Coon Come Fights Separatists

When he was still a young McGill University undergraduate, Matthew Coon Come approached his father with a request.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on February 27, 1995

Coon Come Fights Separatists

When he was still a young McGill University undergraduate, Matthew Coon Come approached his father with a request. He asked to be taught about the land of his ancestors, the vast wilderness of lake-strewn forest in northern Quebec that the Cree have roamed ever since the glaciers retreated millennia ago. "I was a typical college kid," he says, recalling how he had arrived in the bush armed with a detailed topographical map of the area he and his father, Alfred, were about to explore. "The first thing my Dad did was tear that map into tiny little pieces," Coon Come continues. "He said I was committing the white man's mistake, making plans for the land without ever setting foot on it, without ever getting a feel for it." Close to two decades later, few would dare to level that particular charge. Now 38, Coon Come is grand chief of the Grand Council of the Cree of Quebec, in effect, the principal political leader of the province's 12,000-member Cree nation. It is an elected position and, despite his relative youth, Coon Come has managed to hold onto the post for the past eight years largely as a result of an ability to articulate the Cree's deeply felt but often poorly voiced concerns about the fate of their ancestral lands. He was drawn into politics in the first place to combat the threat to the land posed by the Quebec government's scheme to harness the hydroelectric power of the rivers that course through the heart of Cree territory around James Bay. As grand chief, he led his people in fighting the Quebec authorities to a standstill over the second stage of the James Bay project, the power development along the Great Whale River. And he is in the midst of marshalling his forces for another, even more critical battle over the Cree lands, one that places him squarely in the path of the Quebec separatists' ambition to lead the province to independence.

In Coon Come, the separatists face a formidable adversary. The previous Liberal government found that out during the long and bitter feud over Great Whale. And the current Parti Québécois government is discovering the same as it sets out in pursuit of independence. The Cree leader has made it clear that he wants no part of the Péquiste adventure. And he has signalled his intention to play a key role in building a coalition of native forces, encompassing all 11 of Quebec's aboriginal nations, to fight Premier Jacques Parizeau's program. "The process that is now in place is a basic denial of aboriginal rights," he declares. "If Quebecers want to paddle away, that's their business. But it's our business to decide whether we want to jump in the canoe with them - or remain behind on dry land."

The remark is typical of Coon Come's style. He tosses it off casually during a long talk in the modest offices the Cree Grand Council maintains in a two-storey building on the unfashionable edge of Ottawa's downtown core. The imagery might seem a little contrived coming from almost anybody else, particularly a native politician. But Coon Come manages to get away with it, largely because he radiates authenticity. On this occasion, he is dressed for the part in boots, blue jeans and ski jacket. But it is more than a surface appearance. He is lean and trim, a karate black belt, as spare as the land that shaped him. "I've always been very aware of my identity, who I was and where I came from," he says. "I've never suffered from any of those ills that afflict what we like to call the urban Indians."

Coon Come's roots lie among the Cree who have hunted around the shores of Lake Mistassini, 900 km north of Montreal, for untold generations. Only the family name is new, a product of the not-very-fertile imagination of a bureaucrat from the federal Indian Affairs department who paid a visit to the area just after the Second World War. He found five brothers, all requiring a last name in order to fulfil some long-forgotten federal regulation. The bureaucrat decided to tag each with a variation of the Cree word for snow, which is "coon." The future Cree leader's grandfather, the youngest of those brothers, was labelled Coon Come.

Matthew was born on April 13, 1956, in a tent on his father's trapline 30 km outside of what was then a seasonal Cree encampment beside Lake Mistassini. It has since blossomed into a more or less permanent town, equipped with roads, sewers and a host of modern amenities. But it remains at bottom a traditional Cree community, home to a shifting population of 3,000 who spend a good part of the year hunting, fishing and trapping in the bush. Coon Come's father, now 59, still works the family trapline, living off the land for six or seven months every year. His 99-year-old grandfather, the first Coon Come, attempts to do the same whenever age and infirmity permit. And Matthew himself returns at every opportunity to the log cabin he built in the bush several years ago, largely to make sure that his own children know how to "walk on the land." The place is so isolated that his grandmother had never seen a white man when she died in 1976, at the age of 94, because the road from the world outside did not reach Mistassini until 1978. Young Matthew himself did not see his first white until he was six years old. "That's when the agent from Indian Affairs arrived by float plane to remind my father that it was time to send me off to residential school," he remembers. "The agent brought along a Mountie to make sure that my father understood he had to comply."

Like legions of native children across Canada, Coon Come was separated from his family at a tender age. "I cried every night for the first three months," he says, recalling his first taste of residential school in Moose Factory on the shores of James Bay. Except for trips home during vacation, he remained in church-run residential schools for a decade in Moose Factory, then farther south in the Quebec mill town of La Tuque and finally in Hull, where he graduated from high school at the age of 16. Two events occurred while Coon Come was in Hull that were destined to have a decisive impact of his life. In high school, he met Maryann, the Mistassini Cree woman who would eventually become his wife and the mother of his two sons and three daughters, aged 4 to 17. And it was also in Hull that he first caught a glimpse of his political future. "I picked up a Montreal newspaper that had a map of what was then the new James Bay power project," he recalls. "I was stunned to see that my home, the place where I had played as a child, was going to be submerged under a gigantic lake."

The incident kindled a dawning political awareness in Coon Come, setting him on the path that would eventually propel him to the leadership of Quebec's Cree. It led first to two years at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., studying political science, then on to McGill, where he hoped to enter law school. "I wanted to be the best damn Indian lawyer there ever was," he says, black eyes glinting behind his steel-framed glasses. Fate intervened once more, however, in the shape of a delegation of Cree elders from Mistassini, who arrived in Montreal with an invitation to return home to run for election as the band's deputy chief. He took up the offer and easily won in his first race for public office. He was 21 years old. By the time he was 24, he was chief of the Mistassini Cree, a post he held for five successive years. Then, in 1987, he was elected grand chief of the entire Cree nation in Quebec.

Like any career politician, Coon Come is not without critics. He frankly baffles the PQ government's chief native affairs spokesman, David Cliche. "He's a hard man to understand," complains Cliche. "I have good relations with other native chiefs. I even have fun with some of them. But not with Coon Come. He never lightens up. He always keeps his distance."

There are critical voices as well in the Cree community, particularly among the previous generation of Cree leaders who negotiated and signed the Northern Quebec and James Bay Agreement. Abel Kitchen, the former chief at Waswanipi, and Robert Kanatawak, who was chief at Chisasibi, have publicly castigated Coon Come for harming development in the Cree territories by continually working to undermine the James Bay convention. Kitchen and Kanatawak have joined others who have raised questions about Coon Come's concentration on major issues at the expense of more local concerns. And they have used as evidence Coon Come's decision to establish a more or less permanent residence - and his family - in Hull rather than in the Cree lands.

Nonetheless, most of the Cree seem quite happy with Coon Come's leadership. "The vast majority of Cree like him," says Matthew Muckash, chief of the northernmost Cree band, at Whapmagoostui on Hudson Bay. "He's a dynamic leader and he's done a good job." Muckash points out that the issue of economic development was discussed recently at a special assembly of the Cree, where Coon Come's general approach was endorsed. And he adds that it is virtually impossible for the grand chief to live in the region because "so much of the job involves dealing with government and travel." And, in any case, it's not likely to be an issue for much longer in that Coon Come's lease on his rented home in Hull is about to expire, after which he plans to move his family back to Mistassini.

Coon Come's political career has revolved around a single, overarching mission. Throughout it all, he has been devoted to fending off attempts by resource-hungry outsiders to wrest the ancestral Cree lands from native control. "Our land is our memory," he says. "That's why it's so important to us. Almost every tree out there has a name, almost every rock. Something happened here, something happened there, somebody killed his first moose at that mountain. We know where the bear dens are, the moose yards, the beaver, the otter, the mink. Everything has a story and these are the stories that sustain us. It's why we feel attached to the land, why there's a special relationship with it."

It is that special relationship that is about to collide with the separatists' dream of independence. The Cree lay claim to a huge chunk of Quebec territory, more than 150,000 square miles of land that stretches in a wide belt right across the centre of the province from James Bay to the Labrador border - almost three times the area of the three Maritime provinces combined. Other than the Cree, few people inhabit this wildness. The PQ government is ready to grant the Cree, along with the other 10 aboriginal nations in the province, a measure of self-government in the territories they inhabit as well as a share in the proceeds that may come from any exploitation of the region's vast natural resources. But there is a catch. The draft bill on sovereignty that Parizeau unveiled in early December makes it clear that all deals with the natives are contingent upon their recognizing the province's "territorial integrity." In short, there can be no changes in Quebec's existing borders - a position that the province's Liberals also support.

That is simply not good enough for Coon Come. "Quebec secession is a major threat to our status and our rights," he maintains. He argues that Parizeau's draft bill amounts to a "unilateral" abrogation of aboriginal rights as defined under the Canadian Constitution as well as in numerous previous treaties and agreements, in particular the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, which the Cree signed in 1975 as part of the deal that allowed the first stage of the James Bay power project, along the La Grande River, to proceed. In that agreement, the Cree renounced all future land claims. Their rights to their ancestral homelands were, in the language of the agreement, "extinguished."

True enough, says Coon Come. But the deal was signed under duress, he argues. What is more, the entire concept of permanently extinguishing native rights is, according to the Cree leader, "an outdated remnant of the colonial era." He labels the policy as blatantly "racist," a charge he has levelled before, most notably last fall in Washington when he sparked an uproar back home in Quebec by appealing to the Americans for help in protecting Cree rights. Deputy Premier Bernard Landry demanded the recall of Canadian ambassador Raymond Chrétien for failing to upbraid Coon Come and even dropped dark hints, which he later withdrew, about the possibility of laying criminal charges.

Land rights aside, the James Bay agreement clearly states that none of the terms can be changed without the consent of all three signatories - the federal and Quebec governments as well as the Cree. "As bad as it is, we signed the agreement in the context of Quebec remaining in perpetuity a member of the Canadian federation," says Coon Come. "They have no right to unilaterally change the terms now to suit their own purposes."

He is equally dismissive of some of the other promises contained in the PQ government's independence program. He has no argument with Parizeau's offer to share natural resource revenues but, noting that natural resources are already under provincial jurisdiction, he wonders why that must wait for independence. By the same token, the pledge to recognize native cultural rights along with those of other minorities does not wash with the Cree for the simple reason that, says Coon Come, "native peoples are not in the same class as other minorities" because aboriginal rights are constitutionally guaranteed. "Greeks and Italians don't sign treaties," he remarks. "We are, in almost every sense of the term a nation, and we insist that our relations with Quebec be on a nation-to-nation basis."

As for Quebec's insistence on the sacred inviolability of its borders, the Cree leader responds with scornful laugh. "When I hear talk of Quebec's territorial integrity, I can't help but recall the history of this place," he says, going on to list the multitude of times Cree territory has changed owners since England's King Charles ii first claimed possession of it in the 17th century. Another English monarch, Queen Victoria, gave it to Canada two centuries later. The Canadian authorities have carved it up three times in the past 100 years. "Not once," Coon Come remarks, "did anybody ask us, the people who lived there, what we felt about it."

Although Coon Come admits that he and his people are more comfortable in a federal state like Canada, where there are checks on the central power, he denies suggestions that his outspoken opposition to Parizeau's program is motivated by patriotic sentiment for Canada - or that he is acting, in effect, as an agent of the federalist cause in Quebec. "I'm not in the federal camp," he says, "and neither am I in the separatist camp. I'm in the Cree camp. I'm here to protect the rights and interests of my people no matter what happens in Quebec." He is, however, irked by what he calls the "persistent double standard" adopted by Parizeau's government. "They tell us they have the right to self-determination - but we don't," he complains. "They have the right to hold referendums - but we can't. They have the right to go to Washington to make their case - but we can't."

At bottom, Coon Come simply does not believe Quebec has a case to justify secession. "One can only secede if there are gross violations of fundamental human rights," he argues. "Can Quebec claim that? I doubt it. Even the Cree would have a hard time making that point in any court of law that I'm acquainted with." If however, Quebec were to forcefully take the Cree and their territory out of Canada, then the picture changes. "Would that not be a gross violation of our fundamental rights and freedoms?" he asks.

To that end, Coon Come has embarked on a campaign to battle the separatists. He has been working assiduously for the past several months with like-minded native leaders in Quebec. Outside the province, Coon Come and his staff have renewed the international contacts they made during the battle over the James Bay power project in an effort to line up support for the Cree position in the United States and at the United Nations - notably environmental activist Robert Kennedy Jr. As for the Cree inside Quebec, they will take no part in Parizeau's planned referendum; instead, they will hold their own referendum to decide on a course of action should the rest of Quebec vote in favor of secession. Coon Come acknowledges that it is a scenario fraught with peril, particularly if his people vote to stay in Canada while the francophone majority chooses to go the other way. "That certainly would be an interesting situation," he muses. "I guess it would be up to the federal government to choose a response." He refuses to speculate on the nature of that response. But he does add, with a quiet smile, "Of course, we'll be here to remind the federal government of their own laws and their own responsibilities."

If Coon Come is worried about the future, he betrays no sign of it. He gives every appearance, in fact, of someone who has come to terms with himself. That may be partly the result of an uncertain heart. Though still relatively young, he has nevertheless already suffered two heart attacks, a minor one when he was 18 and a more serious one, requiring hospitalization, a decade later. "I have a congenital heart defect," he explains. "I don't think about it most of the time and I certainly don't worry about it, but I can't deny that it's there." He does not deny, either, that it has also lent a certain urgency to his efforts to protect the Cree lands that sustain him and have sustained his people for so long. "Everything flows from the land," he says. "As long as we have it, the Cree will survive - no matter what happens in Quebec." On that point, at least, Coon Come is probably correct. He can point to more than 5,000 years of history as proof.

Maclean's February 27, 1995

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