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Politics ᐊ ᓃᑳᓂᔅᑭᑭᓂᐧᐃᒡ ᐊᐱᑎᓰᐧᐃᓐ

Moose Cree defend against Quebec Cree legal claims

BY Patrick Quinn Aug 3, 2023

On May 29, Moose Cree First Nation served its legal defence against claims made by the Grand Council of Crees of Quebec (“GCC”) in a lawsuit filed in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in 2016. The GCC is seeking recognition of the Cree Nation’s Aboriginal title and rights over certain lands located in Ontario, as well as $495 million in damages for alleged past breaches of rights. 

The governments of Canada and Ontario, along with several Ontario First Nations – including Moose Cree First Nation – are defending against the GCC’s claims. At issue are 48,000 square kilometres of territory south of James Bay west of the Ontario-Quebec border, where the Cree of MoCreebec live amid the Moose Cree homeland.

“This was a necessary step to protect our rights and the stewardship over our homeland that Moose Cree people have exercised for thousands of years,” said former Moose Cree First Nation Chief Mervin Cheechoo. “Unfortunately, it was also a sad day. It was the day that we had to call out our neighbours and fellow Cree nations for trying to take what isn’t theirs, while also failing to share the many resources that they do have with their own people.” 

The lawsuit stems from unresolved territorial rights around the Quebec-Ontario northern border drawn in 1912 that divided Eeyou Istchee’s traditional lands. Many Cree from eastern James Bay had moved to the Moose Factory area in Ontario over the years as it grew into a regional hub for employment, education and healthcare. 

When the Moose Cree and other First Nations in northeast Ontario entered the James Bay Treaty (Treaty 9) in 1905 and 1906 with the governments of Canada and Ontario, MoCreebec families were excluded due to their ancestry in Quebec. As Quebec pursued different policies that didn’t recognize Indigenous rights, Cree people in Quebec experienced substandard conditions for many years.  

The signing of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA) in 1975 dramatically shifted the economic prospects of the Quebec Crees, but MoCreebec was again excluded as Quebec wouldn’t discuss any land issues beyond its border. Rectifying this situation was one of the aims of the Matthew Coon Come #3 lawsuit, filed in 1989.

“Our lawsuit expressly recognizes that other Aboriginal peoples also used and occupied these lands, in the past and through to the present,” explained former Grand Chief Coon Come in 2016. “The Cree Nation’s claim does not aim to affect the rights of other Aboriginal peoples in these lands, but rather seeks to achieve recognition of the Cree Nation’s rights.”

The claim asserted that MoCreebec is the 11th community of the contemporary Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee. Although the community itself is not named as a plaintiff, Coon Come said all MoCreebec members are represented in the proceedings. Last September, the GCC reached an understanding with the federal government to explore options for the recognition of the MoCreebec Eeyoud as a distinct Cree community in Ontario. 

After parts of that lawsuit were eventually settled, the GCC re-filed in the Ontario Superior Court in 2016 to oppose the position of Canada and Ontario that their rights and title were extinguished by Treaty 9. The GCC was taken aback by the immediately scathing response from the Moose Cree First Nation, which filed a motion supporting the federal and provincial governments. 

“Why would you defend that treaty?” asked GCC executive director Bill Namagoose at the time, noting that Treaty 9 extinguished the Ontario Crees’ rights and title for land rights that are already federally protected at only $4 a year per member. “If I were the Moose Cree, I would be standing with the Quebec Cree, and using this as an opportunity to modernize their treaty.” 

Nishnawbe Aski Nation, Mushkegowuk Council and other First Nation Chiefs along the southwestern James Bay shore also affirmed their united resolve to assert their jurisdiction over their homelands.

In a press release addressing the Moose Cree’s recent legal defence, Chief Cheechoo called the lawsuit hurtful because the land distinctions between Cree neighbours had been respected for millennia. “We were shocked and disappointed that the Quebec Cree rejected our past history of respect for each other’s territories and instead went to court to lay claim to Moose Cree’s lands,” Cheechoo said.

With the election of Chief Peter Wesley and a new Moose Cree Council June 22, GCC Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty hopes to establish a new era of respectful nation-to-nation dialogue. Acknowledging the strong statements made by past Moose Cree leadership, she believes there are misconceptions that can be cleared up through communication.

“I look forward to working with Chief Wesley and hope we can sit down and have a dialogue in the near future,” Gull-Masty told the Nation. “The provincial borders are not the cultural borders of Eeyou Istchee. For us to understand the intention between one another’s position, there has to be that sit-down.”

GCC executive director Davey Bobbish also hopes a mutual solution can be reached. Bobbish noted that they’re gathering anthropological evidence for an eventual court case in collaboration with MoCreebec and Washaw Sibi, which is similarly recognized as a Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee but excluded from the JBNQA. 

As beneficiaries without most of the benefits, MoCreebec has long asked for a more inclusive interpretation of the “10-year clause”, which holds that Crees must live in Eeyou Istchee for a six-month period every 10 years to be entitled to JBNQA benefits. Although no such amendments to the JBNQA appear to be on the horizon, the GCC is providing certain services to its two Ontario communities and hopes to one day build permanent settlements.

Bobbish insisted the GCC isn’t fighting the Moose Cree First Nation, acknowledging that “they hold these rights to these same lands.” He thinks a sharing agreement is possible, like one reached in the 2018 agreement with the Pekuakamiulnuatsh Innu Nation.

That agreement recognizes both the Pekuakamiulnuatsh Aboriginal title and the ancestral rights of Cree families in a shared area located in Nitassinan, Mashteuiatsh. It also contains shared commitments on economic development and employment, forestry and traditional activities.

“We have a very good example on our side with Mashteuiatsh, where there were always overlap issues between nations,” explained Bobbish. “We sat down together and said let’s not divide the land. We worked out an agreement that was mutually acceptable and we signed a treaty with them. We didn’t need Quebec on that one.”

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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.