Cree Grand Chief Abel Bosum is on a tour of communities across Eeyou Istchee to provide information and answer questions about the Grande Alliance, a plan in which the Cree Nation Government and the Quebec government would jointly develop and protect areas of Eeyou Istchee.
Bosum signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Quebec Premier François Legault last February, outlining objectives for the project over a 30-year period.
Included in that proposal are calls for development of a rail network between Matagami and Whapmagoostui, hundreds of kilometres of new or upgraded roads, new power lines, the “electrification of certain industrial projects,” shared infrastructure, labour force training, and an expansion of protected areas.
The plan foresees $4.7 billion in investments across the territory, with money coming from the CNG, the governments of Quebec and Canada, and the private sector.
Bosum describes the Grande Alliance not as an agreement, but a relationship.
“What we have with Quebec is an MOU concerning a sustainable infrastructure program,” he said. “The MOU is a non-binding protocol that frames collaboration between the Cree Nation and Quebec government that will engage communities in the planning of the territory ahead of promoters and allow us to shape our future with our own priorities in mind.”
Though the project was signed in February, it begins with feasibility studies estimated to cost tens of millions of dollars. Bosum says the studies will include community engagement and feedback processes.
The goal is to make it easier and cheaper to access valuable minerals located across Eeyou Istchee, including lithium and vanadium, which are increasingly being used in electric vehicles and other renewable technologies.
However, that has raised concerns about environmental impacts. Chisasibi member Heather House was on the 16th day of a hunger strike to raise awareness of the potential problems when she spoke to the Nation.
She is concerned about the impact building railway and roads would have on local traplines, and the environmental cost of extracting any minerals and metals. “It would hinder our livelihoods of hunting and living off the land,” House said.
She also feels there’s been a lack of consultation since the agreement was signed.
“I say ‘no’ to the agreement already signed. Have it terminated and revoked on the grounds of no consultation, on the grounds that there was no informed consent from the people of Eeyou Istchee,” House wrote in an open letter posted on Facebook.
House has consumed only fish, fowl or caribou broth during her campaign. She said that some people only found out about the Grande Alliance through her hunger strike, pointing to a band councillor from another community was only informed of the MOU the day before it was signed. She also called for Cree leadership to consult with Elders and youth.
Bosum defended the MOU as an effort to, “promote and consolidate sustainable development and socio-economic collaboration between the Cree and Quebec in order to connect, develop and protect Eeyou Istchee.” He said that it will ultimately be communities that will decide what infrastructure, services and protected areas will be created out of the project.
“La Grande Alliance is an approach, a way of planning ahead, locally with community members, land-users, entrepreneurs for the benefit of all. We, as a nation, will decide on these benefits. One of the first benefits that will come from La Grande Alliance will be a network of protected areas identified by land-users and community members,” Bosum stated. In 2018, the CNG said the goal is to protect 30% of Cree territory.
Bosum clarified that any project would still have to comply with the environmental and social protection and impact assessment processes created by the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement.
One of the reasons that Grande Alliance discussions began in 2018, according to Bosum, was to respond to an increasing number of proposed projects, reduce the impacts from increased traffic and to protect woodland caribou.
“Seeing that this would continue to be an issue for any future development, we agreed that the Cree Nation should be the one taking the initiative to decide where and how future development would happen in our territory,” Bosum said.
For those who have further questions or concerns, Bosum urged them to participate in future local assemblies that had been postponed by the pandemic, or to visit information offices that are planned for each community.
“As the feasibility studies come into play in the new year, there will be many opportunities to learn more and bring the questions or concerns you might have to leadership,” Bosum stated. “But, again, it is important to remind ourselves that there is no actual project or proposal to present as we are still in the very early stages of a feasibility study.”