By Patrick Quinn
Journalist of the Local Journalism Initiative
The Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador is launching an Office of Self-Determination and Self-Government to share research, legislative materials and training to help First Nations implement their own laws. The office will conduct studies, gather expertise and develop a “media watch” on issues related to self-determination.
“It is also a demonstration that we will stand up to colonial governments who would prefer to see us remain quiet and silent,” said AFNQL Chief Ghislain Picard during the April 28 announcement. “On the whole issue of consultation, Quebec is failing miserably.
The initiative follows a two-day meeting of AFNQL Chiefs, who agreed that government consultations on a range of issues were inadequate. Although Quebec unanimously adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2019, Picard believes that Premier François Legault is not living up to this commitment.
“On the one hand, they say they support this notion of a nation-to-nation relationship, and on the other hand, they act completely opposite to that very notion,” Picard asserted. “I would even go so far as to say that they perhaps understand too well what this entails and that is why we see so much of a dropout from them.
Relations between Quebec and the AFNQL deteriorated after the Great Economic Circle of Indigenous Peoples and Quebec in November, during which Legault made a brief appearance but did not interact with the chiefs.
The AFNQL chiefs then sent a letter to Legault insisting that projects impacting their territories could only proceed with the consent of the community. The Prime Minister did not respond.
“Exercising this right to self-determination is not an action against Quebecers and Canadians,” explained Picard. “This is a legitimate assumption of our responsibilities. The assertion of our rights will be a powerful lever to ensure respect for our principles and rights to the territory, but also for the preservation of our languages, our cultures and the improvement of our socio-economic conditions.
Kahnawake Chief Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer called the establishment of the office a “very timely and empowering” example of the “Indigenous resurgence” that is developing across Canada. She pointed out that when people cross traditional Indigenous territories, they need to understand that there are particular laws that must be followed.
“Historically, we’ve been legislated, considered subordinate or not equal and that era is coming to an end,” Sky-Deer said. “We need to get past structures like the Indian Act and other colonial laws that affect our people.
The Indian Act delegated extensive powers to provincial governments, which exercised them unevenly. Changes to the law removed some discriminatory aspects and granted greater autonomy to Aboriginal people. But governance structures can vary considerably even within a province.
In 1984, the Cree-Naskapi Act became the first Aboriginal self-government legislation in Canada. It replaced the Indian Act and established these Indigenous communities as corporate entities. This law transferred to the Cree Nation Governance Agreement in 2017, creating the Cree Constitution and completely removing federal oversight over Category 1A lands.
Former Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come believed this agreement stayed true to the Cree vision of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, with the treaty signifying emancipation from the Indian Act and the means to self-government. . This led to the first Cree law, the Cree Language Act, and other steps towards self-determination.
The Mistissini governance project will create five laws intended to revitalize Cree legal principles and traditions. Consultations with community members will inform laws related to governance, hunting, development, Lake Mistissini and community constitution.
“The Cree Nation of Mistissini is working to craft fundamental laws that will capture in writing the heart of our Cree worldview _ our relationships with each other, with our lands and our waters,” said Chief Thomas Neeposh. “These laws will establish Cree traditional knowledge and authority in the form of legislation clearly describing how our Iinou Iidouwun, our laws and legal systems, values, principles and practices apply today.
The Cree Nation is developing ways to advance self-determination, most recently the Cree-Naskapi-Inuit Permanent Forum, a model for other First Nations. In its opposition to Bill 96, the Legault government’s controversial extension of French-language legislation, the AFNQL proposed, among other measures, to implement the same language of instruction principles applied to Cree and Inuit students.
On May 10, the AFNQL demanded nothing less than a total and resolute exemption from Bill 96 for First Nations members. This happened after repeated attempts to offer accommodations to make the law more reconcilable with inherent and constitutionally protected Indigenous rights were ignored or outright rejected.
“Even when we play by their rules, we become the victims because none of that is acknowledged,” Picard said. “We are no longer at the time of negotiations and settlements. We affirm clearly and with one voice today our absolute refusal to submit to Law 96 and to all other laws infringing on our rights.
patrick quinn is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works for THE NATION. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada. Turtle Island News does not receive funding from the LJI government.
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