After heated debate, the Cree Nation Government in the James Bay Region of Quebec has moved to approve two key documents that could change the way the region is run, despite a petition asking for a delay and one chief who says her community has yet to have its say.
"At some point you have to make a decision," Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come told those gathered at an all-day special council board meeting on the matter Wednesday in Mistissini.
Since January, Quebec's Cree Nation Government has been holding consultation meetings in its communities to present and get feedback on a draft Cree constitution and governance agreement that would give the Cree greater control over the lands immediately surrounding their communities, as well as stable funding into 2040 and the power to collect their own taxes.
"It provides security for the Cree Nation. There are no options in there for the federal government to cut back our funding. We have taxation power but no obligation to use it," said Bill Namagoose, the Cree Nation Government's executive director.
"Aboriginal people across Canada have been forced to give up their tax exemption. The Crees have been successful in keeping it."
But for some, the process has moved too quickly.
"Why the rush?" asked Darlene Cheechoo, the chief of Waskaganish, a community of more than 2,000 members about 1,000 kilometres north of Montreal. Waskaganish's chief and council have yet to vote on the proposed agreement and constitution.
"This is so important. I want the youth in my community to fully understand this document. I can say that not a lot of youth [in my community] do."
Approved by 8 of 9 communities
Eight of Quebec's nine Cree communities have already approved the documents in separate local assemblies over the past several weeks. MoCreebec, an association representing several hundred Quebec Cree who settled in Moose Factory, Ontario, has been part of the process as an observer, and supports it.
"We shouldn't even think about slowing down or turning back," said Allan Jolly, chief of MoCreebec. "We've got to keep going forward. This governance and constitution is the next step going forward towards measures of sovereignty and towards independence."
That path to sovereignty included the landmark 1975 James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, which Namagoose said laid the groundwork on which to build a unique governance model.
"I am of the first generation to inherit the JBNQA and we've made the most of it," said Namagoose. "We have to pass on the tradition that the Crees are trailblazers, not followers. We don't have anybody in front of us to show us where to go. The Crees are trailblazers and will continue to be."
Concerns were raised at the CNG meeting Wednesday about how broad Cree support actually is for the draft agreement and constitution, as well as how much pressure there was to move quickly to ratify it.
"As a leader you are there to build the consensus amongst the communities. That is your mandate," said Mandy Gull, deputy chief of Waswanipi, who abstained from voting Wednesday on the motion to approve the draft agreement and constitution. "I'm almost a little bit ashamed to say, [there is] bullying at this table."
'Why are they not up there?'
Since the beginning of the consultation process, questions have also been raised about the lack of involvement of women in the negotiations and consultation.
"You guys have repeatedly mentioned that 'yes' in fact [women were consulted], but I don't think they meant 30 seconds of you guys listening to our opinions. I think it meant: 'Why is there not a women sitting amongst you men today?'" asked Kayleigh Spencer, a substitute teacher in Mistissini. "I'm wondering, why they are not up there?"
A petition asking for Wednesday's vote to be delayed has collected more than 70 names. Chief Cheechoo requested a delay in the ratification of the draft documents, but that didn't stop a resolution from being passed on Wednesday.
However, Coon Come says the draft agreement and constitution will not go forward without Waskaganish's ultimate approval.
"Even if one community does not agree, it will not be carried," Coon Come promised. "We will respect whatever decision the chief and council in Waskaganish make. We gave you seven months to do it. If you feel you that you still need more information, we will send you the information."
Waskaganish's chief and council are expected to meet and make a decision by late May, Namagoose said.
Simeon Wapachee, Youth Development Coordinator in the Cree community of Nemaska, is in favour of the draft agreement and constitution.
"It's going to help the youth in the future and help the entire Cree Nation," Wapachee said. "We will have stability. It's going to help everyone."
Mistissini resident Kathleen J. Wootton raised concerns that her community's approval of the documents was passed with only 100 people there to vote out of more than 2,000 eligible voters.
"It was a low representation of voters," said Wootton, at the public meeting Wednesday. "Unless 25 per cent of eligible voters have accepted and voted for this then they [should] start the process again because not everyone was heard."
But Coon Come says it is time to move the negotiations forward.
"Let me remind you what Robert Kanatewat said when they were signing (James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement) 'As much as we wanted to take it to the Cree communities, at some point we had to make a decision.' And we too have to decide," said Coon Come.
The draft agreements must still go to the Quebec and federal governments for approval. Coon Come is hoping to have some form of agreement with Ottawa in place by December.