New look, fewer potholes: Northern Quebec highway pays tribute to former Cree leader

Billy Diamond was a key negotiator and signatory of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement and served as Grand Chief from 1974 to 1984.

Route Billy-Diamond Highway, renamed last fall, gets new signage

After being renamed Route Billy-Diamond Highway in November of 2020, the vital highway linking northern Quebec Cree communities got new signage and a tribute to the former Cree leader. (Facebook)

The main highway linking many Quebec Cree communities with each other and with the south, has a new look in honour of former Cree Grand Chief Billy Diamond. 

A new wooden archway and signage was installed along the Route Billy-Diamond Highway earlier this month. It includes a tribute to him, as well as a photo taken by one of his sons, photographer Ian Diamond.

"I took the picture myself," said Ian in Cree from Waskaganish, located about 1,200 kilometres north of Montreal. He remembers snapping the photo about 12 years ago, in the years before Diamond died in 2010. 

"I liked the picture of him smiling. He liked to talk to people and liked to smile, that's why we put the picture," said Ian.

'He liked to talk to people and liked to smile,' said Ian Diamond, Billy Diamond's son, who also took the photo that is part of the tribute. It reads, in part, 'Billy Diamond ... a pioneer in defending Indigenous rights and a pioneer in building the region.' (Submitted by Charles J. Hester)

The 620-kilometre highway runs from the town of Matagami in the south to Radisson, a small town that services the La Grande Hydro installations and where many hydro workers stay when they travel north. 

Diamond said the family is happy with the tribute, particularly since more than $300 million dollars in upgrades were carried out on the road in recent years. 

"The first time we were asked [about the name change], my mom said, 'Not unless they patch the potholes' ... back then the road was very bad," said Ian, who hasn't driven on the highway since the signs were installed, but has seen photos shared on social media. 

The highway was officially renamed Nov. 10, on the eve of the 45th anniversary of the signing of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement in 1975.

At the time, current Cree Grand Chief Abel Bosum said the renaming of the highway was a fitting tribute to the important figure in the creation of the modern Cree Nation. 

"The renaming of this critical infrastructure link ... acknowledges [Billy Diamond's] important role in the history of northern Quebec and also in the future development, not only of the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee, but of this region and Quebec as a whole," said Bosum in 2020.

Billy Diamond was a key negotiator and signatory of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA). On top of serving as Grand Chief from 1974 to 1984, he also served as a local chief in Waskaganish, helped create the Grand Council of Crees and Cree Regional Government and was the driving force behind the creation of the Cree-owned airline, Air Creebec.

His son Ian Diamond said the tribute to his father is really a tribute to all of the many Cree people and leaders who were part of negotiating the JBNQA and played important roles in the building of the Cree Nation.