With a temporary truce only a few hours away, an act of either poor judgment or intentional violence almost turned deadly in the Nitaskinan region of the Mauricie Valley.
As recounted in the last issue of the Nation, three Atikamekw communities in the Nataskinan region, angry over consistent resource exploitation on their ancestral lands and the more recent logging operations of Kruger Inc, had erected roadblocks in an attempt to force the provincial government into negotiations.
After meeting with government officials on July 3, and receiving a signed letter from Premier Jean Charest regarding the meeting, the three Atikamekw community leaders (Chief Christian Awashish of Opitciwan, Chief David Boivin of Wemotaci, and Chief Paul-Émile Ottawa of Manawan), decided to adhere to a government request and temporarily lift the blockade for a 48-hour period.
Despite the progress in negotiations, the Atikamekw communities were stunned by what was to take place.
Just eight hours before lifting the blockade, at midnight July 4, a truck drove through a blockade at km 26 of route 25. The truck then ran over a temporary campsite on the side of the road, including a tipi. Luckily, and somewhat miraculously, no one was hurt in the incident.
Route 25 is the highway connecting La Tuque to Wemotaci and is one of the main means for transporting timber out of the region. Immediately following the incident, the Atikamekw communities decided to shorten the truce by 24 hours.
According to the Sûreté du Québec, no arrests were made in connection with the incident, but an investigation is underway.
Opitciwan Chief Christian Awashish is unsure whether the incident was an accident or intentional, but is still upset by what happened.
“We spoke to the association of truck drivers of the area,” he said. “They know who the driver is. They said he needed more space to pass and veered off the road to get by the roadblock. His driving over the campsite and the tipi is supposedly an accident.”
“Even if it was an accident, it’s no excuse,” he added. “We’re lucky there was no one in the way.”
According to Awashish, tensions were running extremely high once the community got wind of what had happened. “People were obviously extremely emotional. And in the moment, emotion tends to get the better of people. The other Chiefs, along with myself, had to calm everyone down,” he said.
“We are committed to non-violence,” Awashish added. “We haven’t damaged any machines, or acted aggressively towards anyone.”
A week after the incident, in an act of good faith towards the government, the Atikamekw communities decided to lift the blockades while negotiations are ongoing.
“A lot of people in the community were disappointed that we took down the blockades,” said Awashish. “I think that the government was surprised the initial roadblock lasted more than a couple of days. In the end, we thought it would be in the best interest of the negotiations.”
Despite the early encouraging signs of progress, Awashish argues that there is still a long way to go.
“Real negotiations haven’t even started yet,” he said. “The government hasn’t even officially named a chief negotiator. The first people they approached were people that have been negotiating with us for over 30 years.”
Quebec Native Affairs Minister Geoffrey Kelley remains optimistic that the two parties can yet reach an agreement.
“I’ve been briefed on the situation,” Kelley said. “It’s my understanding that the [opening phases] of the negotiations are moving well. We proposed some names [to be the chief negotiator] and I have my staff of professional civil servants. I’m confident we can come to an agreement that everyone’s happy with by the deadline.”
The communities have set an August 30 deadline for an agreement to be reached.
“It’s that or nothing,” said Awashish. “At that point, progress won’t be enough. We’ve lost confidence with the government. If we don’t have an agreement in place by August 30, we’ll be setting up blockades for the long term.”