Perspectives from the People’s Land: When the Cree Say No

Ed. note: This is the third installment in Perspectives from the People’s Land, Naomi Heindel’s blog about her summer research in James Bay, Quebec. Follow the links to check out Part 1 and Part 2.

What does it mean when a Cree steward, or tallyman, says “no” to proposed development? “Sometimes there’s something very large behind that two-letter word,” explains Simon St-Georges, a forestry coordinator for the Quebec Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR).

Cree tallymen can say “no” to forestry plans for many reasons –– because their rights as a First Nations people are protected in the Canadian Constitution, because they have inherent indigenous rights, because their cultural survival largely depends on their relationship to the land, because the site proposed for logging is a burial ground or birth place or moose yard.

But how powerful is that “no?”  Is it strong enough to resist the pressure of development?

Tallyman Paul Dixon surveys a logged section of his trapline.

One of the questions I was most eager to explore in James Bay was whether the current forestry consultation process represents true Cree participation, and whether it can even be called co-management or co-governance as recent literature suggests.  Does sitting at the table with the MNR and the forest products companies increase tallyman autonomy and self-determination?  Or is this participation merely perfunctory?

The Paix des Braves Agreement brought this system of joint management into being in 2002 as a trade-off: the Cree gained better forestry practices and a voice at the planning table, and Quebec gained the Rupert River.  The Rupert, which flows west off the plateau of the Canadian Shield to James Bay, and which I was lucky enough to paddle the summer before it was dammed, now feeds Quebec and New England power grids through the La Grande hydro electric system, and has been reduced to less than half its natural flow. Clearly Quebec got what it wanted; but did the Cree truly get a voice at the planning table?

For Edward Ottereyes, a Waswanipi tallyman, the forestry consultation process has not been successful.  His voice has not been heard.  The Maicasagi River flows west through his trapline, and until this year, it was crossed by only one bridge.  Then Chantiers Chibougamau, one of the local forest products companies, decided that it wanted to build another bridge upstream, to reduce hauling distance to their mill.  Ottereyes opposed this bridge.  The new bridge would cross a sturgeon spawning area, and it would increase circulation of hunters and poachers. Little wonder that Ottereyes preferred that Chantiers continue to use the old bridge.

Tallyman Edward Ottereyes looks over his forestry consultation map.

“We need to prevent access; that’s what is important,” explained Allan Saganash, Waswanipi’s forestry administrator.  “Once you build a road, it opens up the territory.”  Already, Waswanipi has more than 700 non-native camps, far out-numbering Cree camps.  Sports hunters use the roads to chase moose without respecting the traditional Cree hunting practices of asking the tallyman first, of keeping wildlife and natural resources in balance.  Maintaining this balance is the tallyman’s responsibility, and it includes considering the cumulative impacts of human activity, letting overstressed areas rest when need be, and most importantly, educating the younger generation in land stewardship.  When Ottereyes said “no” to the bridge, he was considering all these imperatives, and more.

Yet the bridge was built.  Standing on it last week, the shining new wood and careful construction suggesting that it’s a long-term installation, I began to see the answer to my question about participation and self-determination. Suffice to say, the Cree’s voices are not being heeded.

The newly constructed bridge over the Maicasagi River, built despite Cree objections.
The new bridge was built to provide access to clearcuts.

Ottereyes’ next tactic was to request that one kilometer of the road on the far side of the bridge remain a rudimentary winter road –– inaccessible to pick-up trucks –– rather than an all-season gravel road.  But somewhere in the chain of contractors and subcontractors, this request was lost, claims Jean Pierre Boudreault, forestry planner for Chantiers. Having been denied his first two requests, Ottereyes then requested that the gravel be scraped off and the road “ditched.”  Yet, when I saw him in Waswanipi, pouring over his trapline map –– Boudreault leaning over him, hands on hips –– Ottereyes’ request had been reduced to 30 meters of gravel scraped off once the harvesting season is over.  “Don’t agree with something if you can’t do it,” Saganash admonished Boudreault.  “You’re lying to an elder.”

Part of the problem in trying to forge genuine cooperation is the language barrier: the consultations take place in French, English, and Cree.  And part of the problem is cultural. “I still don’t understand deeply what [the Cree] are doing on this land,” says Simon St-Georges, even though he’s worked with the Cree, Neskapi, and Inuit for years.  Tallymen keep land use information confidential (“Which lake do you use most?” I heard an MNR representative ask one tallyman during a consultation.  Then he laughed.  “Where can I catch the biggest fish?”). When there is enough time and space at the consultation table for the Cree to open up, it’s often through metaphors and stories.  “To the Cree, the land is a garden –– that’s how we survive,” explains tallyman Ronnie Otter.  “My freezer is full.  I provide for my family.  I distribute it.”  These explanations, this worldview, is lost on the MNR, whose mandate, St-Georges explains, is to both “manage the forest and supply wood to the industry,” and on the industries themselves, whose primary metric is always their own bottom lines.

Allan Saganash translates the harvesting plan into Cree for tallyman Norman Ottereyes.

“This is supposed to be a consultation process. If you’re going to keep ignoring the requests . . .” Saganash trails off.  How can he finish this sentence?  The Cree have tried refusing to participate in the consultation meetings, but this only moves the conflict up to higher levels, making it political rather than place-based.  MNR can fine the companies when they ignore requests, but the roads and bridges remain.  Tallyman Paul Dixon’s response to the Paix des Braves Agreement helps solidify the answer to my question about autonomy: “The dams are made of cement, the roads are for real.  But what’s in there for us, it’s not for real.”

And yet, despite all of the problems I’ve seen, I agree with St-Georges that, with the forestry regulations and participatory consultation process in place, “it’s way better than some other nations.”  It puts “Cree concerns and economic concerns at the same table.” While the forestry process may be tense, riddled with miscommunication, and lacking in cultural understanding, it’s scary to think what the forested landscape of James Bay –– and the cultural landscape of Eeyou Istchee –– might look like if Cree tallymen did not have the right to say “no.”

Naomi Heindel

Naomi is a second year Master of Environmental Science student at the Yale School of Forestry. A Vermont native, she has explored the forests, rivers, lakes, and Cree communities of northern Quebec by canoe and satellite imagery, as well as through the lens of social ecology.

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  1. Pingback: Sage Magazine – Perspectives from the People’s Land: If the Caribou Help Us

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