Having overcome all the administrative hurdles needed to approve the renaming of the James Bay Highway in honour of former Grand Chief Billy Diamond, the only question remaining is when the official renaming ceremony will occur.
The Cree Nation Government (CNG) had hoped to inaugurate the Billy Diamond Highway November 11 to coincide with the 45th anniversary of the James Bay Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA), in which Diamond played a central role. Unfortunately, concerns related to the pandemic and dropping temperatures have postponed the announcement.
“We would prefer to wait until we can actually get high-level officials to come and be part of the celebrations,” Grand Chief Abel Bosum told the Nation. “We’re now looking at some time in the spring. Usually, it’s the government that announces these things so we still have to find out what they intend to do – it’s possible it could be announced earlier.”
To be commemorated at that time are the new regional government office in Matagami and the 45th anniversary of the bilateral agreement for cooperation between the Grand Council of the Crees and the Société de développement de la Baie-James (SDBJ), a Crown corporation responsible for industry development in the region, including the highway’s construction and maintenance.
While the renaming initiative became public knowledge at the annual general assembly in August, the idea had first been discussed with Premier François Legault a year ago when the Eastmain-1 hydroelectric dam was renamed in honour of former Premier Bernard Landry.
“It was at that occasion that I brought up to the premier I think it’s equally important you recognize Cree leadership, who not only have had great influence in Quebec but right across Canada and internationally,” recalled Bosum. “And Billy is certainly one of those. This is the beginning, I think, of looking at ways to recognize some of our great leaders.”
Melissa Saganash, the CNG director of Cree-Quebec relations, worked behind the scenes with Quebec’s department of toponymy and Diamond’s family members to achieve the necessary consent for the project. As Bosum has strived to maintain a collaborative relationship with Legault and previous premiers, approvals came smoothly – on a political level at least.
“We had some other people not as keen, who saw this as a Cree takeover,” Bosum confided. “You still have that mentality there where they haven’t seen Cree as being partners. But we’ve overcome that hurdle – it was really important that we pushed the idea of renaming an infrastructure in the region to celebrate his life.”
Diamond’s exploits since the early 1970s are legendary, including gathering all chiefs in Eeyou Istchee for the first time soon after hearing Quebec’s plans for a massive hydroelectric dam in Cree territory. He joined other young Cree chiefs like Robert Kanatewat and Philip Awashish in mounting a monumental legal battle to halt development and became the first Grand Chief of the Grand Council of the Crees at age 23.
Negotiations led to the signing of the JBNQA in 1975, which became Canada’s first modern treaty and the only one explicitly protected in the federal constitution. Diamond repeatedly defended Cree rights over the years, earning the Cree Nation improved living conditions, environmental protections and self-governance.
“When Billy was grand chief, he did not take no for an answer in many cases,” said Bosum. “He was told Crees don’t own airlines and told then-Premier [René] Lévesque, ‘watch me’, leading to the establishment of Air Creebec. I admired his boldness in dealing with governments and at the same time bringing Cree leadership together in unity.”
Diamond’s many political victories and international meetings, which included presenting Pope John Paul II with a pair of snowshoes in 1984, gained unprecedented rights and respect for both Crees and other Indigenous peoples. Returning home to Waskaganish to focus on nation building, he further confirmed his historic legacy as a successful entrepreneur.
“I see [this initiative] as part of celebrating history,” Bosum asserted. “We have many young people who don’t know anything about the origin of resources we have to run our governance, education, health system and so forth. Having an infrastructure named should help. By asking who Billy Diamond was, they will eventually learn about the JBNQA and the benefits that have come from it.”
Since the JBNQA and the ensuing battles to secure rights, the Cree Nation has improved its relationship with Quebec with agreements such as the Grand Alliance, signed last February, which emphasizes the establishment of protected areas as a condition for sustainable-resource development.
“We’re taking this step by step, starting with the protected areas,” Bosum explained. “Both governments have now put in over $300 million to improve the James Bay Highway. Our Grand Alliance is to do some feasibility studies on what other infrastructure is needed to make sure we take a comprehensive approach in development.”
An additional investment for repairs and upgrades to the Billy Diamond Highway was announced a few weeks ago to complete work that began in 2017 while constructing new watercourse crossings.
Alongside coming archways and bridges, road users can look forward to an appropriate tribute to Diamond once the name change becomes official. At km 6 near Matagami, a large archway will welcome drivers to the Billy Diamond Highway with a picture and profile of him in Cree, English and French. A second, smaller arch will be located at the intersection of the Trans-Taiga Highway.
“It’s a beautiful design made from wood from the territory, laminated wood fabricated at the Chibougamau sawmill,” shared Bosum. “It has big wooden beams on each side and connected on top, so very nice design work. I’m super happy and proud that we’re able to do this and honour him.”