The Quebec government and Quebec's Grand Council of the Crees have signed what both are calling a historic agreement which gives the Cree more power over the James Bay territory and its resources.
Premier Jean Charest and Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come signed the agreement on what is to be known as the Eeyou Istchee James Bay territory in the national assembly Tuesday.
Under the deal, which covers a territory the size of Italy, the municipality of James Bay ceases to exist — replaced by a regional authority to be governed jointly by the Cree and non-natives living in the territory.
'We've searched and looked for precedents and have found none. It is a first.'—Quebec Premier Jean Charest
Both Coon Come and Charest stressed the development is a first in Canada — and perhaps in the world.
"There are no precedents," said Charest. "I'm convinced that leaders of First Nations in Quebec and in Canada will want to look very closely at this agreement today."
"We would be flattered if they thought that through this agreement and the work we have accomplished together, that there is some source of inspiration of what they may choose as a common path," the premier added.
"Never before in Canada has such an innovative and forward-looking governance initiative been conducted between any aboriginal group and any level of government — be it provincial or federal," said Coon Come.
Plan Nord the catalyst, leaders say
The new regional government will have the same responsibilities and powers as local municipalities, which the Cree have long sought.
Coon Come said the issue became more pressing with Charest's ambitious scheme to develop northern Quebec's untapped mineral wealth, known as the Plan Nord.
"Certainly the Crees, being the majority, want to be full participants and have a say in the way development takes place," Coon Come said.
"Without the vision of Plan Nord, our concerns regarding governance of the territory might not have received the attention that was needed," Coon Come added.
The agreement does not give the Cree veto rights over future mining projects, although it will give the new regional authority more say over what projects are developed on so-called "Category 2" land, traditionally set aside for hunting and trapping.
The Cree will also help manage projects such as wind power schemes and hydro-electric developments of 50 MW or less.