The Atikamekw community of Wemotaci has served three Quebec ministries with a legal notice regarding logging on the nation’s unceded ancestral territory known as Wemotaci-Aski.
During a recent news conference held in Trois-Rivieres, Wemotaci Chief Francois Neashit decried Quebec’s consultation process over logging and deforestation projects as “superficial” and “self-serving.”
“Not only are these consultations unconstitutional, they demonstrate a lack of respect towards all our members,” Neashit told reporters Thursday.
“I would even qualify them as a masquerade.”
The notice came in the form of a letter, which has not been made public and was sent to the government on Feb. 24.
Flanked by community chiefs and Wemotaci’s newly-appointed legal counsel, Neashit explained that over-exploitation by logging companies is dispossessing the Atikamekw of their traditions, way of life, as well as the region’s natural flora and fauna.
“It’s the wildlife habitat that’s disrupted. Animals are leaving – wild game is leaving. We rarely hear birds anymore, even though we’ve heard them for years,” he explained.
“Our objective is not just to talk about our traditional activities, but to be able to carry them out in harmony with the [non-Indigenous] Quebecers who frequent our territories.”
Wemotaci said Quebec’s version of “consultation” means showing the community their logging plans after they’ve been locked in.
“They’re consulted and they’re accommodated, but only at the end of the process, and they receive really small accommodations compared to the impacts on their way of life and the practice of their ancestral rights on their territories,” Jacynthe Ledoux, a lawyer the Cain Lamarre firm, told APTN News.
“For example, if a chief of a territory asks for a particular part of their land to be protected – they can’t,” Ledoux added. “Because if the usage of this portion of land has already been decided to be [used] for forestry, then this can’t be changed when they are consulted. It’s already too late to change that.”
Three Quebec ministries are named in the legal notice: the Ministry of Forests, Fauna and Parks, the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources, and the Secretariat of Indigenous Affairs.
Not named in the notice, however, are the logging companies conducting work on the ground.
This is because Neashit believes there is still potential for healthy, balanced partnerships in the future.
“They are also invited to discuss renewing the relationship between themselves and the Atikamekw of Wemotaci,” Neashit said.
Ghislain Picard, regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador, said the desire to improve nation-to-nation discussions regarding the economy – and a host of other issues – is currently “on the minds of many chiefs.”
“I’ll spare you the comments I heard from [them], but they weren’t very positive,” Picard said. “I don’t think anyone would be surprised if other communities follow suit in terms of the action taken by the community [of Wemotaci.]”
Picard said a 2019 resolution adopted in hopes of improving face-to-face discussions with the government of Quebec has seen little to no movement in the last two years.
Since then, Quebec’s National Assembly refused to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples because of its line item about the duty to consult with First Nations on the economy.
In 2020, Quebec tabled Bill 61 – legislation meant to stimulate the economy at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic – which included a line item waiving the duty to consult with First Nations and Inuit on development projects.
In this, Picard said he sees a pattern.
“We have a government that says to us ‘you don’t have that right to be self-governing nations – you don’t have that right. We don’t recognize that right. We have a government that doesn’t recognize the fact that aboriginal title is a reality. They won’t go there,” he said.
“And the fact is, they will agree to a process – a political one at that – but only strictly based on their conditions. It’s not fair.”
APTN News reached out to Quebec’s Ministry of Forests, and the Ministry of Natural Resources, for comment and clarification on the consultation process currently in place.
In an email, a spokesperson representing both ministries said they’ve taken note of the formal letter, but “no further comments will be made at this time.”
Meanwhile, if logging works on Wemotaci-Aski are not temporarily halted to make way for improved discussions, Wemotaci and their legal reps say they’re prepared to kick their resistance up a notch.
“If the government of Quebec does not sit at the table, or if their negotiation stance is unreasonable, then the Atikamekw of Wemotaci are prepared to go through the courts,” Ledoux said.