Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come of the Grand Council of the Crees
Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come said he was shocked by the wall of opposition from Ontario First Nations to the Grand Council of the Crees’ lawsuit to claim Aboriginal rights and title over a section of land on the Ontario side of the border.
The piece of land in question stretches from the southern coast of James Bay all the way to Lake Abitibi east of Timmins. Moose Cree First Nation is saying that is their traditional territory and an all rights and title to it belong to them exclusively.
Coon Come said that the Cree communities on the east coast of James Bay in Quebec are willing to come up with an arrangement where the rights and title to the land can be shared. But that didn’t stop the Moose Cree, the Mushkegowuk Council and the Nishnawbe Aski Nation all to denounce the lawsuit and demand that it be withdrawn.
“I’m actually very surprised. They should be standing with us. Who created this politics of division,” asked the Grand Chief. “When Canada was created, no one consulted the Aboriginal peoples, including the Cree, when they created these provinces and split the boundaries of First Nations.”
The central argument the Cree council plans to make in Ontario Superior Court is that the ancestors of the people living in their communities have been using that territory for centuries, and the Quebec/Ontario board just happened to intersect that territory and the treaties and other laws that came after infringed on their right to it.
“We have traditionally hunted, fished and occupied the area that we are claiming. We had trappers who were harassed in the 1960s and 1970s for pursuing their right to trap,” said Coon Come. “Before we even filed any claim, of course, we hired anthropologists like Colin Scott (of McGill University) to do research to establish that we occupied that territory and that we never surrendered our rights.”
Although the Cree Council filed their lawsuit in Ontario at the beginning of March, the claim to the land in Ontario is not new. It was originally launched in federal courts in 1989, and it wasn’t until last year that they found out that would need to take it to a provincial court.
“It was 1989, and I was still the Grand Chief. We filed a lawsuit that focused on the Great Whale River hydro project. But we had amended it at that time, so it included claims relating to the Cree Nation’s right and title in Ontario,” recalled Coon Come.
In the years since then the Great Whale River project was cancelled, and in March of 2014, the federal government moved to have the claims dismissed. The federal court eventually ruled that while the claim about the hydro project could be struck, the assertion of rights and title in Ontario could be perused in provincial court. So that, said Coon Come, is what they did.
“We are seeking the recognition of our Aboriginal rights and title, on a shared basis, over an area of 48,000 square kilometres. These rights are based on the Cree Nation’s continuous use since time immemorial,” said the Grand Chief.
By “shared basis” Coon Come says he means that the member First Nations of the Cree Council and the Moose Cree would hold a “joint title” over the land.
“This means that we would share the lands between us and occupy the lands on a semi-exclusive basis,” he explained. “We recognize and acknowledge that these lands were shared with other Aboriginal nations.”
How a joint title arrangement would work when negotiating possible new natural resource projects in the area would be something that the different First Nations would have to figure out, said Coon Come. But current projects in the area, such as the Detour Gold mine, will be left to operate under the same agreements they already have in place.
That doesn’t sit well with the Moose Cree First Nation, which claims exclusive rights and title over the area in dispute.
In an interview with The Daily Press last week, Moose Cree Chief Norm Hardisty said that the Cree Council had gone ahead with their lawsuit despite requests from his community to sit down and talk the issues out beforehand.
Coon Come said that they did not ignore any requests for negotiations, and it was the Moose Cree that had made it impossible to sit down and come to an agreement.
“We agreed to meet in December of 2014 at the general assembly of the Assembly of First Nations in Winnipeg. We set up a private room at a hotel and the chief cancelled at the last minute. We left them an open invitation, and this was back in 2014,” the Grand Chief recalled. “We also tried on several trips we made to Moose Factory. We had meetings with (several other organizations) there and (Hardisty) didn’t show up. Said he was sick.”
“He also cancelled on us in Toronto this past November.”
Coon Come said they finally met with Hardisty in December and gave him the information about the case and were told that he would get back to them, but the Grand Chief says he never did. So they went ahead with their case.
Hardisty has said that he and his community will “fight” to prevent their rights over the territory in Ontario from being infringed upon by the Cree Council, although the chief would specify what steps the Moose Cree are prepared to take. Coon Come said if it comes down to having to fight it out in court, then that is what will happen.
None of these issues are expected to be resolved soon. Coon Come said that it will likely be many years before the courts will be anywhere near ready to make a ruling on their case. So these issues and conflicts will likely linger for some time to come.