Atikamekw declare their land sovereign soil after 35 years of fruitless negotiations

On Sept. 8, The Atikamekw First Nation claimed 80,000 square kilometres of the Nitaskinan region in Quebec as sovereign territory, chief says in declaration

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In the upper portion of the Saint-Maurice River valley of Quebec, some 300 kilometres north of Montreal, the Atikamekw First Nation have declared their territory I sovereign soil.

According to Constant Awashish, chief of the Atikamekw, the declaration of sovereignty was motivated in part by a recent Supreme Court of Canada ruling in British Columbia and frustration over three decades of dead-end territorial negotiations with the Quebec and federal governments.

The years and decades spent negotiating had gotten the Atikamekw nothing, Awashish said. “Our people decided that they were losing more than gaining. It was not a win-win situation,” he said.

Over 80,000 square kilometres were declared the sovereign soil of the Atikamekw and according to the statement delivered to reporters on Sept. 8, any new development on Atikamekw land must be approved first by Atikamekw leadership.

The Supreme Court of Canada decision that concluded in July recognized ancestral rights to Tsilhqot’in First Nation land in British Columbia, granting more than 1,700 square kilometres to the reserve as their sovereign territory.

It was a landmark ruling the Atikamekw felt recognized and legitimized their right to claim the Nitaskinan region as their legal and sovereign land. The declaration of self-government over the Nitaskinan region was a unilateral decision approved by the elected members of the Atikamekw First Nation.

Any companies considering construction projects, resource extraction and other development plans in the region, must have the consent of the Atikamekw First Nation the grand chief said.

The Atikamekw First Nation is comprised of three main communities, Manawan, the largest, Opitciwan, and Wemotaci, giving the reserve a population of approximately 7000 people.

Manawan is situated on the south-western shores of Lake Métabeskéga in Lanaudière, a region of central Quebec between the Saint Lawrence and the Laurentian Mountains. Opitciwan rests on the north shore of the Gouin Reservoir, nearly 300 kilometres west of Roberval while Wemotaci rests on the north shores of the St. Maurice River.

Awashish believes a new era has started for the Atikamekw and perhaps other First Nations who are seeking to legitimate their land claims and ancestral rights.

“Gone are the days of negotiating rights of the Atikamekw, which have not been sur- rendered, for the benefit of a state that imposes its rules as if such rights do not exist,” the grand chief said.

“Our jurisdiction, our rules and our conditions must be respected,” he said.

Although the declaration says any new developments must receive the consent and approval of Atikamekw leadership, Jean-Roch Ottawa, the chief of Manawan, said he isn’t anti-development or anti-industry. “We only oppose development that threatens our culture and way of life,” he said.

Awashish said the Atikamekw never made any treaties with the Crown that surrendered territory and believed its sovereignty was made certain under the B.C. Supreme Court ruling.

“We never received, we never sold, we never exchanged anything about our land,” the grand chief said. However, Awashish believes the future success of his land and the Atikamekw is within a united Canada.

“We believe in a strong Atikamekw Nation in a strong Quebec within a strong Canada. That’s the way we’re thinking,” the chief said. “We are still very open to get an agreement, but we want something serious.”

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