Three Quebec First Nations say that their traditional territory partly overlaps with land included in the 1975 James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA) and the Northeastern Quebec Agreement (NEQA), signed in 1978. They are now asking for the federal government to step in to negotiate a settlement over the contested territory to give them a stake in its economic development.
On November 13, representatives of the Anishinabek, Atikamekw and Innu First Nations held a press conference in Montreal to demand recognition over their claimed title to territory negotiated under the two agreements.
They say a portion of the JBNQA extinguishes the rights of any First Nations – even those that did not sign it – to title over any of territory negotiated in the deal.
The Cree and Inuit, who were given broad administrative and political powers and a cash settlement in exchange for the concession, negotiated the landmark agreement.
But the Anishinabek, Atikamekw and Innu coalition say they were never consulted in the negotiations, and that it should therefore not apply to them.
So far, the Department of Aboriginal Affairs has refused to consider negotiating the contested territory with any of the coalition nations.
In a statement printed in the Montreal Gazette, Aboriginal Affairs was categorical in its long-standing position that any of the coalition’s grievances must be taken up with the agreement’s signatories – the Cree and Inuit.
“We encourage the coalition communities to negotiate bilateral agreements with the beneficiaries of the (James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement) and the Northeastern Quebec Agreement, allowing for the practice of traditional activities on their respective territory,” said the statement from Aboriginal Affairs.
But according to Constant Awashish, Grand Chief of the Atikamekw, this amounts to a classic divide-and-conquer technique, and the government has a “fiduciary responsibility” to step in and correct a problem it created.
Awashish told the Nation that he wants to make it clear to Cree people that he is not opposed to the JBNQA or the Crees.
“We want them to know that we’re not targeting them. But we are targeting the government. It’s the government that needs to solve the problem they created,” said Awashish.
He says people in his communities continue to hunt in Atikamekw territory covered under the JBNQA as they did long before the agreement was negotiated.
Awashish says the next step is to launch legal action. He was coy about its details, but did indicate it will be directed at the government.
“How can they extinguish our rights if we were not part of their agreement?” he asked.