North

Quebec Cree, federal gov't consider marine conservation area in James Bay

A a memorandum of understanding has been signed to study the feasibility of a national marine conservation area off the coast of James Bay — an area that includes more than a thousand small islands and is a key subarctic ecosystem. 

It's part of the federal government's commitment to protect marine habitat from coast to coast

'We've claimed these islands for thousands of years,' said Bill Namagoose, executive director of the Cree Nation Government. 'And now Canada and Quebec are formally recognizing that.' (Mathieu Dupuis)

Officials with the federal and Quebec Cree Nation governments will examine the feasibility of creating a national marine conservation area off the coast of James Bay — an area that includes more than a thousand small islands and is a key sub-arctic ecosystem. 

Cree Grand Chief Abel Bosum, along with Catherine McKenna, minister of environment and climate change and minister responsible for Parks Canada, announced the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) last week.

The collaboration between the Cree and the federal government is unprecedented, according to Bill Namagoose, executive director of the Cree Nation Government. (Jaime Little/CBC)

"We've claimed these islands for thousands of years," said Bill Namagoose, executive director of the Cree Nation Government. "And now Canada and Quebec are formally recognizing that."

The MOU signed last week will begin the process of identifying which areas offshore from the mouth of the La Grande River south to the Ontario border are priorities for the Cree to be part of an eventual conservation area. 

Important habitat

The area is important in the continental migration of geese, ducks, and shore birds, as well as various fish populations, according to a joint news release from the Cree government and Parks Canada. 

"Our waters and forests, and the wildlife that depend on them, face increasing risks from climate change," said McKenna, in the statement, adding it is part of a federal government plan to double the amount of protected areas on both land and water. 

Namagoose says a consultation process with traditional land users will begin in the coastal Cree communities of Waskaganish, Wemindji, Eastmain and Chisasibi.

A feasibility study will include consultations with traditional land users in the coastal Cree communities of Waskaganish, Wemindji, Eastmain and Chisasibi. (Mathieu Dupuis)

"Conservation means no mining activity and no drilling," said Namagoose.

He said the collaboration between the Cree and the federal governments is unprecedented. 

"If there is to be a park on the islands, it will not be a Parks Canada park. It will be a Cree park and managed by Crees."

Part of larger Eeyou Marine Region

The area in question is part of the much larger Eeyou Marine Region, created in 2009, and also extending north of the La Grande River into Hudson Bay. Namagoose says before 2009 the rights of the Cree in those waters were not officially recognized.

The area in question is part of the much larger Eeyou Marine Region, created in 2009, and also extending north of the La Grande river into Hudson Bay. (Eeyou Marine Region (EMR))

"In the past [the federal government] would just do as they please with the islands and tell us later what they'd decided," said Namagoose. He said under the Eeyou Marine Region land claims agreement, the Cree own 80 per cent of the islands in James Bay. 

"Now they must consult with us because we legally own those islands." 

Namagoose says discussions are still underway between Ottawa, the Cree, and representatives of Makivik Corporation in Nunavik, with the hope of doing another feasibility study into the possibility of protecting the marine ecosystem north of the La Grande. 

Parks Canada has been given a mandate by Parliament to establish a system of national marine conservation areas to conserve examples of the different marine regions across the country. There are currently no federally protected marine areas in the James Bay region. 

The memorandum signed last week will identify which areas offshore are priorities for the Cree to be part of an eventual conservation area. (Mathieu Dupuis)