered. It states that provisions in the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, Governance Agreement and Act respecting the Cree Nation Government take precedence in the case of inconsistency or conflict. 

Governance negotiations stemmed from the 2008 New Relationship Agreement and there were many differences to resolve over eight years. Coon Come said the approximately 80 major agreements signed with Canada, Quebec and industry since the JBNQA “tell the story of the long Cree struggle to make our vision of self-government and self-determination a reality.”

The constitution’s adoption was not without controversy. Community consultations often went long into the evening as people voiced their concerns and tried to understand the proposed changes. Women leaders such as Linda Shecapio and Irene Neeposh highlighted the panel leading consultations included no women.  

Waskaganish Chief Darlene Cheechoo questioned why it was presented as a complete document and whether feedback would be taken into consideration. A petition with over 70 names asked for a delay, and Waskaganish was the last community to vote on the proposed initiatives.

When the constitution was approved, Gull-Masty was deputy chief of Waswanipi and abstained from voting on the motion to approve the draft documents. Her comments at the time foreshadowed recent developments to reopen these discussions.

“As a leader you are there to build the consensus amongst the communities,” said Gull-Masty in 2017. “I’m almost a little bit ashamed to say, [there is] bullying at this table.”

The constitution states that amendments can be initiated by a resolution adopted by CNG council. Upon adoption of this resolution, an amendment can be drafted and widely publicized. Approval and ratification require consent from each Cree Nation community. 

The process of creating Indigenous constitutions has gained momentum across Canada over the past 20 years as they are viewed federally as an important part of any negotiations around self-governance. Constitutions generally clarify governing structures, leadership selection processes, and accountability and transparency mechanisms. 

As alternatives to the Indian Act, they sometimes serve the role of formalizing oral traditions, customs and laws. If developed under treaties, they may be shaped by preceding requirements that set basic standards for elected representatives, band membership and conflict of interest rules.

However, there remains legal debate about whether most of these constitutions have the same authority as federal legislation and raise the possibility of court battles if they come in conflict with Canadian laws. Some suggest their legitimacy could draw from an inherent Indigenous right to self-govern. 

Other First Nations will be watching the Cree Nation’s proposed developments to its constitution. Since the JBNQA became the country’s first modern treaty, the Cree Nation has established a unique governance model that established a precedent for Indigenous autonomy.

“We have to pass on the tradition that the Crees are trailblazers, not followers,” asserted former CNG executive director Bill Namagoose in 2017. “We don’t have anybody in front of us to show us where to go. The Crees are trailblazers and will continue to be.” 

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.