Quebec’s unique Aboriginal landscape

Social licence negotiated project by project

By Alain Castonguay

Former Premier Jean Charest and Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador Chief Ghislain Picard | Courtesy of the Assembly of First Nations of ­Quebec and Labrador

The election of Pauline Marois’ Parti Québécois government over Jean Charest’s Liberals last September 4 was surely good news for Ghislain Picard, regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations for Quebec and Labrador (AFNQL). In a letter to the press in late August, he expressed disappointment with the former government. According to Picard, more than 20 years after the Oka crisis, “the Charest government had learned nothing,” even though that government had just ratified a new agreement with the Grand Council of the Crees.

Not long after Charest was elected in 2003, the AFNQL succeeded in persuading the government to discuss establishing a permanent mechanism for debating issues related to lands and resources. “We managed to get off the ground, but we never found the landing strip,” wrote Picard. In fairly short order, he noted that the AFNQL ran up against a brick wall and found itself engaged in a futile dialogue, where neither party was truly listening to the concerns of the other. It became apparent that “Jean Charest was not prepared to talk about land unless it was on his terms.” Subsequent to these talks, the government went back to negotiating with each First Nation individually.

Picard’s letter said that First Nations felt exasperated and were finding it increasingly difficult to resist adopting a more radical approach for advancing their claims. “Naïveté and willingness to negotiate gave way to a heightened vigilance and a sense that our patience was being severely tested,” he wrote. “You can thank your premier for the backpedalling you have seen from our previously held position of generous good faith.”

Seeking a summit

The AFNQL took part in the 2012 summit of the Atikamekw Nations, held August 28 and 29 in Wemotaci, where the First Nations expressed hope to see the next government commit to holding a summit on lands and resources within 30 days of election. It is unknown how willing the Marois gov­ern­ment is to engage, but it is important to mention that the Fédération des chambres de commerce du Québec hosted a debate on natural resources on August 23, where candidates from all parties discussed various issues, namely land use, mining royalties, Plan Nord, and fossil fuels in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and in Anticosti. In the 90 minutes of debate, the First Nations presence in the affected territory was never mentioned; the word “Aboriginal” was not said even once.

The Atikamekw of Wemotaci, the Manawan and the Opitciwan blockaded forest roads during the summer, and a crisis which threatened to boil over was avoided only by means of an Agreement in Principle ratified in the 11th hour on August 31. If this agreement is approved by the First Nations communities, the Quebec government and the Atikamekw nation will be able to negotiate a final accord, along with the conditions for implementation of the agreement.

According to Luc Bouthillier, professor of forest policy at Université Laval, the Atikamekw are undeniably the most conciliatory of all First Nations. It is about time, he says, that real negotiations be undertaken.

The Cree Nation of Mistissini

In northern Quebec, workers have been busy extending route 167 to the Otish Mountains in recent months. This road is being built to accomodate Stornoway Diamonds, which plans to mine a diamond deposit in the region, with operations slated to begin in 2015.

The Cree Nation of Mistissini is contributing to the extension of route 167; it signed the Mecheshoo Agreement with Stornoway Diamonds on March 27, 2012. The agreement will guide all stages leading up to the operation of the mine. The Cree also approved the project’s social and environmental impact study.

The extension of route 167 will also provide access to Strateco Resources’ Matoush project. Strateco plans to mine uranium underground in the environs of the Otish Mountains, about 275 kilometres north of Chibougamau. On December 22, 2011, Strateco announced that it had reached an “agreement of information and communication” with the Mistissini Cree.

But the Mistissini Cree are now opposing the uranium-mining project. Last June 5, at public hearings held by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, Richard Shecapio, chief of the Mistissini, submitted a peremptory plea to stop the project. He also asked for the declaration of a permanent moratorium on uranium-mining projects on the lands of his community.

Translated by Mark Stout

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