A young, breastfeeding mother of seven is now one week deep into a hunger strike in the northern Quebec Cree community of Chisasibi, over a multi-billion dollar development agreement and what she says was a lack of consultation by Cree leaders.
The $4.7 billion Grande Alliance agreement was signed in February by Quebec Premier François Legault and current Cree Grand Chief Abel Bosum.
At the time, the memorandum of understanding was called the Cree vision of development and includes a deep sea port, 700 kilometres of new railway, hundreds of kilometres of new road, new power lines and the creation of a network of protected areas, among other projects to be built in three stages over the next 30 years.
Last Wednesday, Heather House posted an open letter to social media addressed to Cree leadership, the premier of Quebec and several provincial ministers. In the letter, the 32-year old said Cree leadership should have done more consultation before signing.
I say ‘no’ to the agreement.– Heather House, Chisasibi resident
“I say ‘no’ to the agreement already signed. Have it terminated and revoked on the grounds of no consultation, on the grounds that there was no informed consent from the people of Eeyou Istchee,” wrote House in a Facebook message.
That same day, House escalated her protest and began a hunger strike, taking in only fish, fowl or caribou broth.
House said she launched the hunger strike to show she is serious in her opposition to the Grande Alliance agreement, which she wants changed. She also said she wants no more mining projects in Eeyou Istchee.
“The money will run out. The lithium will run out … cobalt … graphite … it will run out,” said House, adding many Cree people, like her, don’t understand what is in the agreement and are concerned about the impacts of more development.
Community chiefs consulted
According to the Cree Nation Government website, the Grande Alliance agreement was the result of a “patient consultative process” with the Cree communities. The majority of the Cree community chiefs were on hand for the signing of the agreement with premier Legault in February.
In an email response to CBC, a Cree Nation government representative said COVID-19 has severely impacted their ability to meet with community members to explain the agreement and establish regular channels of communication. Cree leaders are planning a community meeting in Chisasibi this Friday.
The email also said that the Grande Alliance is a chance for Cree people to be in the drivers seat of development, rather than the old model of reacting to projects and being “offered only leftovers”.
All of the infrastructure projects proposed in the Grande Alliance are tied to the creation of a network of community-selected protected areas, the email said.
“The exploration of this idea will take many meetings and many discussions from the kitchen table to the boardroom before any actual project is identified,” said the email.
Cree leaders have also said the communities will be consulted on the individual projects and each project will be subject to a full environmental review, something that doesn’t reassure House.
We have every right to… to protect our land because this is all we have left.– Heather House, Chisasibi resident
“History has shown us … that even with the environmental assessments, they always find loopholes that deceive us,” said House.
Since House shared her open letter on Facebook, it has been shared more than 500 times. She said she has received a lot of the support from Cree people, but understands there are many Cree who support the agreement.
“That’s your thought … and you have every right to it. But we have every right to feel the need to protect our land because this is all we have left,” said House.
Until she’s been heard
House said one supporter of the agreement told her “not to bite the hands that feed her”.
Her four-month old baby is not yet on solids and will not take formula.
House said she is not worried for the moment about the health of her baby because she is drinking a very nutritious caribou marrow broth.
“Our ancestors survived on this kind of nourishment, and sometimes way less,” said House, adding she may start to worry if her hunger strike drags on.
House also said she will continue until she feels she has been heard by Cree leaders. She said she is hoping to speak directly to Cree Grand Chief Abel Bosum.
“He’s had my phone number since day two of my hunger strike,” said House.