The Grand Council of the Crees and the Cree Nation Government signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Canadian government September 14 initializing “exploratory discussions” to recognize MoCreebec Eeyoud as a distinct Indigenous community.
The move comes after the Grand Council recognized MoCreebec as the 11th Cree community in 2017. The MoCreebec Eeyoud voted last October to establish their community base in Moosonee, where many now live.
The discussions will take place with a Standing Liaison Committee under Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada, set up under the Federal New Relationship Agreement signed in 2008. The Grand Council and the CNG previously signed an MOU with MoCreebec to have them recognized as a community.
MoCreebec Chief Allan Jolly said this moment has taken nearly 40 years to arrive. “When the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBQNA) was signed in 1975… there was a group of us Crees living in Ontario, kind of left out of being part of this agreement,” Jolly said.
“The Grand Council of the Crees knew about us and sort of deliberately decided to leave us out because being in Ontario would complicate things, trying to bring Ontario into the mix into negotiations with Quebec and Canada. But Cree leadership at that time said they’d leave the Cree question in Ontario until another time,” Jolly added.
The federal government position for decades was that it had no legal obligations towards Quebec Crees living in Ontario. “We’re here, partly it had to do with them, they established the residential school here in Moose Factory, I was part of that group of children placed there,” observed Jolly, who is originally from Waskaganish.
According to Jolly, roughly 400 Cree boys and girls were brought from the Quebec side, and many stayed. Additionally, a federal Indian hospital was built in Moose Factory in the 1950s to deal with the tuberculosis epidemic, with many others staying after being released from treatment. Jolly said the federal government had an Indian agent in the community until the 1960s, “so they knew about us.”
Now that the government has agreed to preliminary discussions, Jolly is confident the process will lead to recognition for MoCreebec people. “I have to be optimistic about it, we’ve been at it for 40 years. In a way we’ve done our work, what we need to do at our end, in order to bring our people along to this point,” he said.
“Given the political climate, when you consider the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, both are very supportive statements saying that anything with Native people should be dealt with in the context of their treaties,” he added. “They’re willing to listen to new ideas on how Indigenous communities should be dealt with, and with the Indian Act system isn’t exactly the greatest. I think there’s an open ear with the government.”
Bill Namagoose, lead negotiator for the Grand Council, said that the federal government has had a file on MoCreebec since the 1980s. But it was “put in the freezer, and we found it in the bottom of the freezer and tried to thaw it out.”
The talks constitute “a major move,” he added. “We want to go from exploratory discussions to a negotiation table with the federal government on creating a Cree community for MoCreebec on the Ontario side. It’s no secret what we’ve wanted, it’s just taken so long.”
Jolly points to the success of the JBQNA in transforming the Cree communities of the 1970s into “modern towns and villages” as a guideline for how a new treaty could assist members of MoCreebec. “It was very innovative and forward thinking, involving the feds and the province and, of course, the Crees themselves,” he noted.
As for Ontario, Jolly said that they’ve met with provincial officials and cabinet ministers going back 30 years, and that they are prepared to join negotiations when Ottawa deems it necessary.
“We have to talk to the province of Ontario, we think, on land issues,” Namagoose said. “That’s the main thing the Ontario government will be involved in. We hope they’ll be able to financially contribute, but it’s probably a long shot.”
Jolly credits the CNG for funding this process, rather than waiting for federal grants. The CNG will help cover costs for the MOU, negotiations, technical work such as engineering, and other human resources.
“I’m close to seeing what was my dream,” Jolly shared. “I’m 72 and I’d like to see something happen, ASAP. But it might be a bit of a ways off.”
by Ben Powless, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter