American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Coon Come, Matthew

As president of the Canadian Assembly of First Nations and as grand chief of the nine Cree councils, Matthew Coon Come (b. 1956) has become one of the late twentieth century's major Canadian Native leaders, especially in the campaign to halt exploitation of the James Bay region by Hydro-Quebec.

Coon Come was born in 1956 in a hut along the Mistissini trapline that his parents worked in northern Quebec. This was a seasonal encampment for the Crees, where they hunted and fished near James Bay. Coon Come didn't see a non-Native until he was six years of age. The first non-Native he saw was the Indian Affairs agent who arrived by float plane to take him to a residential school. Coon Come attended residential schools in Moose Factory, La Tuque, and Hull. He later studied political science, law, economics, and native studies at Trent and McGill Universities.

Coon Come's Cree elders recognized him as a natural leader. He was asked to coordinate inland Cree communities' negotiations with Canada that enabled the James Bay Crees to escape the Indian Act and gain the first ever aboriginal self-government legislation in Canada. Coon Come also served two terms as chief of the Mistissini First Nation, helping to acquire for his community a new arena, an adult education center, a bank, new administrative offices, new health facilities, and major improvements to its housing and community infrastructure.

Coon Come married Maryann Matoush in 1976; they later had three daughters and two sons. At age twenty-one, Coon Come became deputy chief for the Cree Nation of Northern Quebec. Later, he became the grand chief for roughly 12,000 Crees. He was a vocal opponent on behalf of aboriginal peoples in the province during the Quebec separation movement. He later became grand chief of the Crees' Grand Council in Quebec as a whole. He was first elected as grand chief of the Grand Council of the Crees and chairman of the Cree Regional Authority in 1987. Coon Come soon became known throughout Canada for his efforts to end federal policies that favored the abolition of aboriginal peoples' human rights and legal self-determination.

Coon Come was reelected by the James Bay Cree People through four successive terms as grand chief, during which he became known for his international work to protect aboriginal peoples' traditional ways of life. Coon Come brought these issues to the 1992 Earth Summit in Brazil, when he formed a coalition with other indigenous peoples and environmental organizations to defend the traditional use of Native lands worldwide.

During the early 1990s, Coon Come fought Hydro-Quebec's James Bay II proposal to dam eight major rivers that flow into James Bay in northern Quebec, at a cost of up to $170 billion, to provide electricity for urban Canada as well as several states in the U.S. Northeast. The area is virtually unknown to most Euro-Americans but has been home for thousands of years to roughly 10,000 Crees, many of whom would be forced from their homelands by flooding and toxic contamination.

Coon Come's Crees also had opposed construction of James Bay I, completed in 1985, which dammed or diverted five large rivers and flooded 4,000 square miles of forest. Rotting vegetation in the area had released about 184 million tons of carbon dioxide and methane gas into the atmosphere by 1990, possibly accelerating global warming around the world and saddling Quebec electric rate payers with a debt of $3,500 per person. Rotting vegetation also caused an acceleration of microbial activity that converts elemental mercury in submerged glacial rock to toxic methyl mercury, which rapidly diffused throughout the food chain. Methyl mercury poisoning can cause loss of vision, numbness of limbs, uncontrollable shaking, and chronic neurological disease. By 1990, some Cree elders had twenty times the level of methyl mercury in their bodies that the World Health Organization considers safe. A 1984 survey of people residing in Chisasibi showed that 64 percent of its people had elevated levels of this toxin in their bodies. The Quebec government responded to these findings by telling the Crees not to eat fish, one of their main sources of protein.

The flooding also caused one-quarter of the Crees' caribou herds, about 12,000 animals, to drown in the first phase of the project. However, the human problems brought on by James Bay I were not limited to the flooding of forestland and increasing discharge of toxins. The arrival of many non-Natives, drawn by large-scale construction projects (including road building), was linked by Coon-Come and other Cree leaders with rising levels of substance abuse, violence, and suicide in their communities. All of these changes contribute to the breakdown of traditional family patterns and ways of making a living.

Coon Come and the Crees enlisted international support in their ultimately unsuccessful legal battle against the first phase of the James Bay project. In their efforts to stop the second phase, the Crees forged alliances with environmental groups around the world, with special emphasis on the Northeastern United States, where a large proportion of the project's power would be sold. In 1993, New York State dealt a grievous blow to the project by withdrawing from agreements to purchase power from Hydro-Quebec.

The James Bay projects, as previously planned, were not single dams across single rivers that flood valleys between mountains. They were massive earth-moving projects across an area as large as the state of Oregon. According to Coon Come:

A project of this kind involves the destruction and rearrangement of a vast landscape, literally reshaping the geography of the land. This is what I want you to understand: it is not a dam. It is a terrible and vast reduction of our entire world. It is the assignment of vast territories to a permanent and final flood. The burial of trees, valleys, animals, and even the graves [of the Crees] beneath tons of contaminated soil. All of this serves only one purpose: the generation of more electricity to get more revenue and more temporary jobs and to gain political power [emphasis added] (Coon Come, 1992, 82).

In 1994, Coon Come was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for his activism against the James Bay projects. It carries a $60,000 stipend. In November of that year, Hydro-Quebec announced that it was shelving the second phase of the James Bay project indefinitely, a major victory for the Crees. The project later was revived, but in a scaled-down form to accommodate the Crees.

Bruce E. Johansen

Further Reading
"Canadian Indians Paddle to New York City to Protest Quebec Power Plant." 1990. Syracuse Post-Standard, April 5: A-2.; Bigert, Claus. 1995. "A People Called Empty." In Amazon of the North: James Bay Revisited. By Rainer Wittenborn and Claus Biegert. Unpaginated program for show (August 4–September 5), Santa Fe Center for Contemporary Arts.; Coone Come, Matthew. 1992. "A Vast Reduction...." In Our People, Our Land: Perspectives on Common Ground. Edited by Kurt Russo. Bellingham, WA: The Florence R. Kluckhohn Center.; Gorrie, P. 1990. "The James Bay Power Project—The Environmental Cost of Reshaping the Geography of Northern Quebec." Canadian Geographic (February–March): 20–31.

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