History was made January 20, 2014 in Canada when the Eeyou Istchee Nation and the Government of Quebec inaugurated a new co-governance regime. The creation of the new Eeyou Istchee – James Bay Regional Government provides greater autonomy and enhanced participation of the Cree in local governance including land use planning and resource development.
Category II lands – over 40,000 square kilometers south of the 55th parallel under the dominion of Quebec but maintained for the exclusive use of the Cree for hunting, fishing, and trapping – are now subject to jurisdiction of the Cree of Eeyou Istchee.
Existing third party interests in permits, leases, mining claims, and forestry remain intact, but under the provisions of the Act Respecting the Development of Natural Resources in Keeping with the Principles of Sustainable Development Quebec now has the right to withdraw lands from mineral exploration or development if they impede cultural uses, wildlife conservation, or environmental protection or recreation. The future development of hydroelectric projects of less than 50 MW and all wind energy projects are reserved exclusively for the Cree. The Cree Government is also invited to participate in the development of a new public land use plan for Category II lands and to work with the Government of Quebec to establish a collaborative management regime for forestry resources.
The truly novel element of this agreement, however, lies in the new arrangements for co-governance of over 900,000 square kilometers of Category III lands. These lands are now governed jointly by Cree and ‘Jamésiens’ (non-Aboriginal people living in the territory) with equal decision-making authority via the Eeyou Istchee James Bay Regional Government. Both peoples have an equal number of representatives and votes, each select their own representatives, and the Chair alternates between the Cree and the Jamésiens. Cree and French are the official languages of this new government. Their authority includes:
– land use planning and development;
– regional economic development;
– establishment of funds to financially support land or forest developments;
– management of lakes and rivers;
– creation and management of regional parks;
– waste disposal; and
– creation of local councils.
The advantages of co-governance include greater accountability, equality, transparency, and justice. It sets the stage for the exercise of the inherent right of the Cree to self-government thereby enhancing the opportunity to incorporate traditional Cree knowledge in lands, waters, and resource management over almost 1 million square kilometers. As a novel approach to Aboriginal – Canadian cooperation, the Eeyou Istchee James Bay Regional Government will serve as a training ground for a more cooperative model for Aboriginal – Canadian relations on a nation to nation basis in the years to come.