A historical step has been taken for Indigenous people. Last September, the Council of the Atikamekw Nation unilaterally proclaimed its sovereignty over a territory of 80,000 km2 in the valley of the Saint-Maurice River in Quebec. Motivated by the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision to affirm a First Nation’s title to its ancestral territory, the Council of the Atikamekw Nation now intends to use its right of veto over the massive exploitation of forestry resources.
“We, Atikamekw Nehirowisiw, maintain our sovereignty over Nitaskinan, the ancestral territory handed down by our ancestors since time immemorial.” The first lines of the declaration, addressed to Philippe Couillard’s provincial government, are unequivocal. The Atikamekw Nation, which represents close to 6,700 people spread over three reserves — Opitciwan, Wemotaci and Manawan — occupies a vast territory of 80,000 km2, the Nitaskinan, which straddles the regions of Abitibi, Lac-Saint-Jean, Haute-Mauricie and Lanaudière.
The Manawan reserve
For over 30 years the Atikamekw have demanded respect of their ancestral title to a territory that was never ceded to the Crown, and they say they are more determined than ever to enforce the principle of free, prior and informed consent when it comes to exploitation of their natural resources by promoting cooperative management with Canadian enterprises.
The hope raised by last June’s Supreme Court of Canada decision in favour of the Tsilhqot’in has reinforced the Atikamekw’s will to enforce their territorial rights over Nitaskinan.
However, the Quebec government seems not to hear.
An aggravated political crisis
“With this declaration of sovereignty, we want to take back possession and control of our territory, but we also want to tell the world that we exist, that we have rights and they need to be respected. We had stood by, thinking that things would change over time. Today, we do not want an envelope of cash to buy our silence anymore. We want to change the balance of power during negotiations,” asserts Christian Awashish, chief of the Opitciwan Atikamekw, calmly and firmly.
The Council of the Atikamekw Nation drives the point home, clarifying that “no forestry exploitation shall be tolerated any further without the approval of the community” and asking that the Forest Stewardship Council — the international body that grants environmental and social responsibility certifications to forestry companies — not renew the accreditation of Kruger, Gestion forestière Saint-Maurice, Produits forestiers Résolu, Barrette-Chapais and Chantier Chibougamau, all forestry companies operating on their territory.
Far from wanting to stir up community conflicts, the Atikamekw say they are ready to pave the way to new and fair relationships between all parties. Although they would prefer negotiations, the Atikamekw Council has stated they will not hesitate to repeat the 2012 blockades of forestry routes if their voices are not heard.
Nitaskinan: a major economic stake
Even though provincial governments carry the obligation to consult First Nations before authorizing any activity that may affect their rights, in reality this is far from being the case; logging operations continue to disfigure the landscape without the approval or the recognition of Indigenous populations.
For the Québec Forestry Industry Council, the situation requires the pursuit of legal proceedings, as questions around territorial governance involve a large number of economic players. In 2013, the estimated volume of wood logged on the territory was 4,000,000 m3, representing 25 per cent of the total amount of wood logged in Quebec. With a turnover of over $16 billion per year, representing several thousand jobs, the economic stake is real.
In an interview, André Tremblay, president of the Québec Forestry Industry Council, declared his willingness to pursue adapted solutions. “We are trying to understand the problems inherent in Indigenous demands. We are ready to make compromises, but we are only the wagon, not the engine,” he emphasized while insisting that this issue first and foremost depends on the governmental decision-making process.
In anticipation of the Forest Stewardship Council’s decision, the president of the Québec Forestry Industry Council stated he was willing to maintain good relationships with Indigenous people and recalled that in the past, accommodations similar to the Atikamekw’s demands had been made with the Cree during the James Bay negotiations. The National Aboriginal Economic Development Board in Gatineau should submit its report in 2015.
The Atikamekw’s rising frustration
Since 1979, the endless discussions and fruitless negotiations with the Quebec government have driven the Atikamekw to take concrete measures and to seek a clear position from the province on the issue of Indigenous territories.
The Atikamekw avoided colonization until 1900, but nevertheless have suffered serious harm in the context of colonial history, and current living conditions on the reserves are precarious. Some examples of the devastation wrought upon their territory for over a century include the construction of the railway in Haute-Mauricie, starting in 1908, which caused a violent fire and destroyed 25 per cent of the forest; the construction of the Gouin reservoir, which resulted in land flooding; and deforestation by large forestry companies.
The creation of reserves through the Indian Act and the policy of assimilation at residential schools, sites of significant violence, have also sown the seeds of many current social, economic and cultural issues.
Towards living together
Even if the Atikamekw’s declaration of sovereignty doesn’t find support in judicial law, it does have a recognized legitimacy via the Royal Proclamation of 1763. The latter recognized the political autonomy of Indigenous people and the right of title to non-ceded territories.
Although land claims haven’t always resulted in signed treaties that would lay a foundation for future and sustainable discussions, they seem to be well on their way to approval, according to Sophie Thériault, associate professor at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law and a specialist in Indigenous territories issues. She explains, “It is only a matter of time. This important debate has legitimacy through international rights. The Indigenous political cause has a bright future.”
Both parties would benefit from finding common ground. The forestry industry and the government could face a ban on engaging in any activity on the territory until the conflict has been resolved, and thus lose considerable amounts of money. As for the Atikamekw, even if legal proceedings continue in favour of First Nations people, the legal process remains tiresome, long and expensive.
Therefore, it is now about finding new ways to discuss issues of natural resource exploitation on Indigenous territories and fairly evaluating the redistribution of socio-economic benefits. It may be difficult, but it’s not impossible. History is on the move, with First Nations actively involved in reasserting their identity, their position and their right to exist in the Canadian socio-political landscape.
This article originally appeared in the French edition of Ricochet. It has been translated by Alexandra Chen.