To follow James A. O’Reilly’s career is to chart the modern history of Indigenous legal rights in Canada. As one of the country’s most recognized specialists in Indigenous law, he is perhaps best known as the lead lawyer for the Cree Nation in the legal battle that led to Canada’s first modern land claim agreement.
O’Reilly was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, one of the country’s highest honours, which recognizes those who have made significant contributions to Canadian society. He was honoured “for his contributions as a jurist, for his advancement and protection of Indigenous rights and self-governance, and for his profound effect on the practice of Aboriginal law in Canada.”
Though O’Reilly seemed ambivalent about this accolade, he said he was influenced by former Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come and Samson Cree Chief Victor Buffalo, who interpreted their appointments to the Order as a sign of respect and recognition.
“When you’re fighting against Canada all your professional life, you sort of hesitate on this and say well okay,” O’Reilly told the Nation. “It’s an honour but it doesn’t change the fact that I still have lots of cases against the Government of Canada.”
A friendship with a junior hockey teammate was his introduction to the Mohawk community, which led to some of his first legal work. Andrew Delisle, the Kahnawake Chief who recently passed away, recruited O’Reilly to recover lands expropriated by the Saint Lawrence Seaway expansion in 1966.
“The Mohawks were always in the forefront with self-determination and local government and all the rest,” asserted O’Reilly. “Andrew Delisle helped quite a bit at the beginning to help organize the Crees.”
When Delisle was named chairperson of the National Committee on Indian Rights and Treaties, he turned to O’Reilly to compile research as the government of the day was preparing to abolish the Indian Act. O’Reilly began working extensively with the Indians of Quebec Association, where he first met Cree Chief Malcolm Diamond.
“He asked me when the time came in the early 1970s, ‘Look we’re going to fight the project – will you come and work with us?’” O’Reilly recalled. “I was with a bigger firm at that particular point in time. I really had no choice in conscience but to leave and to fight with the Crees.”
That project of course was the so-called “Project of the Century”, Quebec’s plan to construct dams for a massive hydroelectric initiative that would flood much of Eeyou Istchee. With O’Reilly’s law firm also representing the James Bay Development Corporation, he decided to do the right thing and leave.
“As my wife keeps reminding me, we took a pretty big risk because we had no guarantee of anything at that point in time except it was a thing we had to do,” O’Reilly explained. “You’ve got to live with yourself. I don’t have any regrets many years later.”
Lawyers for Quebec argued that the Crees were squatters with no rights, and that they lived like other Quebecers. In response, O’Reilly brought in Inuit hunters and Cree trappers, who sometimes stored dead birds and seals in the bathtubs of their big-city hotels, to testify. He successfully argued the Crees had never surrendered their rights and still lived their traditional way of life.
After 167 witnesses were called over 71 days, including experts who warned of the project’s dire social and economic impacts, O’Reilly won an injunction that briefly halted construction and ultimately paved the way for the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA). Besides being integral to Cree rights for self-governance, this agreement set an essential precedent for all major Canadian land settlements to come.
“Quebec wanted to negotiate and the Crees didn’t want to at first,” said O’Reilly about the JBNQA’s origins. “They went all over the north to get permission to even talk while continuing the fight. The negotiations lasted several months, then November 1975 was the final agreement. People weren’t sure about that until the last minute actually.”
O’Reilly is quick to credit the first Cree Grand Chief, Billy Diamond, as the lead figure in these developments. During his moving eulogy at Diamond’s funeral in 2010, O’Reilly called him a brother in arms and spirit as well as a mentor.
“Billy was a huge influence on me, obviously,” shared O’Reilly. “He was a master orator and communicator, very intelligent and made the transition so easily between Cree society and non-Indian society. He got on well with René Lévesque and some of the PQ ministers.”
O’Reilly marvels at the great leaders the Cree Nation has been lucky to have, praising Robert Kanatewat, Abel Kitchen, Ted Moses, Matthew Coon Come and Abel Bosum, among others. He recalled the formation of communities like Waswanipi and Ouje-Bougoumou, “where Abel Bosum got a lot of his schoolwork done.”
O’Reilly continued, “I was involved in the elaboration of many provincial laws. That wasn’t the vogue at that time, being consulted on laws, but we pushed.”
He further represented the Crees of Eeyou Istchee on other environment, hydroelectric power and forestry issues, besides helping other First Nations in countless legal battles. His leading role in the Oka Crisis earned him international fame and his mostly pro bono work for the Lubicon Cree led to decisions against Canada for human rights violations.
O’Reilly has been a tireless fighter for Indigenous rights since Aboriginal jurisprudence was in its nascent stages, contributing trailblazing work that will be remembered for benefiting generations of Indigenous peoples. As he nears 80, he is still busy representing First Nations and following his conscience.
“I happened to be at the right place at the right time, starting off in this area,” reflected O’Reilly. “I could have been a senior partner and been a lot better off than I am now. But when you go on to the next world, do you take your jewelry with you? You take your conscience with you.”