This past summer, the government of Quebec and the Cree Nation reached a major agreement on governance in Eeyou Istchee-James Bay, a region containing
hundreds of targets for future mineral exploration. The new deal gives added land use planning power to the Cree. While previously approved permits will be
maintained, the agreement could have a significant impact on how future development will be carried out in this 330,000-square-kilometre territory.
The area is divided into three categories of governance: Category I lands are exclusively reserved for Aboriginals’ use. On Category II lands, hunting,
fishing and trapping rights are reserved for them, and on Category III lands, they have the reserved hunting and harvesting rights to only some animal
species. The latter two categories are the ones affected by the new agreement.
Until now, the government of Quebec established objectives for development on Category II and III lands. The Cree had no say in the planning stages but
were consulted afterward. “The existing governance regime excluded the Cree from participating in the governance of our own territory and, therefore, it
posed a very serious obstacle to the democratic governance of the region,” said Tina Petawabano, director of Cree-Quebec relations at the Grand Council of
“What changes is that the Cree will be more implicated in the creation of the development objectives of the territory,” said Nicolas Houde, professor of
political science at the Université du Quebec à Montréal. “[Mining] projects will have to fit in the global view of the region’s development. They will be
selected according to their relevancy.”
This means that if the Cree Nation plans to establish a newly protected area, the provincial government will take that into account when issuing
exploration or environmental permits. This could influence where and how an exploration company chooses to operate in order to respect the new planning.
The provincial government has the power to reject a land use plan, though, according to Houde, “it would be difficult to justify a refusal.” How those land
use plans are developed depends on which category the land falls under.
On Category II lands, a new Cree Nation government will replace the former James Bay municipality. It will essentially have the powers of a regional county
municipality (RCM) and will create its own land use plans. This government will cover 16.5 per cent of the James Bay territory. According to Houde, the
Cree Nation government will make its plans after consulting local communities and then submit them to the provincial government.
“The Cree will be able to exercise local and supra-local municipal responsibilities, as well as the planning and management of certain resources,” said
Petawabano. “At the outset, the Cree Nation government will assume expanded powers, under specific agreements with Quebec, regarding lands and forestry
resources. In time, these powers may extend to other resource sectors, subject to agreement with Quebec.” Whether these expanded powers will concern
mineral resources, and what they would consist of exactly, are issues that will be clarified through on-going separate negotiations with the Quebec
A similar change will occur on Category III lands. In this case, the new regional government will include representatives of the Cree, non-natives and, for
the first five years, the government of Quebec. Before now, land use planning in Category III lands, which cover almost 82 per cent of the James Bay
territory, was the sole responsibility of the province.
“In the future, exploration permits will have to take into account land and resource use plans developed by the Cree Nation government for Category II
lands and by the regional government for Category III lands,” Petawabano pointed out. “Claim holders will be invited to consult with the Cree Nation
government and with the affected Cree community.”
Petawabano has made it clear that permits granted before the signature of the agreement “will be maintained.” She also insisted that as long as mining
projects meet their global development objectives for the land, “the Cree are prepared to support and participate in resource development in [their]
A municipal land use plan has no legally binding effects on exploration permits, but a company whose project does not fit in could find it more difficult
to go through the environmental assessment process, since social licence is a condition for approval.