The Atikamekw Nation announced on August 31 that they have come to an agreement in principle with the Quebec government, giving the two sides almost a full calendar year to negotiate a deal that would allow for the Atikamekw to be officially recognized as a distinct nation.

On June 26, the Atikamekw Nation launched a campaign to gain full recognition as an independent First Nation, with rights to their ancestral lands in the Nataskinan region of the Upper Mauricie Valley. The campaign was sparked by the logging operations of Kruger Inc. and the perceived preferential treatment that the company was receiving from the provincial government. It was one that saw the Atikamekw set up a number of roadblocks on its territory, preventing Kruger from continuing its operations.

As mentioned in the July 27 edition of the Nation, the three Atikamekw leaders – Chief Christian Awashish of Opitciwan, Chief David Boivin of Wemotaci, and Chief Paul-Émile Ottawa of Manawan – along with their communities, decided to lift the roadblocks and cease pressure tactics while negotiations were ongoing.

The communities had set an August 30 deadline for a substantive agreement to be reached.

According to Awashish, speaking on behalf of all three communities, the agreement gives the two sides a starting point to work from for the next year.

“We’re pushing the more concrete elements of the negotiations to a later date,” he said. “The two sides have come to a general agreement on the questions of royalty payments and access to forestry resources, but it hasn’t materialized to any exact number yet.”

Awashish added that the government, in principle, agreed to just about everything the Atikamekw had demanded over the summer, specifically issues regarding the independent management of the territory. He also added that the official recognition of the Atikamekw Nation and its territory will be negotiated over the coming weeks.

“In terms of gaining control of the territory, being able to run our territory independently, and in terms of effecting change, this is a start,” said Awashish. “Now we have until July 21 of next year to come to an agreement. That’s when we’ll be able to appreciate any real gains we make.”

Although happy with the progress achieved thus far, Awashish explained that the Atikamekw Nation is still far from being content.

“We wanted to have concrete results by now,” he said. “We wanted logging volumes, we wanted a defined royalty system. We agreed to push it to next year. We decided to make a compromise. We decided to give them a chance and give a chance to this new government.

“But I can feel that the winds are changing,” he said.

Of course, with the Liberal Party losing control of the National Assembly, the fate of these negotiations remains up in the air. Despite the uncertain future of the provincial government, and its stance on the Atikamekw Nation, Awashish remains confident that a concrete agreement can be reached.

“I can tell you that, regardless of what government we’ve negotiated with over the years, we’ve seen that it’s essentially bureaucrats that control the process,” he said. “And after listening to Madame (Pauline) Marois speak, I’m optimistic that we can change the way these bureaucrats work.

“Over the past few years, having difficulty to effect change has become a norm,” he added. “With a new government, we want to change that norm and become their partners [rather than their adversaries].”

Despite this turning point in the negotiations with the government, Awashish warned that this agreement in principle won’t, and shouldn’t, be used as a way of putting the Atikamekw people and their concerns on the back burner.

“For the moment, we’ve stopped all of our pressure tactics,” he said. “But we can always start them up again if we see that the negotiations aren’t evolving in a way that we’re satisfied with.”