Benjamin Shingler

The growing push by Canada’s First Nations for sovereignty

The Atikamekw are the latest to declare sovereignty over their ancestral territory in a bid to control resources

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.

The Atikamekw Nation has declared the land outlined in red, called Nitaskinan, as sovereign territory. The small yellow spots indicate the land currently allotted to them by Quebec.
Council of the Atikamekw Nation

And in the past three years, mining companies have increased exploration on their ancestral land. While no mines have been authorized yet, the Atikamekw say any development should require their approval.

“We feel the government is not taking us seriously. There is a lot of development on our land,” Awashish said in an interview at tribe leaders’ offices in La Tuque, Quebec, a mill town where the thick smell of pulped wood hangs in the air.

The goal isn’t to stop all resource development, he said, but to have more control and better environmental protections and ensure the Atikamekw Nation benefits financially.

Awashish admits the declaration of sovereignty was largely symbolic. But like other First Nations across Canada, Atikamekw leaders are more optimistic about expanding their land rights after a landmark Supreme Court of Canada decision this summer recognizing the ancestral rights of the Tsilhqot’in Nation.

The top court found that the Tsilhqot’in, a tribe of 3,000 in the remote interior of British Columbia, had rights over a swath of land historically used for hunting and fishing that was sought after for commercial logging.

The Tsilhqot’in ruling gives ammunition to indigenous communities across the country that want greater control over their traditional lands — though the Supreme Court also recognized the government’s right to intervene in the public interest.

Like many First Nations in Canada, the Tsilhqot’in and Atikamekw never signed a treaty with the government. Some tribes signed agreements as early as 1703, while others, like the Atikamekw, have been seeking a modern land claim settlement for decades.

A truck carrying lumber drives through an area the Atikamekw Nation has declared its sovereign land.
Benjamin Shingler

Some First Nations say the treaties they agreed to didn't adequately compensate them and want them amended, but the Supreme Court decision stands to have the greatest effect on First Nations that never signed away their land rights in a treaty with the government. Many of those groups have been mired in land rights negotiations for years, said Ghislain Picard, interim head of the Assembly of First Nations.

He believes the ruling could put pressure on governments to finally negotiate land claim settlements.

“It’s significant in terms of provincial jurisdictions and how they deal with land claims,” Picard said. “I would say it’s major in terms of its meaning, but obviously where it stops is, How will the government change its way of doing things?”

In New Brunswick, the Elsipogtog First Nation is aiming to use the ruling to strengthen its case against shale gas extraction on its traditional land, in an area that was never ceded to Canada through a land treaty.

And in British Columbia, where the majority of First Nations are without treaties, indigenous leaders recently met with the local government to discuss how to move forward after the court decision.

The province’s premier, Christy Clark, told First Nations leaders at the meeting that her government wants “partnerships” to emerge from negotiations. “Going to court for 30 years cannot be the answer,” she said.

Outside British Columbia, the ruling may have the greatest significance in Quebec, where only one First Nation has signed a land treaty with the government and others have been in talks with the province for years.

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.

Constant Awashish, grand chief of the Atikamekw First Nation, at his office in La Tuque.
Benjamin Shingler

Awashish, who took office earlier this month, didn’t rule out similar protests in the future.

The 33-year-old, armed with a law degree from the University of Ottawa, said there’s a sense of growing impatience among Atikamekw youth. About half the population is under 35, he said.

The Quebec government tried to downplay the Atikamekw’s declaration of sovereignty, with Premier Philippe Couillard telling reporters the First Nation stressed the importance of collaboration.

“If you look at the text of their declaration, they require a lot of co-management, collaboration, consultation — and that’s what we want to do anyway,” he said.

Another Atikamekw leader, Christian Awashish, chief of the Atikamekw’s remote Opitciwan community, likened the government’s position to a “wall of indifference.”

For now, Awashish is hopeful the sovereignty declaration will spur another round of talks with Quebec’s new Liberal government, elected in the spring.

“We’ve been negotiating with the province for 35 years, and we keep hitting dead ends, and the population is getting frustrated,” Awashish said.

“In reality, we should already be sovereign … We’re not here to make war. We’re a peaceful people, but we want to be heard.”

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