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December 21, 2023
November 15 marked the 50th anniversary of the Malouf decision, which recognized existing Cree and Inuit rights in northern Quebec. It was the first explicit judicial recognition of Indigenous rights in Canadian history. Quebec Superior Court Judge Albert Malouf’s ruling in Chief Robert Kanatewat et al. versus James Bay Development Corporation et al. granted an injunction to stop work on the James Bay hydroelectric project, which eventually led to the James Bay Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA).
After learning of Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa’s “project of the century” in 1971, Cree leadership met with the Indians of Quebec Association, who supported their battle as a focal point for all Indigenous rights. Billy Diamond, Philip Awashish, Peter Gull and other young leaders asked Chiefs and tallymen throughout Eeyou Istchee to testify in court proceedings.
Before deciding whether to go to court, a last meeting was held in October 1972 between Bourassa and Billy’s father, Malcolm Diamond. When Bourassa abruptly left without waiting for a translation, Malcolm Diamond told his son to “use the white man’s law to stop this hydro project” – and lawyer James O’Reilly was instructed to take the case to court.
“I left a large firm because I believed in the fight for the Crees,” O’Reilly told the Nation. “The issue was a fight for survival – the Cree people could not conceive of how they could continue with their way of life.”