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Sunday, 28 April, 2002, 22:33 GMT 23:33 UK
Dam deal divides Quebec Indians
Teepee and skidoo rider in a Cree community  BBC
The project has affected the Cree way of life
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By Mike Fox
BBC correspondent, northern Quebec
line

A deal between the Quebec Government and the Cree nation of northern Canada has divided this native American people, who retain a close connection to their ancestral lands.

The deal
Cree get S$2.2bn in Quebec funds
All Cree legal claims are dropped
Dam creates 8,000 construction jobs
Work starts in 2004-2005
Quebec also gets forestry and mining rights
The new agreement allows the government to start development on a huge new hydroelectric project, which would expand the existing one on La Grande river.

This project was built amid huge controversy in the 1970s and 1980s and now provides half of all Quebec's electricity.

Since then, the Cree have fought constant legal battles to get compensation for the flooding of thousands of acres of pristine sub-Arctic forests and to block proposed new projects.

But in a referendum in February, they voted to accept this new deal, which involves payments of $2.2bn over the next 50 years as compensation for allowing the new hydroelectric scheme to go ahead.

Dam opposition

Despite the vote in favour, a substantial part of the Cree people are strongly opposed to the dam.

Hunting for moose, caribou, geese and other wildlife still make up a significant part of the living of many people.

They include Freddy Jolly of the small community of Nemaska, whose hunting area would be flooded by the new project.

Freddy Jolly BBC
Jolly: "God created the Earth, now man is destroying it"
Pointing to maps of his "traplines" - the area where he and his family have hunted for hundreds of years - he says the plans are devastating for him.

"God created the Earth, now man is destroying it; man wants to be a god. My land is just like a home to me. I make a living out of my traplines, but now they want to make so much money out of destroying the land, and for me that's no good."

Yet Freddy also receives substantial financial help from the Canadian Government to help him continue hunting.

This means he can afford modern luxuries like a large television and a well-appointed kitchen in his home.

Future generation

Nearly all 12,000 Quebec Cree have now given up their nomadic way of life and are living in settled communities.

"I know all this means it's less likely that my children are going to keep on hunting like I do," says Freddy Jolly. "But with this deal, they won't have the option at all."

Nemaska chief George Wapachee BBC
Chief Wapachee: Need to look ahead
Others see the deal as vital for providing a future to Freddie's children and young Cree generally, with unemployment around double the rates in the rest of Canada.

George Wapachee, the chief of Nemaska, is in favour of the plan.

"We have to be part of the changes happening all around us," he says.

"We have a young population and probably in 20 years from now, it's going to double and we're going to have a lot of young people and not all of them are going to be hunters or trappers.

"They're going to want something else to do and we have to prepare them for that."

Cree revival

Many of the Cree opposed to the agreement feel their leaders have not done enough to try to preserve traditional ways of life.

They are among the 40 or so people who have gathered in a large wood and canvas meeting house, to take part in a traditional ceremony.

The air is cloudy from the pungent smoke of burning sage.

While some sing to the beat of the drum, the rest of the group dance and blow small high-pitched wooden whistles for half an hour or more at a time.

Frozen boats on Rupert river, due to be diverted in the hydro-electric scheme BBC
Some Cree would like to see alternatives, such as eco-tourism
It is a hypnotic atmosphere which harks back to ancient traditions.

But most there are only rediscovering these roots as part of a traditionalist "revival".

They did not learn much about their traditions because their parents and grandparents were sent to Church-run residential schools by the Canadian Government in an effort to assimilate them; now they are trying to make up for lost time.

One of the participants, who wished to remain anonymous, said: "Those traditions are an old world that's very much alive, and it's always been there. It's sad that we ever turned our back on it."

Many at the prayer gathering feel the deal involves selling their heritage.

They believe it is possible to develop more opportunities without such drastic steps, and in ways which preserve the land and the Cree heritage, by developing eco-tourism and sustainable uses of the land.

Some of the new money coming to the Cree will help develop such businesses, but change is happening on other fronts, too.

The Quebec Government holds the mineral rights to most of the Cree lands; recent finds have indicated substantial diamond reserves.

Dozens of companies are staking claims, and if they start work, it could have another huge impact on the Cree way of life.

See also:

01 Apr 02 | Americas
Canadian Indians' dam pay-outs begin
24 Oct 01 | Americas
Quebec Indians agree dam deal
27 Jul 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Canada
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