James Bay governing schemes leave natives uneasy

by Daniel McCabe

It was supposed to serve as a model for the whole country. The co-management structures established under the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement were going to foster a new relationship between the provincial government and native communities in the region. The two sides would work together on questions concerning the use of land and resources. There's just one problem, according to anthropology professor Colin Scott. It isn't working.

Scott leads a research project analyzing the effectiveness of the co-management model in northern Quebec. He's also the head of a multidisciplinary research program called AGREE which involves scholars at McGill and several other universities. Scott says he's hoping that AGREE succeeds where the co-management system is failing--in kindling a respectful dialogue with native communities.

"We want to do practical policy-oriented research," says Scott. "We also want to forge partnerships with these communities--a dialogue between the agendas of university-based researchers and the problems of the aboriginal groups involved in the research." Natives wouldn't just be the subject of studies, they would have access to the research results and their concerns and interests would help shape the direction in which the research would go. AGREE involves scholars from anthropology, geography and law, and the universities participating include Concordia, York, McMaster, Memorial and Laval. Universities from Australia and Germany have also taken part in AGREE.

One of AGREE's projects is Scott's study of the co-management system in northern Quebec. "In some ways, it's a relative success," says Scott. "There is a good balance between representatives from the government and from the native community. In that regard, it's a better situation than many aboriginals have experienced in the past."

But in examining the system's actual authority, Scott concluded that important decisions in the region--even in jurisdictions that are supposed to be shared--still tend to be made by the provincial government. "Unfortunately, it often just looks like lip service. To have co-management in the full sense requires equal partners whose perspectives and interests are equally represented. That really hasn't been the outcome."

He believes, for example, that the government and the Cree viewed the James Bay agreement in very different ways--Quebec City saw it as a legalistic framework outlining the limits of its power in the area, while the Cree believed it marked a new partnership with the government. Scott accuses provincial authorities of bowing to the lobbying efforts of logging companies and non-native hunters and fishermen who wanted increased access to the region. The Cree believed that their control over their own territory was being eroded.

Another problem is that while the government promised to support economic development for native communities in the area, "it didn't commit itself to dollar figures or to specific projects." In Scott's view, the government has "violated the spirit, and even the letter of the agreement."

So what can be done? "The province is probably quite happy with the way things are, so it becomes a game of political action," says Scott. Given the success of the Cree in derailing the province's Great Whale hydroelectric plans, Scott thinks Quebec would be foolish to underestimate the region's natives.

He also believes the government has been blind to the advantages of making the system work. "In terms of resource management, for instance, there have been a number of cases (in North America) where the scientific wildlife managers blew it. The aboriginal communities, who had close contact with the resources on a daily basis, were actually more accurate in predicting what was going to happen. When you bring the different types of expertise together, it usually works to everyone's advantage."

People often think that self government is about a totally separate native administration. Not so, says law professor Jeremy Webber, who worked on the co-management study with Scott. "Self-government isn't about aboriginal people going off and doing things totally on their own. Complete autonomy is rarely an option and even when it is, we have to be careful about how it's defined."

Webber supervises the work of several graduate students affiliated with AGREE who are examining issues relating to native self-government. One of those students, Susan Drummond, did her master's thesis on Inuit justice systems. According to Webber, Drummond found that "a native justice system, to be responsive to the range of opinion in a community, has to be carefully designed. Aboriginal women can be very vulnerable, for instance. Imposing a system from the South with little regard for native culture is insensitive. And constructing a system with an overly naive conception of how problems can be solved is just as bad.

"We often fall back on very simplistic definitions of culture," says Webber. "We assume native culture is still rooted in exactly the same sets of historical beliefs that existed before contact with Europeans, and we think that notion of culture should be preserved, as if it were a museum piece. Aboriginals are struggling with what it means to be native today, not with what it was like in the 13th century. That kind of thinking avoids all the tough issues--how do we create new institutions that maintain a real link with natives' distinct traditions, while permitting interactions with the broader Canadian realities?"