The Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador (AFNQL) announced the establishment of an Office of Self-Determination and Self-Government at the end of a meeting in Montreal on Thursday.
“We’ve been legislated over, we’ve been looked at as underlings, or that we’re not equal. And those times are coming to an end,” said Grand Chief Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer of the Mohawk Council of Kahnawà:ke.
The format of the office has yet to be determined, but its purpose is to pool resources (including studies, research, legal efforts) and coordinate efforts — without undermining the authority of individual First Nations, said AFNQL Chief Ghislain Picard.
“Its purpose is to allow us to reunite all this and develop a tool kit that will serve our communities. This does not put into question the autonomy of these communities. That’s something that is already recognized and sacred in our functioning, but at the same time, it’s to bring additional support to communities that want to put their legislative capacities to work,” said Picard in French.
Further meetings will determine how the Office will function and its first actions, but Picard said their biggest challenge will be to make sure the office is able to respond to a broad range of issues within communities and on traditional territories.
“We deserve a process that is very inclusive, to really make sure everyone can contribute, especially those with experience, expertise, and knowledge,” he said.
It’s part of their overarching strategy for self-determination, which Picard said has been impeded by the lack of engagement from the Quebec government under Premier Francois Legault, despite the government’s ratification of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2019.
“To me, the government has not lived up to its own commitment. On the one hand they say they support this notion of nation-to-nation relationship, and on the other hand, they’re acting completely opposed to that very notion,” said Picard.
The creation of the office is a culmination of several attempts to get the attention of the Quebec government.
In November 2021, AFNQL hosted the Grand Economic Circle of Indigenous People and Quebec, which Legault briefly attended, but did not result in further meaningful discussions.
The chiefs also tried to go through government communications channels to get the CAQ government’s attention recently, to no avail.
The chiefs of the AFNQL sent a letter to Legault on Nov. 22 2021 reminding the government of their existing ancestral rights and titles, urging the Quebec government to obtain First Nations’ consent for projects that impact their territories, include them in vital decisions about land use and collaborate with First Nations on legislation.
When the AFNQL didn’t receive a response, it sent a follow up letter to Legault’s office on Jan. 20, 2022, decrying the government for failing to include the AFNQL (or any Indigenous groups) in the National Strategy on Urbanism and Land Planning summit held on Jan. 27.
They also published a press release on their exclusion from the summit.
When APTN News placed an access to information request for the dates of Nov. 22 2021-Jan.26 2022 regarding government response to the letters, the Access to Information employee could not find any pertinent communications discussing this subject – meaning the letters were not formally discussed or even acknowledged by Quebec’s executive council, which is under the direct authority of Legault.
Picard said Indigenous Affairs Minister Ian Lafrenière eventually replied to the second letter.
“We received a response from Quebec signed by Mr. Lafrenière this past 14 of March with really, I think it’s three to four paragraphs that contain basically nothing,” said Picard.
Another access to information request regarding the letters was sent to Quebec’s Indigenous Affairs ministry was declined due to several access to information privacy laws.
APTN has asked for a revision of this request and is awaiting a response.
“Chief Ross Montour of the Mohawk Council of Kahnawà:ke put it well yesterday, and I would like to quote him: ‘Self-determination is not asked, it is exercised,” said Picard.
With files from Shushan Bacon.