LA TUQUE, Canada — For years, members of the Atikamekw First Nation have watched trucks rumble through their traditional territory, carrying out load after load of timber, only to see the profits slipped into others’ pockets. Recently, exploration companies have begun searching for rare metal and gold deposits on the land, a vast stretch of Canadian wilderness nearly the size of Maine. And like many First Nation tribes, the Atikamekw have had enough.
Atikamekw leaders declared sovereignty over the 31,000 square miles of boreal forest in north-central Quebec earlier this month in a bid to control the extraction of resources on their land. This week they issued another statement saying they won't allow forestry work to continue on their ancestral land without their approval. The moves came after a game-changing Supreme Court decision this summer that recognized the rights of a First Nation in British Columbia to its ancestral territory. Now many tribes are examining if and how they can exert more control over the land they claim as theirs.
Most of the Atikamekw-claimed territory is interrupted only by a scattering of small towns and gravel logging roads. The First Nation group, consisting of about 7,000 people living on three small isolated reserves, has been fighting for greater control over its traditional land for years.
The declaration of sovereignty came after years of watching with frustration as the Quebec provincial government made deals with forestry companies without Atikamekw consent, said Constant Awashish, its newly elected grand chief.
Forestry is the region’s main source of employment, and Atikamekw leaders acknowledge the importance of the industry and its potential as a job creator. But so far, Awashish said, the benefits for the Atikamekw have been few.
James O’Reilly, an aboriginal rights lawyer in the province, said the ruling represents “a significant step forward” and could give them leverage in any future discussions.
But a lot will depend on whether the provincial government is prepared to negotiate with First Nations like Atikamekw rather than stonewall them in court, he said.
“The government have the power, resources and time to drown out a case,” O'Reilly said. “If people think that because of this [Supreme Court ruling], the government will recognize indigenous rights, I think they’re mistaken.”
The governments of Quebec and British Columbia did not return requests for comment.
After nearly 50 years of working on aboriginal rights cases, O’Reilly said, he has grown skeptical of the government’s intentions. He believes the Atikamekw have a strong land rights case but said any court battle would be costly and take years.
“There will be all sorts of pressure on them, and they’re living in poverty, so we’ll see if they can hang on,” he said.
In the summer of 2012 the Atikamekw took a different approach to express their concern over deforestation on their traditional land: Members of the tribe blocked a railway line and logging roads.
One of the barriers was erected on a heavily trafficked gravel route between La Tuque and Wemotaci, the smallest of the three Atikamekw communities. The road sees a steady flow of trucks carrying timber from the forest to nearby mills.
The Atikamekw came close to reaching an agreement with the previous government last year on how to manage natural resources in partnership, but not everyone felt it was enough, and it was voted down. The grand chief at the time resigned.