Canada reaches sovereignty deal with Cree nation

Decades of negotiations between Ottawa and the Cree First Nation of northern Quebec ended July 16 with the unveiling of a $1.4-billion agreement to settle outstanding lawsuits and finally enact a 1975 treaty that stalled shortly after it was signed. The agreement, running through 2027, will give the Cree control over millions of dollars to improve local services. It will also open a new set of negotiations to finalize the structure of the Cree Nation’s local government. The agreement is subject to ratification on both sides, including a vote by the 16,500 Cree that is expected to be complete by the fall.

“Under this agreement, the Cree nation will assume the responsibilities of the federal government that have not been fulfilled in 30 years,” said Lawrence Cannon, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Quebec lieutenant.

Cree Grand Chief Matthew Mukash emphasized the breakthrough followed years of halting talks. “We’ve had differences with the government of Canada for many years,” Mukash told a news conference. “Every time we thought we were close to an agreement there would be a change of leadership. That slowed negotiations.”

Longtime Cree leader and former grand chief Billy Diamond, who signed the original 1975 treaty with then-Indian affairs minister Jean Chretien, hailed the deal. “It beats blocking roads and railroads,” Diamond said shortly after the announcement. “You don’t have to block railroads. You stay at the negotiating table. This is the only way you can deal with government right now.”

Cree leaders praised federal negotiator Raymond Chretien—former prime minister Jean Chretien’s nephew—for overcoming decades of mistrust since his appointment to the post in 2004. They also credited the Conservative government and Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice for sticking with the Liberal appointee.

“Raymond took a different approach to the negotiations,” said Cree negotiator Bill Namagoose, who spent 18 years at the table and watched negotiations stall seven times. “Rather than come in as a defence lawyer for the federal government, he came in as a problem solver. That approach really changed the dynamic of the negotiations.”

Said Raymond Chretien: “The atmosphere was polluted, there wasn’t the confidence between the Cree and the federal government that there should have been. We have settled the recriminations of the past 30 years, and we’ve built a framework for the next 20 years.”

The Cree reached a settlement with Quebec in the 2002 “Paix des braves” deal. The province agreed to pay the Cree about $70 million per year through 2027 in return for the Cree approval of new Hydro-Quebec projects in their territory. (CTV, July 16)

See our last post on Native struggles in Canada.

See also our special report on Cree dissent to the “Paix des braves” agreement.