Freezing, mouldy homes. Sewage contamination. Sick kids. Unemployment. A blockade on the road to the mine. A hunger strike by the chief.

That, it seems, is the news from the Cree of James Bay — at least, as it's defined by the desperate community of Attawapiskat, in northern Ontario.

Before that, there was the news from nearby Kashechewan. Flooding. Despair. Suicide.

And both James Bay towns endured fresh emergencies this spring as the annual meltwaters exposed, again, their rickety infrastructure.

But bad news makes headlines and good news usually does not. So we've heard all about the mess on the Ontario shore of James Bay — and next to nothing about the success on the eastern shore, in Quebec.

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Schoolchildren in the northern Cree community of Wemindji, Que., enjoy decent schools, in contrast to their Ontario cousins in Attawapiskat, who have been in portables since their school closed more than a decade ago. (Terry Milewski/CBC)

Little noticed by the world outside, the Cree of northern Quebec are writing a startlingly different story than their cousins on the western shore of James Bay. Self-government. Revenue-sharing. Decent schools and new development. Mining companies being welcomed instead of blockaded. And no hunger strikes.

It's taken 40 years, but a long struggle is paying off. The neat streets of Wemindji or Oujé-Bougoumou feel like they're on a different planet than Attawapiskat. If the stop signs weren't in Cree, you'd think the rows of warm, solid homes were in a suburb down south. Shiny new courthouses, band offices, recreation centres and police stations are being completed. There's no crisis to summon reporters from Toronto or Montreal.

So why is it so different on the Quebec side of James Bay?

'The Indian Act doesn't apply'

Matthew Coon Come, once a firebrand who stood in the way of Quebec Hydro's plans to dam the province’s great rivers, is now the greying Grand Chief of the Cree of Eeyou Istchee — the Cree name for the 400,000 square kilometres of northern Quebec that make up the James Bay territory. Coon Come is clear on the reasons why his people are doing so well.

They stood in the way for a purpose, he says — not to stop development, but to share in it and to win the right to govern themselves.

"We are assuming the responsibilities of the federal government and the provincial government, that's what we are doing."

Bit by bit, Coon Come says, the Cree bargained away their land claims and their right to be treated as wards of the state under the Indian Act. In return, through a series of agreements beginning in 1975, the Cree won a healthy share of the huge resource revenues from the dams and the mines.

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Matthew Coon Come, left, talks about his community's path to self-government over a lunch of moose and beaver meat. (CBC)

Today, power lines traverse the landscape of Eeyou Istchee and $70 million a year in revenues flow to the 18,000 Cree. They're using the money to finance their second goal: autonomy.

"For the Crees, the Indian Act doesn't apply," Coon Come proudly tells a visitor in his spacious office in Nemaska, Que.

"The decision-making does not fall on the Department of [Aboriginal Affairs], the minister," he says. "The only thing that the minister has the right to receive is our financial audit statements — and once a year.

"That's never been done before ... We've changed the governance regime so we can be able to be involved in the way development takes place."

'We decided to act. We decided to do something and change living conditions around us ... I think it's a lot better than being passive.'—Abel Bosum, veteran Cree negotiator

He's critical of both First Nations and southern politicians who cling to the past.

"I think the First Nations are also guilty of always saying, 'our treaties are sacred.' That's great. But the Cree survived because we adapted."

He also says that self-government has to be earned.

"It takes time to build your institutions. Because, in order to build your institutions, whether it be school boards or health boards, you need to be able to demonstrate that you're accountable, that you're responsible, that you're transparent."

Equally, he says, governments in Ottawa are reluctant to "think outside the box."

"Unfortunately in this country, the federal government does not want to tackle the real issue of the First Nations.... You need to allow the First Nations to participate, to be participants in the development of the territory, [whether] it be forestry, mining, or any other industry that may come."

The tale of the solar-powered trapper

For an outsider, what is striking about the far-flung Cree communities of northern Quebec is the complaints you do not hear. In drum-banging demonstrations on Parliament Hill and around the country, the Idle No More movement has damned the government for trampling on native rights and polluting the land. But these themes are rarely heard in northern Quebec, even though mines and power lines have frequently disrupted Cree communities.

Instead, there is general applause for the way the Cree leadership is balancing jobs and the environment. Even the traditional custodians of the land — the trappers — are slow to complain about the newcomers who have brought roads, mines and power lines.

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Johnny T. Georgekish, known as simply Johnny T. in his days as a popular singer, remembers his hungry childhood and is confident his grandson's generation won't endure the same fate. (CBC)

"We get along with them," says Johnny T. Georgekish at his remote hunting camp, two hours inland from Wemindji.

"They have their families to support. They come and go. And normally, they don't leave a mess when they leave — just sometimes."

Georgekish is still known as "Johnny T." from his days as a popular singer. Now 74, he keeps an eye on his trap line and recalls his own hungry childhood, living off the land and catching birds with slingshots. He's glad his grandson won't have to endure that — because he's got a steady job in a new mine.

"They say that mine is going to be open for at least 20 some-odd years. So, if he continues, he's going to be OK."

Georgekish is no fan of the old ways. His hunting camp, as remote as it is, is powered by a bank of solar panels. He says there have been limited environmental changes as a result of the hydroelectric dams: for example, the sturgeon no longer reach the nearby lake. Even so, he thinks the Cree are on the right road.

"If we continue the way we are, I think we're going to get somewhere in the future."

Younger members of the sprawling Georgekish clan say the Cree have already got somewhere — and don't plan to turn back.

"We're not Indians — we're the Cree of Eeyou Ischee!" says an insistent Bradley Georgekish. He's a band councillor in Wemindji, on the windswept shore of James Bay.

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A community cooking camp stands on the outskirts of Wemindji. (Terry Milewski/CBC)

"We're business owners, we're entrepreneurs, we're artists, we're musicians, we're fathers, we're mothers," he says.

"I mean, we have ourselves established."

The community bears him out. He and the other councillors meet in a soaring new band office, built by a Cree-owned construction company. New vehicles cruise well-paved streets. A wood-panelled courthouse is about to open and, at a gravel airstrip near town, a Cree-owned airline, Air Creebec, offers daily flights to the south.

Georgekish sends a message to a CBC crew about to depart: don't fear aboriginal demands, because dealing with us can be good for both sides.

"I would like for people to read a little bit, and get to know First Nations history, just a little bit. And I think a lot of this tension would be peeled back," he says. "I mean, I've been in school in Alberta, Ontario, Quebec — and I've learned all about the prime ministers. It would be nice, and it's a very simple request, if they could learn just a little bit about native history. And they would understand why there's frustration on some levels, even anger. But I think if they could do a little reading, and a little bit of studying, that tension would go down and we could actually be partners."

Partners in development

Still, does it look that way when you're on the other side of the partnership? What if you're a mining executive, and the Cree insist on being part of your environmental plan?

That's exactly the situation facing Patrick Godin, chief operating officer of Stornoway Diamond Corporation, which is planning a diamond mine northeast of Chibougamau, a bustling town where Cree and non-Cree mingle. Godin says the Cree brought expertise and credibility that made his project viable.

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A power line corridor cuts through land in northern Quebec. Hydro development was once a flashpoint for conflict with Cree communities in the area, but now the power lines represent economic independence and self-government. (Terry Milewski/CBC)

"The Crees have a lot of things to provide to us. First, the knowledge of the territory. Actually, they are building the road for us and they are doing really well. They know the environment more than us. It's amazing — they don't need GPS, they know all the rivers, all the creeks and they know how to address the challenge we have to face to fulfil our obligations in terms of the environmental rules."

Beyond that, says Godin, the Cree need jobs.

"Fifty per cent of the Cree are less than 25 years old and they want to have jobs — and they want to have high-quality jobs. And they want to learn and they want to develop their skills."

In Jean Rainville's case, consulting the Cree meant spending many long days with the local trappers. Rainville is president of BlackRock Metals, which is planning a new iron and titanium mine, backed by Chinese investors.

"A project like ours will hire, during construction, 450 people — and, once construction is completed, 260 employees on a full-time basis. So there's plenty of jobs for all of the communities in the area, both natives and non-natives."

Making sure the trappers were content was a big part of getting the green light. Rainville says the Cree have learned a lot since the 1975 James Bay agreement set them on the pro-development path.

"The Cree now, after all of these years of experience since they signed the James Bay Treaty, are probably a bit more advanced than other natives in this country, but it's a lesson that other natives should follow. And it's also a lesson for us non-natives that the first thing to do is go sit down with these people, develop a relationship and go from there."

Today, that relationship is working far better than it did back in the days when Quebec Hydro and the mining companies simply pushed the Cree off their land. In Oujé-Bougoumou, a whole community was uprooted, no less than seven times, by miners. People camped in teepees and tar-paper shacks by the side of the road.

"We were like Attawapiskat — you know, living in Third World conditions," says Abel Bosum, a veteran negotiator for the Cree who worked for 20 years to turn Oujé-Bougoumou into a showpiece community with a gleaming, $15-million cultural centre.

"But we decided to act. We decided to do something and change living conditions around us ... I think it's a lot better than being passive. You know, here we're being proactive and, you know, trying to take a piece of the action.

"We can't just sit around and wait for the governments to do things for us, or for ore companies," says Bosum. "We have to learn to decide what we want and work with the forces around us."

Today, the 18,000 Cree of northern Quebec definitely have a piece of the action. Their numbers are growing fast and 400 of them are in institutions of higher learning down south.

Corrections

  • This story has been edited from an earlier version that incorrectly stated the cost of Ouje-Bougoumou's cultural centre. The correct figure is $15 million.
    May 16, 2013 3:45 PM ET