Cree, Quebec, Canada: Three Separate Nations, One Geographic Location

Cree[i], Quebec, Canada: Three Separate Nations, One Geographic Location

LaTasha T. Johnson

Political Science 543 Honors

Professor Melson

4 May 1998




            The question addressed in this essay is the political significance of a minority group within a minority group in the context of a confederation.  This essay will define the minority-within-a-minority category, its significance, and its interaction with ethnic conflict.  The case study used to explain and examine this phenomena will be the Cree in Quebec, Canada.  The economic and political position of the Cree has a direct correlation to the ethnic conflict in Quebec.  The Cree do not want the Quebecois to secede from Canada.  Quebec secession to the Cree means extinction and annihilation as a separate and distinct, autonomous culture.  The Cree feel that an independent Quebec would become a virtually plebiscitory democracy with no constitutional rule and no minority rights.[ii]  This essay will, first of all, identify the territory in question and give a brief history of Cree interaction with Canadians.  It will discuss hydroelectric power in Quebec and some of its effects on the Cree diet, the Cree economy, and the geographic location of the Cree.  It will also address a few legal issues including Canadian Supreme Court decisions and Quebec language laws.


            A discussion of the Cree, Quebec, and Canada would be insufficient without an identification of the specific area under controversy.[iii]  Cree hunting grounds extended north of the land around the James Bay area from the east shore of the Hudson bay to Churchill and then westward south of the Churchill River to the Athabasca River. (Story, 1967)  “Located north of the 49th parallel, bounded on the west by the James and Hudson Bays, on the north by Hudson Strait, and on the east by the Labrador border, it covers an area of about 1,000,000 square kilometers, of which half lies above the 55th parallel.  This is a little over two thirds of the total area of the province of Quebec, and is the size of Spain, Portugal, and Germany combined.” (Thouez et al, 1989)  The Cree nation is “a huge territory of forest, river, marshland, and lake roughly the size of Germany.” (Ignatieff, 1993)  The James Bay Cree region is east and southeast of James Bay and southeast of Hudson Bay. (Feit, 1995)  The Cree territory is completely within the boundaries of Quebec.  Not only are the Cree a minority within a minority, they are also geographically within a minority.  In this case of a federation, there are many groups which comprise the confederation.  In Canada, the majority of Canadians are of English descent.  The Quebecois are of French descent.  There are native and immigrant populations as well.  The Cree are a minority within a minority because they are located in the Province of Quebec.  The concept of a minority within a minority becomes significant when the voice of the larger minority overshadows that of the smaller minority.  When the goals of the minorities come into direct contrast, the smaller minority often has no voice at all.  While the Cree have acquired successes within the Canadian federal court system, the Quebecois still have the actual successes in terms of development and hydroelectric power.  If Quebec is successful in seceding from Canada, the Canadian Supreme Court rulings in favor of the Cree, which are not implemented anyway, will hold no power in an independent Quebec.  This is part of the problem with being a minority within a minority.  The larger minority may achieve its goals to the detriment of the smaller minorities.  In the case of Croatia and Serbia, the Croats and others did not want to be minorities.  They wanted a loose confederation.  Under the umbrella of a federal government, smaller minorities have an opportunity to have their voices heeded to and heard.  Without this larger umbrella, there is often no arena for small minority voices.  This is the danger the Cree face in the advent of Quebecois secession.  Dangers to Cree existence did not began with hydroelectric development in Quebec.


                        “Big Bear fought his whole life to preserve the rights and way of life of his                         people, but he lived to see only the end of his own, and his people’s                      freedom.”

The Hudson’s Bay Company arrived in the late seventeenth century.  In 1869, Cree lands previously controlled by the Hudson’s Bay Company were now controlled by the Dominion of Canada.  With the destruction of the buffalo in Canada by 1879, the Cree were faced with hunger and possible starvation.  The Canadian government started an unsuccessful agricultural program.  Since the late nineteenth century the Cree have gone through fundamental changes in their political, economic, structural, and cultural existence. (Thouez et al, 1989)  If the Cree and others had paid heed to Big Bear, Dempsey (1984) argues that it would have meant an easier adaptation to agriculture.  Big Bear was a Cree chief who attempted to negotiate better treaty terms for his people. His resistance to the treaties was seen as “trouble-making” by the government.  He was held responsible for an incident in the Riel Rebellion in 1885.  He turned himself in to the Canadian authorities; he was branded a traitor, tried for treason and sentenced to three years in prison.  Dempsey’s main argument is that the adjustments necessary to “progress” in the life of the Cree people would have been far less severe if Big Bear had not been branded a traitor.  Big Bear’s visions of the destruction of the Cree way of life has been manifested with the advent of hydroelectric power in Quebec.

Hydroelectric Power

                        “The James Bay hydro-electric project, when it was first announced by                   the premier of Quebec, Robert Bourassa, in April 1971, was a scheme to                      dam or divert all the major rivers of James Bay and build powerhouses on                  them which would have an installed capacity of up to 14,000 megawatts,                about 30 percent of the current hydro-electric production of Canada.”

For the Cree, the James Bay project is the destruction of their living environment, and their way of life.  For the Quebecois, this project is the support for an independent Quebec.  The Cree want autonomy.  The Quebecois want to avoid “ethnic ghettos where the laws of Quebec would no longer take precedence.” (Ignatieff, 1993)  In an independent Quebec, the Cree would have to give up the little autonomy which they have managed to keep under the federal Canadian government.  The La Grande River hydroelectric project began in the James Bay area in the late 1970s.  Threats to the James Bay ecosystem affect the lifestyle of the Cree.  The Quebec government has reported little or no negative effects on the area or the indigenous peoples of the area.  The Cree, however, report devastating effects on hunting, trapping, and fishing, as well as detrimental effects within Cree communities and to Cree health.  Comprehensive, objective studies of the social effects of the hydroelectric projects by the Quebecois government have not been forthcoming.  As the Quebec government expands its hydroelectric projects, the effects on Cree society should be seriously considered. (Niezen, 1993)  Unfortunately, it has not been.  When the James Bay Project became known, the Cree protested to the Quebec government about “the absence of either environmental or social impact studies”. (Salisbury, 1986)  The Quebec government has plans for expanding its hydroelectric power business which would encompass all of Cree traditional territory.  With the advances of Hydro-Quebec, the damming of the rivers have flooded Cree hunting grounds; the Cree have had to relocate.  The Cree have experienced social dislocation; so, to aid in the relocation of communities and the transformation of lifestyles, the Cree use anthropologists.  Development projects affected the land as well as the economic lifestyle of the Cree.  Flooding of hunting grounds, increases in mercury levels in the water and fish, and dislocation of game, all affect the Cree.  In the 1970s, the government advised the Cree not to eat the fish of the region.  Unemployment and underemployment affected the Cree community.  Hunting opportunities and wage labor were too limited for the population. (Feit, 1995)

“One community predicted to be severely impacted by the hydro project                  was Whitefish Lake, a Cree Indian settlement of 700 people.  The                                    construction plans called for the impoundment of the lake by raising its                level seven to ten feet, thereby flooding over 600 square kilometers of                   surrounding territory.  Prior to 1975, Whitefish Lake represented one of              the most self-reliant Native communities in the Canadian north.  This                         began to change, however, when the hydro project became operational in                        1976.” (Waldram, 1985)

In the case of the Whitefish Lake community, the effects of the hydroelectric project are clearly visible.  The commercial sector of the economy was hindered by the flooding of the lake.  This led to a decline in productivity and an increase in social assistance payments.  The domestic sector of the community experienced negative effects as well.  The overall effect of the project in this case was to reduce economic activity and productivity which cause increased poverty.  Another effect was an overall decline in nutritional status.  Dietary surveys revealed that food available in the stores was plain, had little diversity, and did not necessarily include all of the major food groups.  Most of those surveyed stated that the “bush” diet was superior to the diet available in the communities.  Community diets have much more saturated fat and “junk food” which is decidedly unhealthy. (Waldram, 1985)  Food and nutrition is a major issue in the ongoing struggle over the land and its development.

Cree communities are usually located near tributaries of the James Bay or near a lake.  Access to game and fish has been limited by the advancement of hydroelectric power.  For the Cree, hunting is essential to life.  Hunting has a very specific methodology based on an annual cycle to ensure that the particular game which is hunted produces an “efficient, abundant, and reliable supply of food”.  Hunting is strictly regulated to ensure that the game is never depleted.  With population increases and technological advances, hunting has been increasingly augmented by store purchases. (Feit, 1995)  Food, now comes mostly from store purchases. (Thouez et al, 1989)  These foods are generally less nutritious than the fresh or “bush” food sources. (Waldram, 1985)  Bush food sources are said to comprise only 20 to 25 percent of the Cree diet.  This dramatic change in dietary nutrition has direct correlations to health problems.  Rapid and drastic changes in Cree lifestyle causes more health problems than the Cree would have otherwise.  Cree health services have been managed by the Conseil Regional de la Sante et des Services Sociaux (CRSSS-Cri) since 1978. (Thouez et al, 1989)  Health issues are not the only factors involved in this situation.

            Legal Issues

            Similar to the provisions of the United States Fifth Amendment takings clause,  the Canadian government does not take land without just compensation.  The Cree have received hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation for lost land.  Richardson (1976) quotes a Cree hunter from Mistassini, Charlie Gunner, “If you set fire to the land, the land remains, and life returns to it.  If you set fire to a piece of paper, like a dollar bill, it burns away to the end, and nothing is left.”  Job Bearskin, a Cree hunter from Fort George, is also quoted; “There will never be enough money to pay for the damage that has been done.  I’d rather think about the land and think about the children.  What will they have when that land is destroyed?  The money means nothing.”

The Malouf ruling in 1973 (of the Canadian Supreme Court), affirmed that the Cree and Inuit appeared to have an Indian title to the land, that any interference with their use of the land compromised their existence as a people, and that the Province of Quebec was trespassing.  The Cree and Quebec have negotiated use of the land.  The opening of the land for development, however, limits the land base upon which the Cree may negotiate. (Feit, 1995)  Despite apparent legal successes, the hydroelectric projects continue, and the time-consuming nature of court procedures allow for court outcomes to be less than fully successful.  Implementation of court rulings is also a problem.  Many research programs and studies have been and are being conducted.  The Canadian federal government has implemented governing programs at the local level which allows for a degree of self-government in native communities.  The Cree Regional Authority along with Justice Canada, the federal Ministry of the Solicitor General, and the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, with resources contributed by the Province of Quebec, funded a research program to determine effective ways to handle justice problems in native communities.  The research served to find the most effective and efficient ways to ensure community involvement in the justice system at the local and regional levels. (McDonnell, 1991)  However, if Quebec secedes from Canada, there may be a restructuring of the political system.  The educational system in Quebec is already an area of much debate and controversy.

For the Quebecois, the French language is essential to their cultural survival.  Quebec has language laws which serve to dictate the learning and usage of the French language.  French speaking families and immigrants are not allowed have their children educated in English-language schools.  Businesses with fifty or more employees must be conducted in French.  Commercial signs must be in French, also.  Even though the Supreme Court of Canada ruled against the commercial signage legislation, it allowed for the banning of English-only signs.  Signage legislation is still in force in Quebec because legislatures are allowed to override court judgements for a restricted period. (Taylor, 1992)  For the Cree, the French language is an important asset which will become much more important if Quebec secedes from Canada.  Of the school age Cree attending school, some go to village schools which are considered substandard even though they do include Cree language and culture in the curriculum.  Some go to English-language schools in nearby non-native communities.  The Cree send many of their children to French-language schools which is essential to being adequately equipped for life in Quebec. (Salisbury, 1986)  If Quebec secedes from Canada, the Cree will be faced with many more drastic changes and no federal government to intervene on their behalf.


            The political significance of a minority within a minority is that it creates an arena for ethnic conflict especially when the groups have opposing goals.  A minority group within a minority has the dilemma of achieving its goals in an arena dominated by the larger minority.  With the umbrella of a federal government, most groups are guaranteed a significant voice.  In the advent of secession, this voice can easily be suppressed or ignored.  In the Quebecois case, the Cree are an addition to the voices against Quebecois secession.  This surely affects relations between the Cree and the Quebecois on political and perhaps other levels.  This essay identified the geographic area under question.  The area that is definitively Cree is also definitively within the political boundaries of the Province of Quebec.  A brief history was given to Identify a point of origin for the controversy.  Hydroelectric power and its effects and consequences were briefly explored.  Dietary changes led to health problems.  Not mentioned, but readily apparent are problems with alcoholism, teen suicide, and moral decline.  The economy of the Cree has undergone drastic changes.  As with any economy in a state of flux, the unemployment rate is high.  Education is a problem.  Quality education is not readily available.  Those who do attend school often must go away causing generational and cultural gaps.  This becomes negative when the result is a loss of culture instead of a better worldview.  Geographic relocation contributes to many of the necessary diet changes and problems arising in the communities because of development.  Being constantly forced to move does not allow for a feeling of comfort and of a home.  Legal issues abound in this case study.  Despite favorable court rulings, the Cree are not achieving their goals.  Much to the detriment of the Cree and the environment, the Quebec government continues to develop.  Implementation of court rulings is a major problem.  Quebec law favors francophones.  The Quebecois want “Quebec pour les Quebecois,” and Quebec law reinforces that sentiment.  If Quebec secedes from Canada, how much more will Quebec law favor “les Quebecois” and alienate other minority groups?  Again, if Quebec secedes from Canada, the Cree will be faced with many more drastic changes and no federal government to intervene on their behalf.


Bangay, Jean. Big Bear:  The End of Freedom (BOOK REVIEW) Canadian           Geographic. April/May 1995. pp. 78-79

Braroe, Niels Winther. Indian and White:  Self-Image and Interaction in Canadian           Plains Community.  Stanford:  Stanford University, 1975

DeMaille, Raymond J. Big Bear:  The End of Freedom. (BOOK REVIEW) Ethnohistory. Vol. 34 Winter 87 pp. 108-110

Dempsey, Hugh A. Big Bear:  The End of Freedom.  Lincoln:  University of Nebraska     Press, 1984

Feit, Harvey A. “Hunting and the Quest for Power:  The James Bay Cree and Whitemen            in the 20th Century” Parts I-III, 1995[iv]  

Grand Council of the Crees.  Sovereign Injustice:  Forcible Inclusion of the James Bay Crees and Cree Territory into a Sovereign Quebec.  Nemaska:  October 1995

Horowitz, Donald L. Ethnic Groups in Conflict.  Berkeley:  University of California Press

Ignatieff, Michael. Blood and Belonging. New York:  Noonday Press, 1993

McDonnell, Roger F. “Justice for the Cree:  Research in progress in James Bay,”             Canadian Journal of Criminology.  Vol. 33 No. 2 pp171-174

Niezen, Ronald. “Power and dignity:  The social consequences of hydro-electric             development for the James Bay Cree,” The Canadian Review of Sociology and             Anthropology.  Vol. 30 No 4 November 1993, pp. 510-529

Richardson, Boyce. Strangers Devour the Land:  A chronicle of the assault upon the     last coherent hunting culture in North America, the Cree Indians of northern   Quebec, and their vast primeval homelands.  New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.            1976

Salisbury, Richard F. A Homeland for the Cree:  Regional Development in James Bay   1971-1981.  Montreal:  McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1986

Sharrock, Floyd W. and Susan R. “A History of the Cree Indian Territorial Expansion      from the Hudson Bay Area to the Interior Saskatchewan and Missouri Plains,”         Chippewa Indians VI.  New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 1974

Story, Norah.  The Oxford Companion to Canadian History and Literature.  Toronto:        Oxford University Press (Canadian Branch), 1967.

Taylor, Charles. Multiculturalism and “The Politics of Recognition”.  Princeton:     Princeton University Press, 1992

Thouez, J. P. et al. “The Other Face of Development:  Native Population, Health Status and Indicators of Malnutrition–The Case of the Cree and Inuit of Northern        Quebec,” Social Science and Medicine.  Vol. 29 No. 8 pp. 965-974

Waldram, James B. “Hydroelectric Development and Dietary Delocalization in Northern             Manitoba, Canada.” Human Organization.  Vol. 44 No. 1 Spring 1995 pp. 41-49


[i]In 1971, there were six thousand Cree in northern Quebec. (Salisbury, 1986)  In 1981, there were 7251 Cree in this area.  The native population in northern Quebec was approximately 13,000. (Thouez et al, 1989)  In 1995, the Cree were approximately 12,000 people who hunted approximately 375,000 square kilometers of land. (Feit, 1995)  While this essay specifically deals with the Cree of the James Bay area, it could easily include the many other native populations.  The James Bay Cree have the most structured bureaucracies, court activity and documentation.  They are an excellent example of organization in the face of opposition.

[ii]This is actually my personal interpretation of Cree sentiments.  The Cree do feel that they would lose a significant voice within an independent Quebec.

[iii]See attached maps.

[iv]This article originally appeared  as a chapter in Native Peoples:  The Canadian Experience. 2nd Edition 1995


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