Cree Nation leaders could have been forgiven for thinking the Quebec and Canadian governments would finally respect Cree sovereignty when the three parties signed the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA) nearly 50 years ago.
However, their failure to do so led to several years-long legal disputes, in part due to excessive logging on Cree territory and opposition to the proposed Great Whale hydroelectric project. That set the stage for the Cree Nation and Quebec to return to the negotiating table, culminating in the signing of the Paix des Braves agreement on February 7, 2002.
The deal gained greater autonomy for Cree economic and community development, while also detailing how forestry and environmental assessments would be carried out in a way respectful to Cree culture. Now, 20 years later, leaders of the Cree Nation and the Quebec government are reflecting on where the agreement has brought them, and what the future holds.
“It’s a pleasure to mark the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Paix des Braves,” Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty remarked in a written statement. “This agreement marked a new relationship […] built on trust and partnership, one that was negotiated with former Grand Chief Ted Moses and Premier Bernard Landry.”
Gull-Masty added the deal was an opportunity for the Cree to participate in the economic development of their territory. “It provided the opportunity for the Cree to take on the management and leadership and development of Cree communities,” she continued.
It provided tools and funding to develop infrastructure and spur the rapid development across Cree communities, Gull-Masty noted. She also signalled her intention to sit down with Quebec Premier François Legault to evaluate the current agreement and plan the next 30 years of the relationship.
Moses signed the Paix de Braves while serving as Grand Chief in 2002. “We’ve seen many benefits coming to the Cree Nation. We’ve witnessed the development of our communities which has generated jobs and contracts. We’re now enjoying the long-term benefits of Paix des Braves,” Moses said in a video address.
“We must constantly remind ourselves of why we are here and constantly harken back to our original vision of what it takes to build a healthy and dynamic future for all of us. We are renewing our commitment to collaborate and build together in a spirit of mutual understanding and respect.”
Premier Legault said that both Landry and Moses were pioneers. “It has created long-term prosperity for our peoples,” Legault observed. “Broader autonomy has enabled the Cree Nation to pursue its rapid development. All the positive effects of this major agreement are apparent 20 years later, and it must serve as an example.”
Notwithstanding the rosy assessments, sharp divisions erupted after the agreement-in-principle was announced in October 2001. Many objected to the opportunities for further hydroelectric development – such as the diversion of the Rupert River – and believed the Cree should continue the fight to ensure the JBNQA was respected.
The late Grand Chief Billy Diamond told the Nation in late 2001 that the youth were livid over the deal.
“The youth feel very betrayed by the Cree leadership,” Diamond said. “The sense of betrayal is showing up in their anger. Someone should have told the people we are working on an agreement with the Premier of Quebec. That’s why it shocked the people.”
The acrimony forced the Grand Council to hold a referendum. Despite fierce opposition, especially in Chisasibi, 70% of Cree voters voted to approve the agreement after intense debate in all communities.
In retrospect, CNG Executive Director Bill Namagoose says the Cree had no option but to try to stop the development of the Great Whale hydroelectric project to get Canada and Quebec to respect the promises they made in the JBQNA.
“We succeeded in our efforts to stop the Great Whale project, which would have generated 3,000 megawatts, but flooded over 3,000 square kilometres of land,” Namagoose explained. “We did this by successfully getting the power export contracts to the USA – worth billions – cancelled. And to a certain extent, our visibility and the success of our participation in the Parti Québécois sovereignty debate and drive; these two factors led to a very acrimonious relationship that hurt Quebec and the Cree Nation.”
Namagoose said that the relationship between Quebec and the Cree Nation was not sustainable – that then-Premier Landry realized this and seized the opportunity to make peace with then-Grand Chief Moses, resulting in the Paix des Braves agreement.
Namagoose says it was successful and transformed both Cree communities and the relationship with Quebec.
“It raised many opportunities and generated added value in the health and education sector, and especially in job creation. The innovative idea and structure of transferring Quebec treaty obligations to the Cree Nation, with the appropriate financial resources to implement for 50 years captured the imagination of many,” he said. “It’s called ‘Peace of the Brave’ because you have to be brave to go where no one dared go before.”
by Ben Powless, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter