In a ceremony in the shadow of the peace tower in Ottawa, Quebec Cree leaders from the James Bay region signed an agreement on governance with the federal government Tuesday, giving them more power over parts of their territory, the power to tax and stable funding into 2040.
"This is reconciliation in action," said Cree Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come, who signed the Agreement on Cree Nation Governance, along with Carolyn Bennett, minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, in a ceremony on the front lawn of Parliament Hill.
Bennett says this latest agreement is an important step and one that builds on the foundation of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, signed in 1975 and recognised as the first modern treaty signed in Canada.
"This agreement is a step forward in a renewed relationship with Indigenous peoples," said Bennett. "(It) is a relationship based on recognition of laws, respect, collaboration and partnership."
'Laws like any other normal government'
The agreement gives the Cree the power to write their own laws on a wide variety of local governance issues affecting their communities, which are established on what is known as Category 1A lands. This includes things such as environmental protection, public order and safety, as well as land and resource use and planning, according to the Cree.
"No longer we will be adopting bylaws, but laws like any normal government." said Coon Come. "No longer will we be submitting our laws to the minister for review and approval. It will be for us and us alone to decide on the laws that will govern us.
"As a mature government this is a responsibility we are more than ready to assume."
The signing today was the result of negotiations between the Government of Canada and the Crees of Eeyou Istchee that began in 2009 and were finally concluded in 2016. The agreement was then sent to the communities for ratification.
40 years of service for Coon Come
Bennett said the federal government will continue to support the Cree Nation on the path to self-government.
"We all know, and the research tells us, that effective governance is the single greatest contributing factor to the social and economic health of a community," said Bennett.
Coon Come, who announced recently he will be retiring after 40 years of public life, said he "couldn't think of a better way to end my term as Grand Chief."
Minister Bennett thanked Coon Come for his years of service.
"You are a man of leadership, selflessness, dedication, courage and compassion," said Bennett. "Your actions over 40 years of service have changed the course of Canadian history."