Indigenous leaders were cautiously optimistic that the Grand Economic Circle of Indigenous Peoples and Quebec was the starting point of a movement. The event November 25 and 26 brought about 250 Indigenous leaders, provincial elected officials and businesspeople together to discuss the full participation of Indigenous Peoples in Quebec’s economy.
Going into the conference, AFNQL Chief Ghislain Picard emphasized that economic development is closely connected with land issues.
“I have to reiterate our determination to have our rights and our ancestral territories, and our government autonomy respected,” stated Picard. “If Quebec enjoys an economic status that may be the envy of other governments, it is largely due to the exploitation of resources on our lands. Is it not high time that First Nations enjoy the same opportunities?”
Cree Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty discussed the balancing act of creating employment while ensuring community members can still hunt and trap on their traditional territory. She said that industries that can ensure “social acceptability” provide opportunities to steer government towards developing new policies and mechanisms for mutual benefit.
Gull-Masty joined AFN National Chief RoseAnne Archibald and Mohawk Council of Kahnawá:ke Grand Chief Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer in a panel focused on economic reconciliation and the role of women in entrepreneurship. Sky-Deer expressed optimism that there seemed more willingness for partnerships than ever before.
While Sky-Deer said development had long surrounded her community without their participation, she highlighted the immense tourism potential of 120,000 cars passing through their territory daily. However, she received death threats on social media following news of Quebec’s $3.3 million investment in a hotel project in Kahnawake, granted to a local citizen on private land through Quebec’s Aboriginal Initiatives Fund (AIF).
“There’s a lot of healing that has to be done in our community,” Sky-Deer told Mohawk media. “It’s a new era. We’re asserting ourselves as the rightful land holders. If projects are going to happen on our territory, we need to be part of it.”
Indigenous Tourism Quebec (ITQ) celebrated its 30th anniversary through a recognition gala at the event, honouring the industry’s key Indigenous enterprises and strategic partners for their dynamic and innovative spirit. Robin McGinley, executive director of the Cree Outfitting and Tourism Association, appreciated the gesture.
“The gala was well-timed and an inspiration altogether,” McGinley told the Nation. “It was a nice boost to people’s morale given everything we’re going through.”
Among the event’s initiatives was the unveiling of a trademark bear logo that Quebec’s Indigenous businesses can use to demonstrate their product’s authenticity.
Various funding announcements were made over the two days, including two strategic partnership initiatives from Canada said to contribute to the economic self-sufficiency of Indigenous communities in Quebec. The True North Treasure Initiative and the Forest Full Value Initiative will each receive $4.5 million.
Quebec announced $10 million for a new First Nations executive education program launched by HEC Montréal, the graduate business school of the Université de Montréal. It seeks to foster the emergence of a new generation of Indigenous leaders with training adapted to community needs.
Hydro-Québec issued a declaration recognizing the “sometimes painful” history the company shares with Indigenous communities, while promising to “enhance the Indigenous potential in all spheres of the economic life of Hydro-Québec.” The company’s new president, Sophie Brochu, recently accepted an invitation from Gull-Masty to better understand the impact of development in Eeyou Istchee.
Many expressed disappointment at Quebec Premier François Legault’s brief appearance on the second day after he addressed journalists but not the many chiefs present. While Legault stated he was open to profit sharing and collaborating on all interesting projects, some chiefs called his “Nation to Nation” approach a “divide and conquer” tactic.
The conference concluded with a joint declaration endorsed by 130 prominent Quebec businesses for a “Grand Circle of Commitment”, a statement including 13 commitments to support Indigenous self-determination, actively contribute to community growth and ensure equitable employment representation.
While the declaration included commitments to hold regional Grand Circles and reunite at the provincial level within five years, some leaders were skeptical. Innu Council of Ekuanitshit Chief Jean-Charles Piétacho noted the substantial work remaining to overcome the many years that Indigenous people were systemically marginalized.
“We’re not breaking through, especially in terms of funding,” said Piétacho. “At some point we’re going to have to say let’s get on with it – we’ll see the results in five years. We have so many glaring needs in our communities.”