Cree leader Billy Diamond gets his due in new film
The late Grand Chief of the Crees of Quebec is unsung hero, says filmmaker Benoit Pilon
Billy Diamond. Even his name sparkles with interest and potential.
That may be why acclaimed film producer Benoit Pilon (Ce qu’il faut pour vivre / The Necessities of Life, 2008) has set his sights on Diamond as the main character in a new movie.
Tentatively called Chief, the film would be in Cree, English and French. Chief will be based on the official biography, written in 1989,by Ontario journalist Roy MacGregor.
Diamond, who passed away in 2010, was “one of the important figures of Canadian modern history,” according to Pilon.
In the 1970’s, as a result of a judicial fight against the provincial and federal government Diamond became one of the most outspoken aboriginal leaders of our time. And when this tall Cree leader spoke, it was not a good idea to disregard him, as Premier Bourrassa learned in the 1970’s.
Billy Diamond was born in 1949 on the shores of Rupert River,about six kilometres west of the Cree Village of Waskaganish, in Northern Quebec.
In the 1970’s, Robert Bourassa premier of Quebec initiated an important hydro development in the north of the province.
Billy Diamond, chief of Waskaganish (then Rupert House), was in his early twenties when he learned through the bush radio that his ancestral territory was going to be under water.
At the time, the Grand Council of Crees did not exist. Diamond had never met the chiefs from the other villages. His only network outside his village was made up of young Crees with whom he had attended residential and secondary school in Ontario.
During the years that followed, until 1975, the Cree chiefs — most of them in their 20’s — initiated a fight against Quebec’s government. They held meetings in Montreal and Quebec and, at the expense of their health and family lives, the Cree leaders fought, negotiated and threatened.
“He fought for his people but while living in the city and in hotels during many years to negotiate, he and many of the Cree leaders almost lost themselves,” said Pilon.
Billy Diamond was the first Grand Chief of the Grand Council of the Crees of Quebec, when he signed the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement in 1975 with both Quebec and the federal government. It was the first modern treaty and a powerful tool that changed lives of the James Bay Cree.
“And yet,” said Pilon, Billy Diamond is not known by the citizens.
“Just ask around,” he said, “most non-aboriginal people don’t know what he did for his nation as well as for Quebecois who wanted to build the massive hydro projects in Northern Quebec.
The James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement made possible the development of hydroelectricity, mining and forestry in the region. It gave financial compensation to the Inuit and the Crees, plus exclusive fishing rights and more autonomy for the Cree Nation.
Pilon said that, in a way, it was the moment the Cree Nation as we know it was born.