Atikamekw First Nations in Quebec are increasingly angry over rampant resource exploitation of their traditional lands by outside companies that always appear to have the provincial government in their corner.
The Atikamekw Nation launched a campaign June 26 to gain full recognition as a distinct nation with rights to the ancestral lands they call the Nitaskinan in the Upper Mauricie region. The campaign is in large part a response to unbridled logging operations by Kruger Inc. in Atikamekw territory.
In response, the Atikamekw are staging road and rail blockades to stop Kruger Inc. from working in the area.
The Atikamekw set up roadblocks along Highway 25, between La Tuque and Wetomaci, as well as the road between Parent and Clova. They have also set up blockades along CN’s railway, preventing them from transporting merchandise, particularly logs that are to be milled in Parent and Trois-Rivières. The communities are not preventing locals from using Highway 25, and are allowing Via Rail passenger trains to use the railways. For the time being, the blockades have been designed to hit the economic interests in the region that are harming the Atikamekw communities.
“The Atikamekw and other First Nations are the most forgotten people in Quebec,” observed Opitciwan Chief Christian Awashish. “The difficult socio-economic situation, the poverty, lack of housing and unemployment that the Atikamekw people must deal with are deplorable, especially with the abundant resources on the territories that have benefited the Quebec population. We want a concrete and immediate change in order to give hope to our children.”
Meanwhile, in the Témiscaming region, the chiefs of Eagle Village and Wolf Lake expressed their frustration with the Quebec government over its failure to gain consent from the two Atikamekw nations for mining operations on their lands.
According to Eagle Village Chief Madeleine Paul, the two communities are asking that Matamec Resources, along with its partner Toyota Tsusho America, pay for an independent environmental sustainability study before they proceed with the mining of rare earth elements.
“Matamec is conducting their own environmental studies,” said Paul. “We want independent tests done. We can’t risk their results being off because the mine is right in the middle of our territory. All we are asking for are the funds for us to conduct the study on our own.”
According to Paul, Matamec hasn’t exactly been the easiest of companies to deal with.
“Our last meeting with Matamec was April 17,” she said. “They haven’t contacted us since. Apparently, they applied for a permit from the Ministry of Natural Resources and are about to start mining. We know they’re setting up their power stations. We know they’re drilling. We have to get this study done soon.”
Paul argues that a mine as important as this could have serious negative ramifications on the territory. “The mine is right in the middle of our hunting and trapping grounds,” she said. “It’s also right near Lake Kipawa, our primary source of drinking water. The lake isn’t like a tree that’s being cut down and that can be replanted. Once it’s contaminated, it’s ruined.”
The two communities have set a July 6 deadline for an agreement to be struck between the mining companies and the First Nations communities. According to Wolf Lake Chief Harry St. Denis, the communities are prepared to take bold steps that could have serious consequences for the companies involved.
“We’ll physically block them if we have to,” St. Denis said. “It doesn’t have to get to that though. Their lawyers are telling our lawyers that we’re not far from an agreement. But the deadline is coming up soon. It’s important we get this done because we’ll still be here when the project is over. The mine life for this project should only be about 12 years. We need to be able to live here once it’s over.”
St. Denis added that obtaining the funds for the environmental study is only the first step in a much longer process. The communities haven’t even begun discussing royalties to come from the minerals extracted from the lands were never ceded to the crown.
According to Christian Awashish, the Atikamekw Nation has a long history of development and resource extraction, with disastrous environmental damage but no economic form of compensation.
“Development near our community dates back to the 1920s, with construction of the Gouin Reservoir,” he said. “Developments like that have destroyed the community. My community of Opitciwan has been the victim of flooding and has been displaced on two occasions without any compensation.”
The situation reached a boiling point, Awashish said, when his community was denied significant logging rights to its own resource or any form of significant compensation.
“We have a mill in the community,” he said. “We receive a small volume of wood from the logging companies. That volume is ridiculous and insufficient as it is. More recently, a nearby mill closed down and the entire volume was given to Kruger Inc. We were completely ignored and we have no idea why.”
The Atikamekw Nation has also made clear their intention to intensify the pressure tactics if their demands are not met.
After sending a letter to the provincial government demanding a meeting with Premier Jean Charest, the Atikamekw received an answer from Geoffrey Kelley, the Minister of Native Affairs. According to the Atikamekw, Kelley mentioned a meeting, but not that it would include Charest.
“Enough is enough,” said Awashish. “The status quo is not good enough. The logging is happening in the heart of our lands. It belongs to us and we’re owed some kind of compensation.”
Like the Atikamekw in the Upper Mauricie, the communities of Eagle Village and Wolf Lake are being forced to take confront exploitation of their territory by moneyed interests with government support or negligence. Both communities are calling for government intervention, as well as solidarity between different First Nations.
“It’s in desperation that we’re taking these measures,” said Awashish. “I hope that all Quebecers are paying attention to our cause.”