On November 11, 1975, the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement was signed between the Cree of Eeyou Istchee, the Inuit of Nunavik, and the governments of Quebec and Canada. It also included signatures from the Société de développement de la Baie James, the Société d’énergie de la Baie James and Hydro-Québec.
It was an epic battle to get to that point. Only two of the original Cree signers, Philip Awashish and Robert Kanatewat, are still with us today. The JBNQA was just the start and many additions and agreements followed. In 1982, the JBNQA was entrenched within the Constitution Act of Canada.
The JBNQA is seen as the first modern comprehensive land claims agreement. It brought many changes to the Cree territory and its inhabitants, changes that the Cree themselves wanted.
Control over health was vital. Many Elders of that time remembered the deaths of loved ones from curable diseases and the high rate of infant mortality. Local health services were sparse and inadequate. Given recent events at some Quebec hospitals we can all agree this was a wise choice.
Control over education helped to end the residential school system. In those days very few Crees had any post-secondary education. That has changed, and now more and more Crees with university degrees and college diplomas are coming back to take important positions within their communities.
Having our own law-enforcement system limits the possibility of police abuses. In the past, for example, the RCMP used to enter Cree homes without warrants. They would count packets of yeast. If you had too many and couldn’t pay the $10 fine you were taken to Amos to spend some time in jail. Then, without money or food, you were expected travel hundreds of kilometres back home. This was at a time that many communities didn’t have road access to the outside world.
These are just three examples of how life has changed. With successive generations since that era, fewer people understand what our life was like before the JBNQA.
That said, it wasn’t all bad. In fact, many Crees miss certain aspects of that life. Indeed, some say that the Cree Nation has grown dependent on governments and resource corporations. In most respects, that is a fallacy. The benefits that Crees received from successfully negotiating compensation from outside authorities are in exchange for something. Should we have simply allowed those resources to be taken for free even as their development often affected us in negative ways? The answer is no.
A cold toilet seat in a drafty outhouse is something that we now only experience when we are in the bush. Ensuring that enough wood is cut for every meal and for heating in those fall, winter and spring months was hard work. Many a mother had to chop and haul wood while the husband was away hunting for enough food that meant the difference between survival and starvation for most families.
Ask an Elder about the hungry years. People were so poor that if you brought a loon, goose or duck to an Elder they would give you one shotgun shell per bird in return.
The changes to this life began in large part with the JBNQA. So, though some might say the Cree people have a dependency issue, it isn’t necessarily a negative thing. That’s why I salute the 45th anniversary of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement.