First regional economic circle in Quebec brings First Nations governments and businesses together

Forum helps build bridges but tensions remain in the region — particularly in the forestry industry

The first regional First Nations economic circle in Quebec drew in hundreds of people for two days of panels and announcements for economic engagement on June 15 and 16.

It’s a follow-up to the Grand Economic Circle held in Montreal in November.

The chief of Pekuakamiulnatsh, Gilbert Dominique, hosted Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean’s economic circle in Mashteuiatsh, Que. two and a half hours north of Quebec City.

He said that industry is finally recognizing the importance of First Nations.

“I think they can consider themselves lucky that for generations, they didn’t have to do that,” said Dominique in French.

Panels attended by more than 260 people discussed financing tools, Indigenous title and business partnerships, among other topics.

Companies with a less-than-stellar history with Indigenous people made economic engagement commitments.

Hydro-Québec promised funds for Indigenous women entrepreneurs. Rio Tinto — a mining company that two British Columbia First Nations took to court last year — announced an Indigenous awareness program for their employees.

Indigenous and business leaders alike said this is a step towards economic reconciliation.

“Ultimately, what we’re wanting to achieve is that there’s a sustained effort in order for our communities to have the same economic opportunities than those municipalities around them,” said Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador Chief Ghislain Picard.

But there are still tensions to solve in the region, particularly in the forestry industry.

“We want to make sure that industries working in the forest environment develop partnerships and agreements with First Nations, particularly ours, because it will allow for a level of social acceptability,” said Dominique in French.

Atikamekw Nation Grand Chief Constant Awashish said Quebec could do more to ensure this social acceptability.

“I think it’s important for the government to recognize these rights, to respect them, and to find a way to harmonize our needs and their needs, and to respect the needs of everyone. I think that’s how the government needs to act and not always ignoring or avoiding the Indigenous question,” said Awashish in French.

Ian Lafrenière, the province’s Indigenous affairs minister, said Quebec is developing agreements to reinforce these rights.

“Too often, we do those events, and there’s no follow-up, so people, they lose faith, they say OK, we’ve done marvelous meeting, but what’s going to happen next? Yes there will be follow-up, yes there will be numerous regional circles like this one,” said Lafrenière.

The next regional economic circle will be held in Val-d’Or, Que. in November.

To view the panels, visit the Grand Economic Circle’s YouTube channel.

Emelia holds a BA in Global Political Economy from the University of Manitoba. Prior to joining the APTN News team in Montreal, she was a reporter and editor for The Manitoban and has worked as a freelance writer. Fournier is a member of the Métis Nation.