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Lessons on nation-building

"...[G]overnments do not live up to their promises," said Matthew Coon Come, Grand Chief of the Grand Council of the Crees.

foggy picture of a forest

For a patient man, Matthew Coon Come sounds exasperated.

The Grand Chief of the Grand Council of the Crees has led the James Bay Crees on a path of nation-building, systematically taking on federal policy that threatened aboriginal and treaty rights. And he's proud that long and patient efforts have made the Cree Nation in Quebec a major political and economic force in an area that is two-thirds the size of France.

But during a visit to Nunavut where the Inuit people are struggling to realize the vision created when the new territory was founded in 1999, he allows himself a moment of frustration.

"The biggest challenge once you sign an agreement with the federal or provincial governments is that once the ink is dry and government got what they wanted, governments do not live up to their promises," he said in an interview.

"It creates mistrust and lack of respect because First Nations expect leaders to honour the negotiations and live up to commitments," he said after delivering the keynote address at the CBA National Aboriginal Law conference in Iqaluit.

The Grand Chief counsels patience in the face of impediments that are frustrating the implementation of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreements. He's also very practical.

"The federal government will only do something when they want something from you again," he said. "It requires a lot of patience; you have to look for that slight opening of the window when the government will need to talk to you. That will be your opportunity to bring your issues to the table."

The legacy of James Bay

Matthew Coon Come was in high school when the Quebec government announced its plans to develop the James Bay hydro-electric project. The plan to build on traditional Cree territory was announced without obtaining the consent of the people. It was based on the notion that the land was uninhabited and the people who lived there were squatters without rights. The original project would have flooded half of the young man's community.

The courts eventually compelled Quebec and Canada to negotiate with the Cree, and the James Bay Agreement was signed in 1975. It contained elements that set the James Bay Cree on a path to nation-building, Coon Come says, however the spirit of the agreement was soon forgotten -- and often outright denied.

Other hydro projects were proposed without the consent or involvement of the Cree, he says, and there were more challenges when Quebec made it clear in its bid for succession that traditional Cree lands would remain in Quebec. The Cree responded with its own special referendum: 96 per cent voted against separating James Bay Cree territory from Canada in the event Quebec split off. "We would not be passed back and forth like cattle between two levels of government without our consent," he says.

Today, he says, the James Bay Cree have signed agreements with both Quebec and Canada; he describes them as nation-to-nation agreements that allow relationship-building on equitable footing. The Cree receive annual royalty payments for resources extracted from its territory; their authority to govern themselves has been affirmed.

"Since 1975, the Cree Nation has been committed to moving people to a greater expression of nationhood," he says. "We have been on a mission to reproduce our sovereignty as a nation in a contemporary context."

All of these incremental gains, won with patience and waiting for a window to open, are nothing short of a revolution, he says. Progress was made, he adds, because the Cree placed their rights at the foundation of the agreements and negotiations -- and the same progress can be made by aboriginal people across Canada if they do the same.

Unfortunately, he adds with a wry smile, making progress usually requires a project developed on traditional territory - a James Bay, a Plan Nord, a Northern Gateway -- to move the bar another metre.

He is frustrated with the handling of the Northern Gateway pipeline project, which received conditional approval from the federal government this week.

"Government is reneging on its duty to consult and giving it to Enbridge [the developer] which is in a conflict of interest to consult the people," he said. That is totally unacceptable." He calls the absence of independent experts "with clout and teeth" to examine the impact on aboriginal rights and citizens -- and with the power to say yes or no -- "a recipe for resistance."

A step of faith

I ask him how he persists in the face of incremental progress and the lack of good faith he describes. He returns to the lessons of his upbringing on his parents' Mistissini trapline.

"I learned as the son of a hunter that when you look upon the land, you see a higher power, a creator. I am not one to put my trust in government; I put my trust in God that he will make a way where there is no way.

"You need to know the machinery of government and how it works, but we have limitations. You need to go back to what you believe and it makes you a lot stronger."