North

Cree leaders work to calm fears over surprising $4.7B infrastructure deal

Cree leaders in Quebec are focused on reassuring a jittery population after announcing a far-reaching economic development agreement with Quebec regarding massive infrastructure improvements in the territory over the next 30 years and, very likely, more resource extraction projects.

Cree grand chief, Quebec premier signed Grande Alliance project Monday

Cree Grand Chief Abel Bosum, left, and Quebec Premier François Legault after signing a memorandum of understanding on long-term economic development. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Cree leaders in Quebec are focused on reassuring a jittery population after announcing a far-reaching economic development agreement with Quebec regarding massive infrastructure improvements in the territory over the next 30 years and, very likely, more resource extraction projects.

The $4.7-billion Grande Alliance project was signed Monday by Cree Grand Chief Abel Bosum and Quebec Premier François Legault. It proposes a deep sea port, an improved and extended road network and a railway to be built up to the most northern reaches of Cree territory.

The deal came as a surprise to many Cree and had people expressing suspicion, worry and support for the deal on social media. People raised questions about what it will mean, how the land and animals would be affected, and how they will be consulted moving forward. 

"I think people are still concerned about what happened [in the] 1970s [when] Quebec started building dams without Cree consent or even clear acknowledgement of our rights. But times have changed," said Bill Namagoose, executive director of the Cree Nation Government.

When there are projects there will be total community consultation.- Bill Namagoose, Cree Nation Government executive director

He was referring to the unannounced attempt by Quebec to construct a massive hydro-electric dam in the 1970s — known as the James Bay Project, which led to the ensuing legal battle and eventual court-ordered signing of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, which is considered the first modern treaty in Canada. 

Bill Namagoose, the executive director of the Cree Nation Government. (Cree Nation Government)

Namagoose said the Cree are now in the driver's seat with Quebec as a partner.

"There were no projects decided on Monday. When there are projects there will be total community consultation," said Namagoose. 

On Facebook, Cree Grand Chief Bosum sent the same message. 

"Every project will still be subjected to an environmental and social assessment as set out [in] Section 22 of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement where consultations are mandatory and projects must meet social acceptance," wrote Bosum. 

Fears over more dams

Other Cree expressed concern that new infrastructure all the way up to Whapmagoostui — more than 1,000 kilometres by plane from Montreal — points to a desire to resurrect the Great Whale River hydroelectric project.

The project was shelved in the 1990s after a long, international protest by Cree and Inuit who live beside the Great Whale River and Hudson Bay. 

In 1992, New York State cancelled a billion-dollar electricity contract with Hydro Quebec as a result of a hard-fought, public-pressure campaign by Cree and Inuit who live beside Great Whale River, along with environmental groups. 

"No government gives anything for free. They want something in return. The Great Whale River? Wake up people!" wrote Danielle Mukash, a Whapmagoostui resident, on Facebook.

Cree Nation Government's Namagoose said the Cree have no intention of reviving the Great Whale project.

(Danielle Mukash/Facebook)

"The Quebec government tells us, Hydro Quebec tells us that Great Whale will not be built unless the Cree agree," said Namagoose. "It's a Cree decision and the Cree decided no Great Whale so there won't be a Great Whale." 

Chief Bosum and other leaders will also be taking part in a phone-in on Eyou Dipajimoon, a CBC North Cree-language radio show, on Thursday to answer people's questions about the deal.