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Governance agreement would mean more autonomy, more flexibility and financial security, says Bill Namagoose

Cree Nation Government executive director Bill Namagoose says issues at stake include control over taxation, a longer-term funding agreement to allow greater spending flexibility, and limits to the federal government's role in decisions affecting Eeyou Istchee.

Cree Nation Government executive director Bill Namagoose says issues at stake include control over taxation, a longer-term funding agreement to allow greater spending flexibility, and limits to the federal government’s role in decisions affecting Eeyou Istchee.

Over the next two months Quebec Cree have a chance to learn more about two documents that could change the way their region is run: a governance agreement that would allow Cree greater control over the lands immediately surrounding their communities, and a Cree constitution.

Issues at stake include control over taxation, a longer-term funding agreement to allow greater spending flexibility, and limits to the federal government’s role in decisions affecting Eeyou Istchee.

Under the agreement, there would be “no more federal minister oversight in Cree governance affairs on Category 1A lands,” said Cree Nation Government (CNG) executive director Bill Namagoose, referring to the lands where Quebec’s nine Cree communities are established.

“So there will be… more autonomy, more flexibility and more financial peace and security.”

The governance negotiations stem from the $1.4B New Relationship Agreement between the Cree and the federal government signed in Mistissini in 2008, which put an end to decades of lawsuits over implementation of the landmark 1975 James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement and set in motion the definition and development of a Cree government.

With financial arrangements extended to 2040, this new governance agreement would allow Cree leaders greater stability and room to plan, said Namagoose. In addition, the power to tax Cree members would be transferred from the federal government to the Cree government.

“At the moment we get financial agreements in increments of five years, so every five years there is an opportunity for governments to roll back our funding or introduce new policies,” he said.

“Cree governments need financial security to make long-term plans. Rather than making five-year or three-year plans, they can plan for the future.”

Concerns over consultation process

Community consultations began in Waswanipi Jan. 10 and have sometimes continued late into the evening as people asked questions and voiced their concerns. In Mistissini, the territory’s second-largest community, the band organized its own information sessions,/ inviting elders, youth and women to ensure everyone had a chance to fully understand the proposed changes before the CNG consultations take place this week.

Some women leaders, including Linda L. Shecapio of the Cree Women of Eeyou Istchee Association (CWEIA) and Waswanipi entrepreneur Irene Neeposh, have pointed to a lack of women’s involvement in the negotiations and consultation process. In a Facebook post, Shecapio called out the all-male panel that is leading the consultations.

“Our Constitution is supposed to create our ‘HOME’… define our Eeyou Istchee and there is NO women on the panel! The patriarchy continues!” Shecapio wrote when the consultations began. “We women need to be more proactive and not be afraid to speak up!”

Waskaganish Chief Darlene Cheechoo questioned whether the deal was a fait accompli at a recent meeting of Cree chiefs.

“This is presented to us as a complete document,” she said, addressing CNG leaders.

“You’re going to the communities, and the people are questioning, or providing feedback. Is that going to be taken into consideration, or is this a final document? I think even the approval process is concerning to me. We remove the voice of the people when it comes to their own constitution and their own agreements.”

Unlike the Paix des Braves agreement signed with Quebec in 2002, this approval process does not include a referendum.

‘Bringing home the constitution’

Along with the governance agreement, Cree leaders are also touring a Cree constitution. Although the title is new, the content is largely copied from the Cree-Naskapi Act, which lays out the functions of Cree band councils.

For Namagoose, this process is akin to the 1982 repatriation of the Canadian Constitution, transferring the country’s highest law from the British Parliament to the Canadian government.

“The Cree constitution, at the moment, rests in Ottawa in the form of the Cree-Naskapi Act, an act of Parliament. And now this Cree-Naskapi Act will be transferred into the Cree constitution, which will be resting in Cree lands,” said Namagoose.

“The Cree people won’t need Quebec’s or Canada’s permission to change their constitution on how they want to govern themselves. So we’re bringing home the constitution from Ottawa to Eeyou Istchee.”

Community consultations continue through March, including stops in Moose Factory, Ont., Montreal and Gatineau, Que., where there are significant Cree populations. If all the chiefs and councils support the agreement at the Cree regional government level, it will then go to the Quebec and federal governments for approval.