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Then Quebec premier Robert Bourassa, left, shakes hands with Inuit and Cree representatives in Montreal on Nov. 15, 1974, after Quebec signed a hydro agreement with the Cree in James Bay. Next to Bourassa is Billy Diamond, former chief of the Cree Grand Council. ((Canadian Press))

Cree leader Billy Diamond, who was involved in the historic James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement signing in the 1970s, has died.

Diamond, a former grand chief of the Cree Grand Council in James Bay, died Thursday of a heart attack. He was 61.

He was partially paralyzed two years ago after suffering a stroke, but eventually learned to walk again. 

Diamond was just 21 when he became chief of the Waskaganish Cree community. Four years later, he became chief of the Grand Cree Council, which represents all Cree communities in northern Quebec.

Diamond represented the Cree in James Bay when the First Nation signed a groundbreaking hydro deal with Quebec in 1974.

The deal gave the Cree $150 million tax free, and rights to a large area of land, in return for allowing the James Bay hydro project to be completed.

Former Quebec MNA John Ciaccia, who was one of the chief government negotiators during the talks, said Diamond was a very assertive leader.

"He was strong and he imposed himself. And he knew what he wanted. And he had the interest of his people at heart and he knew how to get it," he said.

He said Diamond both allowed the hydro projects to go through and made sure Cree rights were protected.

"He gave that gift ... first of all to his people, to get that settlement. And secondly he gave that gift to Quebec by allowing ... the James Bay project in its modified form to be constructed. So I think we all owed him a debt of gratitude."

Diamond leaves behind a wife and six children.