The Quebec government has handed full control of the Albanel-Mistassini and Waconichi Wildlife Reserve over to the Cree Nation of Mistissini, in the James Bay Region of Quebec.
Since 2005, the wildlife reserve, located approximately 750 kilometres north of Montreal, has been jointly managed by the community and the provincial park management board, the Société des établissements de plein air du Québec, or Sépaq.
The transfer, which took place April 1, "will promote the participation of the community in the management and use of the territory," Forest, Wildlife and Parks Minister Luc Blanchette said, speaking in French.
"The Cree Nation of Mistissini is perfectly capable of assuming its responsibilities," said Geoffrey Kelley, the Quebec minister responsible for Native affairs.
"Finally!" said Gerald R. Longchap, deputy chief of the Mistissini, who had been pushing for the change.
Longchap said the transfer of the wildlife reserve to the Cree of Mistissini was something laid out in 2002 as part of the Paix des Braves agreement signed between the Cree of Quebec and the provincial government. It was something that was supposed to happen "as quickly as possible," he said.
"We've been told for a long time there would be jobs [for us] and that fisheries management would be given to us," said Longchap.
The transfer of the management of the reserve is an important step forward, he said, as he has been told since childhood that "the Cree are not allowed to enter these parks, because they are for customers."
Cree will now be in the 'driver's seat'
Longchap also said the joint management of the wildlife reserve with Sépaq was not something the Cree were satisfied with.
"We were in a partnership, yes, with meetings, but we were never involved in jobs, or in the financial and administrative decisions," he said.
Thanks to the transfer, the Cree will now be in the "driver's seat," he said. "We're going to be in charge."
The Cree Nation will now be able to make decisions, particularly with respect to Mistissini trappers, Longchap said.
"There was no communication between Sépaq and the tallymen," he said, referring to a Cree person who is recognized by their community as being responsible for the supervision of harvesting activity on a Cree trapline.
"It is they who are there, on their hunting territory, and no one consulted with them on how the reserve should be managed," Longchap said.
The Cree Nation of Mistissini plans to consult the trappers very soon on fishing and hunting matters, he said.
The name of the Albanel-Mistassini-and-Waconichi Lakes Wildlife Reserve will be changed to the Nibiischii Wildlife Reserve. Certain practices established by Sépaq will also change, Longchap said.
"There will be a Cree way of doing things that will be different," Longchap said, "because Sépaq's way of doing things was based on the province of Quebec."
The community is also open to the idea of opening the wildlife reserve to commercial fishing, Longchap said, notably in Lake Mistassini, the largest freshwater lake in Quebec.
"We know what we have to offer. We know what we have in our lakes," he said, noting fish like walleye, pike and trout are found in the lake.
"I think there will be changes in the [allowed] quantities of fish caught," he said, adding it's important not to overfish.
Wildlife reserve could open up to hunting
Longchap said they are also considering opening the wildlife reserve up to hunting.
In the past, under Sépaq management, hunting was not permitted and the Cree tallymen "did not want to open their land to non-native hunters," said Longchap, adding this is an attitude that could change now that the reserve will be under Cree management.
Longchap said there will be a one-year transition period, when Sépaq will help train new employees.
During that year, Sépaq will also continue to manage the annual provincial budget of $330,000 for the reserve. As of next year, the new Nibiischii Corp. will be responsible.
The Cree Nation of Mistissini has a larger plan to create a new park in Quebec, also called Nibisschii, which would also be managed by the community, Longchap said. It would be located in traditional Cree territory and would cover an area of 11,000 square kilometres, protecting almost all of the Otish Mountains, the Témiscamie River, Lake Albanel and Lake Mistassini, he said.
Longchap said he is already in discussions about the new park with the government of Quebec and he believes it could open in two or three years.