Can Geo : What is your take on the Paix des Braves agreement?
Matthew Coon Come: Paix des Braves is the result of many court cases that the Grand Council of the Cree instituted. We wanted to have a say in the way development takes place, so we used the courts and environmental regimes. We were not anti-development, even though that’s how we were portrayed by the media and dam promoters. We just wanted to have a share in the wealth of the natural resources on our lands. Paix des Braves has achieved that. It was there to promote the economic opportunities within the territory and it created a lot of jobs, which we need.
But, things were done in isolation from the people that live within the area. We were fighting against the policy of exclusion. I was there at the signing. Seventy percent of the people in the referendum supported the agreement.
Can Geo Has the agreement affected your own community in Mistissini?
CC: Definitely. Mistissini is one of the largest of the James Bay Cree communities —there are about 1,800 people who are over 18 and looking for jobs. We have a high drop-out rate, so we have to look at training our young people. I think all of the training funds from the agreement certainly have created a lot of jobs in the area, like the mining operations in the Cree area.
Paix des Braves also improved the educational aspect with upgraded programs. They now have certified truck drivers, whether it be heavy machinery or backhoes or graders, qualified carpenters and electricians. There was a large workforce, and there was a period where,because of residential schools, a lot of people didn’t finish school. So it has helped educate our people.
Can Geo: Do you think a different agreement could have been negotiated for the Cree?
CC: There will always be people that say there should have been a different agreement. If you’re not at the table, if you’re not involved in federal-provincial relations, if you’re not trying to place yourself in a position of strength to negotiate then it’s hard to judge. There will always be opponents that will say we could have done it differently but I think history will tell. It’s easy to say after that we could always have done better.
Can Geo: Do you favour an alternative to hydro electricity?
As you know, I’ve been involved in the opposition to the Great Whale river project and in so doing, looking at alternatives or no-build options. That meant looking at wind power, solar power and even co-generation of energy in terms of energy-efficient programs. I remember when we first presented ideas of alternative energy, we were laughed at because they felt that the mega-project was the only way. Now Canada is promoting wind energy.
There are studies that show that 60 percent of known wind sources are within the James Bay territory. The government of Quebec, through Jean Charest, acknowledged this by allocating 2,000 megawatts to wind production. There is a general shift now, whereas before there was an attitude of — “We’ve got rivers; we’re going to produce electricity.” And that was fine But I think we participated in shifting the debate because people started questioning, looking at alternatives, and I think the government is now noticing, even in Quebec, there are alternatives.
Can Geo: Where do you see the Cree Nation in 10 years?
I think the Cree have come a long way. In the early 70s, we had nothing. I always tell the story that as a young man of 16 years I grew up in a tent frame and went down to the lake to get a pail of water. If we wanted a fire, we had to cut wood. Now you look into our communities and you see housing and infrastructure. We have community facilities, elementary and high-schools, and we have certain economic opportunities there within the communities — service-oriented businesses like taxis and grocery stores.
We’ve also built up our institutions: the school board, the health board, Cree construction companies and fuel-distribution. I’m one of the founders of the First Nations Bank. We have these pillars but I do think the next thing is to build the real economic infrastructure within the territory. For example, we need to develop telecommunication.
But, we were so busy building infrastructure in our communities that we may have neglected the social problems — suicides, family problems — of living in modern communities. This past summer, almost every community had a suicide. There were three or four where I’m from. In my community, the people who committed suicide, they were all adults. They were not young people. That’s the reality: When you build like we did, you forget about social problems, and how to adapt to the new environment. It requires a new adjustment and that’s what’s coming for the Cree.
Matthew Coon Come's website
More from our James Bay online exclusive:
Travelling the James Bay Road
James Bay damming project: Water under the dam
Renewable energy: Wind versus water
Climate change: Taking the heat
Tolkien landscape: subarctic wilderness of northern Quebec
A conversation with Matthew Coon Come
A brief history of Cree
How to speak Cree