The James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA) was signed in 1975 and represents the first treaty in what has become Canada's modern treaty period. It also continues a long history of treaty making between the First Nations and the crown and, later, Canada. Treaties were regularly utilized by the crown from the 1870s until 1921, when the last of the numbered treaties, Treaty 11, was signed. A five-decade moratorium on treaty making followed. Canadian officials distanced themselves from engaging the First Nations in treaties largely because the land previously required to promote Canada's nation-building efforts had already been obtained from them. As federal officials found out in the early 1970s, however, territorial occupation did not necessarily signify fee simple title. This issue exploded when the James Bay Crees initiated an aggressive lobby effort demanding a formal treaty relationship that would protect their territorial integrity.
All of the lands that comprise the JBNQA area were at one time within the demarcated region known as Rupert's Land. Officially the domain of the Hudson's Bay Company, the land in question was ceded to Canada in 1868. In 1870, by imperial order in council, crown officials agreed to obtain formal title to the lands through treaties with the First Nations, a process that never occurred. Two boundary extensions—in 1898 and 1912—resulted in the transfer of territorial title to the province of Quebec, the latter of which promised formal recognition of the rights of the Indians inhabiting the lands. In return, the Indians were to release their rights to the province, and any agreements would then have to be approved by order in council, a commitment that was never honored. Nevertheless, Native people continued to utilize the vast region because the only non-Native presence consisted of a handful of Hudson's Bay Company employees, missionaries, and some members of the federal department responsible for Indian affairs.
Due to limited outside interest in the region, little thought was given to aboriginal rights in Quebec. The Native territorial presence notwithstanding, provincial officials in the mid-1960s began researching the region's hydroelectric potential. By 1971, the province of Quebec announced its intention to initiate development of the James Bay hydro-electric project. The project that government officials had in mind, however, would require blocking and, in certain cases, diverting rivers within the James Bay drainage basin. Subsequently, the province established the James Bay Development Corporation to develop all the territory's resources, which included hydroelectricity, forestry, mining, and tourism. Provincial officials failed to consult with the 10,000 Crees and 5,000 Inuits who occupied the area, people who discovered through media reports that their homeland was destined to be flooded.
The Crees quickly mobilized. Community leaders held information sessions and developed a political strategy they anticipated could end the onslaught of workers and heavy machinery moving into their territories. In 1972, the newly formed Quebec Association of Indians petitioned the Quebec Superior Court for an injunction to stop all construction in the region. The injunction was granted on the grounds that the province of Quebec had failed to settle all outstanding land claims as required by the 1898 and 1912 boundary extensions. This decision was overturned within days, once again opening the region to hydroelectric development. Many Native leaders, however, optimistically viewed the decision as affirming their claims and once again lobbied the provincial government for a land claim agreement.
By 1974, the Crees and Inuits of northern Quebec, the governments of Canada and Quebec, and the Quebec Hydro-Electric Commission concluded an agreement in principle, which led to the signing of the JBNQA in November 1975. Early in the negotiations, Cree Indians formed the Grand Council of the Cree (of Quebec), with one chief and leaders from each of the eight Cree communities comprising the organization's board of directors. An executive group of four regional leaders was then selected, whereupon the Grand Council took over negotiations. Even though they represented the Cree people in negotiations, the Grand Council was not empowered to act without consulting the people at the community level. In sum, the Cree people remained the final decision makers.
The JBNQA total compensation package was worth $225 million, a sum to be paid over a period of twenty years to the Cree Regional Authority and to the (Inuit) Makivik Corporation, on behalf of the Inuit, by the Canadian and Quebec governments. This modern-day treaty settled all outstanding Native land claims in northern Quebec at that time. It also defined Native rights and established regional land use regimes for both Native and non-Native people in the region and among local, regional, provincial, and federal governments. The Crees retained 3,100 square miles of territory while the Inuit retained 5,000 square miles of settlement land, in addition to exclusive harvesting rights over an additional 10,000 square miles of land. The JBNQA effectively extinguished Aboriginal title to 600,000 square miles of land (McCutcheon, 1991).
Under the JBNQA, the territory was divided into Category I, II, and III lands. Category I lands are for the exclusive use and benefit of Native people. Category II lands belong to the province, but Native governments share in the management of hunting, fishing and trapping, tourism development, and forestry. Native people have exclusive hunting, fishing, and trapping rights on these lands. Category III lands are a special type of Quebec public lands, whereby Native and non-Native people may hunt and fish subject to regulations adopted in accordance with the JBNQA. A provision was included requiring the province to monitor the environmental impact and the social effects of development. Committees have also been established to advise governments about environmental issues, policies, and regulation. Each committee consists of federal, provincial, and Native representatives.
The JBNQA also recognized a form of Aboriginal self-government. Accordingly, Inuit communities were incorporated as municipalities under Quebec law, and municipal powers are delegated to them by Quebec legislation. Quebec also established the Cree Regional Authority to assist in creating services for Cree communities. Cree and Inuit school boards were also established as part of the agreement, with a special mandate and unique powers enabling them to adopt culturally appropriate educational programs. Canada and Quebec jointly fund the school boards, with Canada paying 25 percent of the Inuit budget and three-quarters of the Cree budget. A coordinating committee of federal and provincial representatives and Native delegates was established to administer, review, and regulate wildlife harvesting, while ensuring that Native rights to hunting, as acknowledged in the agreement, are not abused.
Implementation of the agreement began almost immediately. However, the process was uneven and the results varied from community to community. Cree and Inuit leaders both identified problem areas and lobbied the federal and provincial governments to meet their obligations as outlined in the JBNQA. In 1982, all involved approved of a review of the JBNQA implementation process to deal with the concerns identified by the Crees and Inuits. Unfortunately for Cree and Inuit leaders, the implementation review focused specifically on the adequacy of program support up to 1981 and failed to resolve many fundamental problems plaguing program implementation or any of the anticipated problems. During this period, however, constitutional issues were the leading political issue in Canada, and Native people recognized that their treaty rights had constitutional protection. With the JBNQA now a constitutionally protected treaty, Crees and Inuits began aggressively lobbying both provincial and federal officials through the media for improved program implementation.
By 1986, the Canadian government approved the establishment of a mediated negotiation process between JBNQA beneficiaries and federal and provincial officials. The overarching goal was to address what had by now become problems endemic to the implementation process. Four years of protracted negotiations followed, leading to an agreement between the Canadian government and the Inuit in September 1990. The heart of the final agreement calls for the Inuits to receive a lump sum payment of $22.8 million in lieu of relieving the federal government of its financial obligations pursuant to the JBNQA. Pending final implementation of this agreement, all matters related to the Inuits and the JBNQA will be resolved. Despite the resolution of the Inuit negotiations, the Crees and the federal government have not come to terms. The Crees maintain that the operational matters associated with the implementation process must first be addressed before final-stage negotiations may proceed.
The cash and natural resources provided to the Crees by the JBNQA have proven inadequate to the people's needs. What appeared to be a large sum of money in 1975 turned out to be modest in relation to the costs of social and economic development and of self-government. Despite problems concerning the final agreement, however, the Crees are now well versed in the language of politics. They have also come to the realization that, notwithstanding their poor relations with the federal and provincial governments and project developers, they are capable of maintaining a political strategy to their benefit. Negotiations between true equals may be the only way to resolve a process now entering its second generation of negotiations.
Yale D. Belanger
Diamond, Billy. 1990. "Villages of the Damned: The James Bay Agreement Leaves a Trail of Broken Promises." Arctic Circle. November–December: 24–34.; Feit, Harvey. 1991. "Gifts of the Land: Hunting Territories, Guaranteed Incomes and the Construction of Social Relations in James Bay Cree Society." Senri Ethnological Studies, 30: 223–268.; McCutcheon, Sean. 1991. Electric Rivers: The Story of the James Bay Project. Montreal, QC: Black Rose Books.; Salisbury, Richard. 1986. A Homeland for the Cree. Regional Development in James Bay, 1971–1981. Montreal, QC, and Kingston, ON: McGill-Queen's University Press.; Vincent, Sylvie, and Garry Bowers, eds. 1988. James Bay and Northern Quebec: Ten Years After. Montreal: Recherches amerindiennes au Quebec.