The James Bay Agreement

A Major Milestone Agreement for the Cree and the Inuit

By Mathieu Perron

In the summer of 2021, the provincial government rejected the GNL Québec natural gas pipeline and liquefaction project in the Saguenay. Among the opponents to this project were the Innu. Yet their Mashteuiatsh Reserve is a long way from where the natural gas terminal was to be built. The Innu defend their ancestral rights on the Nitassinan, an Innu word which roughly translates as “our homeland.”

Relations between modern Québec and the First Peoples have long been a recurrent cycle of long judicial battles punctuated by the occasional violent conflict.  Think of the most recent ones: the 1981 Salmon War and the raid on the Listuguj Reserve in the Gaspésie; the 1990 Oka Crisis in the Montreal area; and in 2019, a cross-Canada mobilization against the Trans Mountain Pipeline. At the root of all these conflicts was and is the unequal distribution of resources between native and non-native communities.

Two episodes are usually invoked as turning points in the history of Québec’s relations with its Aboriginals: the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA) of 1975; and the “Paix des Braves” of 2002 between the Cree and the Québec government.

These were the first major agreements dealing with territorial claims, and they are still very controversial.

Here, then, is an overview of these complex, often unresolved questions:

First Peoples

In 2016, Québec registered 182,890 people describing themselves as First Peoples or Aboriginals (the terms are interchangeable). This constitutes 2.3% of the population. Aboriginals are divided into 11 communities, 10 of which were recognized as nations by the National Assembly in 1985. And in 1989, the National Assembly recognized the Maliseet, in Eastern Québec.

In the North, Cree and Inuit form the majority of the population. Faced with this reality, the policies of the Québec government can be summarized in one phrase: “The protection of territorial integrity.”

To understand this phrase, remember that Québec’s territory was enlarged by land transfers from the Dominion of Canada in 1890 and 1912.

The 1912 Québec Boundaries Extension Act explicitly stated that Québec must recognize the rights of the “Indian inhabitants” and obtain concessions from them by treaty. The provincial government also voted in a similar law. This didn’t stop Canada and Québec from obtaining a decision from the Supreme Court in 1939, the Reference Re: Eskimos case, which placed the Inuit under Federal jurisdiction. That way, Québec could avoid helping them during a famine.

The decades of the 1960s and 1970s were marked by a renewal in Québec nationalism. Francophones were motivated by a desire to see economic gaps decreased and provincial autonomy affirmed. First Peoples were also experiencing a nationalist surge at this time, inspired by the Black Rights movement in the United States. Activism over ancestral rights – hunting and fishing rights, occupation rights, etc. – is a huge part of Aboriginal nationalism. In this context, the powers-that-be in Québec were very scared of losing their resource exploitation rights in the north of the province.

Power from the North

In the 1970s, Hydro-Québec forecast a big jump in electricity demand. Hesitant to develop nuclear power, the utility threw itself into developing hydro power, thereby developing world-level expertise in hydroelectric dam building and power transmission. Thus the Manic-Outardes and Churchill Falls projects were born.

On April 30th, 1971, Premier Robert Bourassa launched a six billion dollar power project in the James Bay region. The “project of the century” was the most important development of its type ever in North America.

The Eeyouch (Eastern Cree, or James Bay Cree) of Eayou Istchee (the Cree name for Québec’s Cree territory, literally “the people’s land”) weren’t consulted on plans for the megaproject. Yet vast portions of their hunting territory were to be flooded, impacting their traditional way of life. At the Montreal court house, a young Inuk, Georges Itoschat, tried to take Québec to court. Judge Albert Malouf of the Québec Superior Court declared that he could not proceed with proceedings because witnesses were located 1,000 km away. The “Itoschat Affair” led to the creation of itinerant courts in the Québec north.

On November 15th, 1973, the same Judge Malouf ruled in favor of the Cree and Inuit who demanded that construction on the James Bay Project be halted. The judge invoked the 1912 federal and provincial laws in his decision. This decision forced the province into negotiations. The decision was soon suspended by the appeals court. But the case had stirred up public opinion, and there was a strong incentive to negotiate with the Cree and the Inuit.

In October of 1974, the Grand Council of the Crees was formed. At their inaugural meeting in Val-d’Or, Billy Diamond was elected Grand Chief. He and his team defended the interests of the Eayous (all Crees) of Eayou Istchee in negotiations with the Québec government. Their accord formed the basis of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA), signed on November 11th, 1975 by Cree, Inuit and Québec officials.

First Modern Treaty

According to former Federal MP Roméo Saganash, a Cree, the JBNQA was “the first modern treaty signed in Canada, which was totally different from treaties signed before.”  

Contrary to the 21 treaties ratified in Western Canada at the turn of the 20th century, the JBNQA included no alienation of territory – meaning no land concession absent of any regard for the activities practiced on the land. Modeled after the Alaska Native Claims Settlement of 1971, the JBNQA was based on the rights attached to the traditional use of territory in a region, such as hunting and fishing, weighed against financial compensation; and recognition of some administrative autonomy.

The deal divided the territory (a total area of 1,082,000 square kilometres, almost two-thirds of the province) into three categories, over which the Cree and Inuit would have varying access and control based on their ancestral rights. The National Assembly agreed to offer help in the areas of health, education, and other social services.

The environmental and cultural costs of hydroelectric development remain incalculably large. Some Inuit opposed the JBNQA. Despite this opposition, another treaty was signed with the Naskapis nation in the Schefferville region: the Northeastern Quebec Agreement (NEQA).

The James Bay Agreement helped regularize relations between Aboriginals and Québec, but the model is a difficult one to apply to minority communities living south of the subarctic regions of Québec and Labrador.

For the Eayous of Eayou Istchee and the Inuit of Nunavik, the James Bay Agreement gave them the financial means to develop their communities’ autonomy. True, the shock caused by the conquest of their territory is still pretty recent. Colonization and assimilation policies weakened the social fabric and accelerated the loss of their culture. Reconstruction takes more than the stroke of a pen. The concrete recognition of ancestral rights is not yet complete.

First seen on the Reflet de Société website November 1, 2021

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