By Benjamin Powless
Journalist of the Local Journalism Initiative
The Grand Council of the Crees and the Cree Nation Government signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Canadian government on September 14, launching “exploratory discussions” to recognize MoCreebec Eeyoud as a distinct Indigenous community.
The move comes after the Grand Council recognized MoCreebec as the 11th Cree community in 2017. The MoCreebec Eeyoud voted last October to establish their community base in Moosonee, where many now live.
Discussions will take place with a permanent liaison committee under Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada, set up under the Federal Agreement on the New Relationship signed in 2008. The Grand Council and the GNC have already signed a memorandum agreement with MoCreebec to have them recognized as a community.
MoCreebec chief Allan Jolly said that moment took nearly 40 years to arrive. “When the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement
(JBQNA) was signed in 1975? there was a group of us, the Crees, who lived in Ontario, kind of excluded from this agreement,” Jolly said.
“The Grand Council of the Crees knew about us and kind of deliberately decided to leave us out because being in Ontario would complicate things, trying to bring Ontario into the negotiations with Quebec and Canada . But the Cree leaders at the time said they would leave the Cree issue in Ontario until another time,” added Jolly.
The position of the federal government for decades was that it had no legal obligation to the Crees of Quebec living in Ontario. “We are here, it was partly because of them, they established the residential school here in Moose Factory, I was part of this group of children placed there”, observed Jolly, originally from Waskaganish.
According to Jolly, about 400 Cree boys and girls were brought to the Quebec side, and many stayed. Additionally, an Indian Federal Hospital was built in Moose Factory in the 1950s to deal with the tuberculosis epidemic, with many more remaining after being discharged from treatment. Jolly said the federal government had an Indian agent in the community until the 1960s, “so they knew us.”
Now that the government has agreed to preliminary discussions, Jolly is confident that the process will lead to recognition for the people of MoCreebec. “I have to be optimistic about this, we have been working on this for 40 years. In a way, we have done our job, what we have to do on our side, in order to bring our people to this point,” he said.
“Given the political climate, when you look at the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, both are very supportive statements saying that anything related to Indigenous peoples should be dealt with in the context of their treaties,” he added. . “They’re open to hearing new ideas about how Indigenous communities should be treated, and the Indian Act system isn’t exactly the best. I think there is an open ear with the government.
Grand Council chief negotiator Bill Namagoose said the federal government had a record on MoCreebec since the 1980s.
But it was “put in the freezer, and we found it at the bottom of the freezer and tried to thaw it out.”
The talks are “a major step”, he added. “We want to move from exploratory discussions to a negotiation table with the federal government on the creation of a Cree community for MoCreebec on the Ontario side. It’s no secret what we wanted, it just took so long.
Jolly points to the JBQNA’s success in transforming 1970s Cree communities into “modern towns and villages” as a guideline for how a new treaty could help MoCreebec members.
“It was very innovative and forward-thinking, involving the federal government and the province and, of course, the Crees themselves,” he noted.
As for Ontario, Jolly said they have met with provincial officials and cabinet ministers for 30 years and are ready to join negotiations when Ottawa deems it necessary.
“We need to talk to the Province of Ontario, we think, about land issues,” Namagoose said. “That’s the main thing the Ontario government will be involved in. We hope they can contribute financially, but it’s probably a long time.
Jolly credits the CNG with funding this process, rather than waiting for federal grants. The NMC will help cover the costs of the memorandum of understanding, negotiations, technical work such as engineering and other human resources.
“I’m about to see what was my dream,” Jolly shared. “I’m 72 and I would like to see something happen, as soon as possible. But maybe it’s a bit far.”
Benjamin Powless is a Reporter for the Local Journalism Initiative with THE NATION. The LJI is funded by the federal government. Turtle Island News does not receive funding from LJI.
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