Cree ask court to defend traditional rights on James Bay islands

The James Bay Cree are worried about losing aboriginal rights to islands in Hudson Bay and James Bay.


MONTREAL — The James Bay Cree are going to court to assert an offshore claim to around 100 islands off the coastline of Quebec in James Bay and Hudson Bay that lie within the Nunavut’s legal borders.

Once under the jurisdiction of the Northwest Territories, the islands became part of Nunavut on April 1.

James Bay Cree officials maintain that the transfer puts their traditional use of these islands in jeopardy, and have asked the Federal Court of Canada to intervene.

Brian Craik, the director of federal relations for the Grand Council of Crees, said that the Cree turned to legal action as a last resort.

He said that the federal government refused to wait until negotiations for their long-standing offshore claim were completed before transferring the islands to Nunavut.

“So, we said we’d go to court,” said Craik.

Craik said that Crees have traditionally trapped and hunted duck, geese, seals and even polar bears on these islands. The largest has a circumference of 80 kilometers, while the furthest one lies 40 kilometers offshore.

Longtime Cree hunting grounds

Some, like Charlton Island in James Bay, have been used exclusively by Cree who have permanent camps there. Craik says Cree and Nunavik Inuit have also jointly hunted, fished and trapped on others, such as Long Island and the Nastapoka Islands, not far from Kuujjuaraapik.

The Cree’s legal defense of their claim has received support from the government of Quebec. Quebec has tried to reassert its sovereignty over the offshore region ince 1912, when Canada redrew the borders of Quebec, but left the islands in James Bay and Hudson Bay within the Northwest Territories.

In 1995, the Parti Québécois government’s proposal for sovereignty, Bill 1, also said that Quebec could extend its jursidiction along its coastlines. Recently, Jacques Brassard, Quebec’s minister of natural resources, restated the province’s claim over the islands in a letter to Indian Affairs Minister Jane Stewart.

Claude Bachand, the Bloc Québécois’s native affairs critic, even went to take a look at the disputed Charlton Island in James Bay earlier this spring.

“It makes no sense at all. The first thing that I’m looking at is the geographic logic. You can go to this island in your boots when the tide is low,” Bachand said. “And they’re sending the administration 1500 kilometers away.”

Bloc-Cree alliance

Although the Crees have always supported federalists in the past, Craik doesn’t find the Bloc-Cree alliance surprising.

“For us the most important thing is that our rights be protected,” he said. “Crees are federalists, but Crees are Crees, and they are Crees, first.”

Craik said he’s received calls from Cree goose hunters who are worried that Nunavut will clamp down on their use of the islands.

“Nunavut could decide to put outfitting camps on these islands and grant third-party interests,” Craik said. “Or they could apply rules that would make it awkward.”

Under the jurisdiction of the NWT, there was, in fact, very little interference with non-residents’ harvesting of wildlife on the offshore islands.

Ontario Cree have agreement

Through an agreement struck between the NWT and Ontario, Ontario Crees who hunt and trap on Akimiski Island were able to obtain the necesssary export permits directly from their provincial conservation officers.

And Nunavut and Makivik Corporation have already concluded an overlap deal that grants Nunavimmiut joint use, occupancy and rights on several islands in the Hudson Bay and Hudson Strait.

James Eetoolook, Nunavut Tunngavik’s watchdog for the Nunavut land claim, said that the James Bay Cree are overly concerned about their continued use of these islands.

“They don’t need to worry about their hunting rights,” Eetoolook said.

But the James Bay Cree also want to benefit from any future resource development on or near these islands, especially if it affects traditional pursuits.

The Quebec government probably shares this interest in extending its borders if there are any future hydro-electric development projects around the James or Hudson bays in the works.

Nunavut Premier Paul Okalik recently wrote a letter to all groups that use the islands, asking them to appoint a liaison person to deal with co-management issues.

The Grand Council’s chief Matthew Coon-Come has requested a personal meeting with Okalik, although Craik said Crees aren’t planning to negotiate directly with Nunavut over the disputed islands’ use.

“Our belief is that Canada has the basic responsibility, not Nunavut, to guarantee Cree rights,” he said.

But federal negotiators have adjourned talks with the James Bay Crees on their offshore claim while evaluating the Crees’ court action.

DIAND would much prefer the user groups to find a practical solution among themselves.

“It makes more sense. We didn’t create Nunavut to tell people what to do,” said DIAND’s Nigel Woolford.

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