The Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador is launching an Office of Self-Determination and Self-Government to pool research, legislative materials, and training to help First Nations implement their own laws. The office will conduct studies, gather expertise, and develop a “media watch” on issues related to self-determination.
“It’s also a demonstration that we will stand up to colonial governments that would rather see us sitting still and being quiet,” said AFNQL Chief Ghislain Picard at the announcement April 28. “On the whole issue of consultation, Quebec is failing miserably.”
The initiative followed a two-day meeting of AFNQL chiefs, who agreed that government consultations on a range of issues were inadequate. Although Quebec unanimously adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2019, Picard believes Premier François Legault isn’t honouring the commitment.
“On the one hand, they say they support this notion of a nation-to-nation relationship, and on the other hand, they’re acting completely opposed to that very notion,” Picard asserted. “I would even go as far as to say maybe they understand too well what that implies and that’s why we see so much stalling on their part.”
Relations between Quebec and the AFNQL soured after November’s Grand Economic Circle of Indigenous People and Quebec, during which Legault made a brief appearance but didn’t engage with chiefs.
AFNQL chiefs later sent Legault a letter to insist that projects impacting their territories could only proceed with community consent. The premier didn’t respond.
“Exercising this right to self-determination is not an action against Quebecers and Canadians,” explained Picard. “This is a legitimate take-over of the responsibilities that are ours. The affirmation of our rights will be a powerful lever to ensure respect for our principles and rights to the territory, but also to the preservation of our languages, cultures and the improvement of our socio-economic conditions.”
Kahnawake Chief Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer called the office’s creation a “very timely and empowering” example of the “Indigenous resurgence” developing across Canada. She emphasized that when people cross into traditional Indigenous territories, they need to understand there are distinctive laws that need to be respected.
“Historically, we’ve been legislated over, looked at like underlings or that we’re not equal and those times are coming to an end,” said Sky-Deer. “We need to move past structures like the Indian Act and other colonial laws that affect our people.”
The Indian Act delegated extensive powers to provincial governments, which exercised them in uneven ways. Amendments to the act have removed some discriminatory aspects and provided greater Indigenous autonomy. But governance structures can vary greatly even within a province.
In 1984, the Cree-Naskapi Act became the first piece of Indigenous self-government legislation in Canada. It replaced the Indian Act and established these Indigenous communities as corporate entities. This act was transferred to the Cree Nation Governance agreement in 2017, creating the Cree Constitution and fully removing federal oversight on Category 1A lands.
Former Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come believed this agreement remained faithful to the Cree vision of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, the treaty signifying emancipation from the Indian Act and the means to self-government. It led to the first Cree law, the Cree Language Act, and further steps toward self-determination.
The Mistissini Governance Project will create five laws intended to revitalize Cree legal principles and traditions. Consultations with community members will inform laws related to governance, hunting, development, Lake Mistissini and the community’s constitution.
“The Cree Nation of Mistissini is working to develop fundamental laws that will capture in written form the heart of our Cree worldview – how we relate to each other and to our lands and our waters,” stated Chief Thomas Neeposh. “These laws will set forth traditional Cree knowledge and authority in the form of legislation that clearly describes how our Iinou Iidouwun – our laws and legal systems, values, principles and practices – apply today.”
The Cree Nation develops ways to advance self-determination – most recently the Cree-Naskapi-Inuit permanent forum – a model for other First Nations. In its opposition to Bill 96, the Legault government’s controversial extension of French-language legislation, the AFNQL proposed implementing the same language of instruction principles applied to Cree and Inuit students, among other measures.
On May 10, the AFNQL demanded nothing less than a total and resolute exemption from Bill 96 for First Nations members. This came after repeated attempts to propose accommodations to make the law more reconcilable with inherent and constitutionally protected Indigenous rights were ignored or rejected outright.
“Even when we play by their rules, we are becoming the victims because none of it is being acknowledged,” said Picard. “We are no longer at the time of negotiations and settlements. We affirm clearly and with a common voice today our absolute refusal to submit to Law 96 and all other laws infringing on our rights.”