Indigenous leaders, environmentalists oppose Quebec’s new Bill 61

Bill 61 a ‘big issue’ that has ‘no respect for our rights and treaties,’ critics say

Opposition leaders, environmentalists and First Nations leaders in Quebec agree: A newly-drafted bill meant to boost the province’s economy post COVID-19 could have devastating consequences.

Bill 61 aims to streamline the approval process for large-scale development projects.

If passed in the National Assembly this Friday, Bill 61 would see Quebec’s state of emergency and its exceptional powers extended.

With infrastructure projects languishing, and unemployment at a 13.7 per cent high, Premier Francois Legault spoke of an “urgency to act” while addressing reporters during a pandemic briefing this week.

Under normal circumstances, according to Legault, environmental impact assessments can take over a year to complete.

“We think that without decreasing the requirements, we can do that faster,” he said Tuesday.

Bill 61 would grant Quebec the power to commence work on “part of the domain of the State before the required rights are obtained,” according the initial document presented at the National Assembly on June 3rd.

A line item in the bill’s first draft indicates provincial ministers can receive financial compensation “when they authorize activities in the habitat of a threatened or vulnerable plant species or in a wildlife habitat.”

All three of Quebec’s opposition parties were quick to highlight potential issues with corruption, an issue that has long tainted the province’s construction industry.

Melissa Mollen-Dupuis, an Innu environmental activist from Ekuanishit, a community in the province’s Cote-Nord, says Bill 61 threatens First Nations’ democratic right to consult.

“It is problematic, because right now they’re using our faith – our good faith – in their way of directing the province in a very, very tricky issue,” she told APTN News.

“Indigenous communities are still trying to wake up people around them to this issue of self-sustainability around the territory, but we are seen as a problem rather than a solution-seeking community,” Mollen-Dupuis added.

Mollen-Dupuis works with the Suzuki Foundation, and advocates in part for preservation of the province’s boreal forests and wild game.

Late last year, Quebec’s minister of forests announced nearly 46,000 hectares of protected territory inhabited by the last of the province’s woodland caribou would be repurposed for logging.

Just prior to that, Algonquin hunters in Quebec staged demonstrations demanding an immediate hunting moratorium, citing dwindling moose herd numbers. Many of them were afraid they’d be unable to feed their families through the winter.

While the government acknowledged their concerns and promised to collaborate, provincial hunting restrictions were loosened shortly after – permitting card-holding sport hunters to also kill cows and calves.

Mollen-Dupuis believes there’s going to be a “big issue” moving forward if Bill 61 sees the light of day.

“If there’s one thing that Indigenous communities have been decrying for so many years, it’s how we are destroying our environment – how we are destroying our capacity to be co-dependent on the territory as we have been for thousands of years,” Mollen-Dupuis said.

“We’re not anti-economy – we’re just thinking about an economy that is logical, that is forward-thinking, and has the seven generations in front of us be able to survive.”

The Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK), which is near Montreal, outlined their concerns about Bill 61 in a letter to the Quebec government.

While they’re “not opposed” to restarting the economy, MCK says the draft legislation reduces safeguards “associated with land takings.”

“Since the Europeans first arrived on our shores, they have forcibly and systematically taken our lands without compensation or consultation, and with no respect for our rights and treaties,” Ross Montour, MCK portfolio chief, said in a statement.

“We have an international seaway running through the heart of what’s left of our territory that removed our people from the St. Lawrence River. We have a major bridge and connecting highways that provide Montreal with a vital artery at the expense of cutting through ours.”

Montour added that Bill 61 has “little to no regard for the impacts to [Indigenous] rights.”

Mike McKenzie, chief of the Innu community of Uashat mak Mani-utenam, near Sept-Iles, says Bill 61 is the opposite of a goodwill gesture by the Quebec government.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, we demonstrated our strengths and organization when it came to protecting our community, which already suffered socio-economic problems,” McKenzie wrote in a statement.

“We should be at the forefront of the government’s economic relaunch plan; it’s an opportunity for them to renew the ‘nation to nation’ relationship.”

Attitudes about the lack of consultation became clearer when Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador Regional Chief Ghislain Picard tabled a memo critical of Bill 61 at the National Assembly on Tuesday morning.

In front of provincial ministers, Picard called – once again – for respect of Indigenous law and land.

In response, Christian Dubé, chair of the Treasury Council and author of Bill 61, commended First Nations and Inuit communities for initiative taken during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Dubé switched gears when addressing the need to consult with First Nations and Inuit leaders before provincial legislation is passed.

“If we consulted with First Nations every time we made a decision in the last three months – even though we took the time necessary – the [pandemic] situation could be a lot worse today,” Dubé told Picard.

Mollen-Dupuis says the comment is “very insulting,” and that conversations about systemic racism and disregard for Indigenous ways of knowing are unavoidable in the current context.

“We want to protect the land, we don’t want to be compensated for its destruction,” she said.

“Why destroy the river when you can fish eternally, you know?”

Amid the criticism, Legault said he is willing to postpone to vote on Bill 61 until it is re-written to the satisfaction of opposition party leaders.

While Quebec accepted the AFNQL’s memo with thanks on Tuesday, nothing was said about including Indigenous input moving forward.