The community of Maeushteuiatsh played host last week to an unprecedented gathering of Quebec’s Aboriginal nations and the provincial and federal governments, as well as a number of opposition politicians and leaders in education, the labour movement, and industry. A number of key themes were discussed: culture, education, economy, employment, community development, employment, health care, social services, childhood services, and infrastructure.

The conference was organized by the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador, with AFNQL Regional Chief Ghislain Picard taking a lead role in getting the event off the ground.

The governments of Quebec and Canada were key sponsors of the event, and as a part of the commitment, Premier Charest and Indian Affairs Minister Prentice were co-Chairs of the Conference. There were a number of key provincial ministers in attendance, about 15 in all, and, a number of federal ministers. There were also the provincial and federal party leaders and critics on Aboriginal affairs present. Representatives of key financial and educational institutions in Quebec were also present, with other organizations such as unions.

Host Chief Gilbert Dominique welcomed all participants to his community, and led many of the discussions. It was evident to all who attended that his community has been successful in many community development ventures. Chief Dominique stated the objectives of the conference as “finding concrete actions to improve the social and economic conditions of Quebec’s Aboriginal Nations.”

Cree Grand Chief Matthew Mukash’s opening remarks touched on how the conference was also about developing harmonious and respectful relations with governments, organizations and other Aboriginal groups in Quebec.

Mukash said that a future Quebec should be one in which Aboriginal nations would have a clear voice and participation in the decision making of activities and development in their traditional territories.

“With a form of governance built upon principles of respect for rights and interests of Aboriginal peoples, self-determination can be achieved,” said the Grand Chief. “It is also important for Aboriginal peoples to remember that in the way we exercise our rights, we can help build solutions to our social and economic problems. Working co-operatively with the governments and businesses within the regions, in the areas of economic and development activities can build stronger and more sustainable economies of benefit for all.”

Ellen Gabriel of the Quebec Native Women’s Association spoke about how a large disparity still exists between the wages a native woman receives compared to earnings of non-native women in Canada. Further, she stated, housing is still a huge problem in most Aboriginal communities. It is hard to imagine a solution to social or economic problems when a basic need such as housing remains unmet.

Meanwhile, Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe slammed Canada’s controversial position on the draft United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

A highlight of the event was the dinner and entertainment on the evening of October 26. There were many good performances by local celebrities, and also the Juno award nominee Inuk performer Tanya Tagaq Gillis. The headliner for the evening was Florent Vollant. But the surprise performance was a duet by Premier Jean Charest on the traditional drum and Grand Chief Matthew Mukash on the fiddle. The crowd rose to its feet, as while starting slow, they quickly came into sync, and added an unexpected element to the conference. The night ended with a friendship dance which included the Premier, Grand Chief, Chiefs and Ministers joining in on a circle symbolic of the theme of the Conference: Acting Now… For the Future.

Makivik President Pita Aatami found the format of the Conference to be too constricted at times, but did make some comments on how Quebec has worked well with them to help find or work towards solutions to many of their social and economic problems in their territories.

Deputy Grand Chief Ashley Iserhoff was also in attendance at the event, as were many of the Cree Band Council Chiefs. The schedule covered many items so it was difficult to debate different items. However, given the many number of organizations present, there were many opportunities for them to meet on a number of ongoing files or issues.

What will come of the conference, and the many recommendations and programs announced? We shall see, but what is certain is it is a good beginning to a new relationship between the governments, organizations and Aboriginal Nations of Quebec.

On behalf of the Canadian government, federal Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon said, “It may be the end of the forum, but it is the beginning of a new era.” Further, he stated the efforts of Canada would not stop here. They would work continually for improvements for generations to come, and will build upon the progress started in Maeushteuiatsh.

In his closing comments, the Grand Chief related relationship building with governments to his performance the night before with Premier Charest. He said that when they began to play they were a bit out of sync. However, with some listening and cooperation they managed not only to get in sync with each other, but also managed to get into harmony with the whole band.