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Montreal Gazette: Atikamekw reach a last-minute deal to protect their environment
Martin Boivin says the Atikamekw have identified the areas where protests will take place to support their land claims.
Photograph by: Riley Sparks , The Gazette
WEMOTACI — There’s only one road into Atikamekw territory and it isn’t an easy one.
After navigating a winding, single-lane highway from Shawinigan to La Tuque, drivers face a 96-kilometre ride north through the bush.
The last leg of the trip to Wemotaci is a gravel logging road that cuts deep into Quebec’s boreal forest. Even on a perfect day, the path is slippery and unreliable. Blown truck tires and scattered car debris litter the span, which is almost exclusively used by tractor-trailers.
Essentially, the road was created to increase the amount of softwood lumber that can be harvested from the province’s wilderness. The fact it links Wemotaci to the outside world seems merely coincidental.
That kind of isolation has served the Atikamekw well throughout the years.
Almost all of the 1,400 people who live on the Wemotaci First Nation count Atikamekw as their first language. The dialect has been in use for 13,000 years. Men in the community are still avid hunters and trappers. Some spend weeks living in the elements, tracking moose during the dead of winter.
But the aboriginals of Wemotaci fear that encroaching logging camps, a growing housing crisis and dangerously high levels of poverty all threaten to erode their well-established culture.
About midnight Friday, three Atikamekw chiefs reached an agreement in principle with the Liberal government that would see greater levels of environmental protection over the First Nation’s traditional land claim, a sprawling patch of the boreal forest that covers thousands of square kilometres in Quebec’s Haute Mauricie region.
Neither side could reveal any substantial details of the agreement, as it is still in its preliminary stages.
“We were ready to get out there and block logging roads, to protest, to get political,” said Denis Chilton, a local elder and traditional lands chief. “We were waiting in the parking lot outside the band council when they told us they’d reached a deal. It was almost disappointing that we didn’t get to take our struggle to the streets.”
Chilton laughed as he recounted the late-night announcement. The elder is all too familiar with the band’s 33-year struggle to sign an agreement with the government.
When negotiations fell apart in June, Chilton and about 30 other Atikamekws set up blockades on logging roads across the Haute Mauricie. They also parked a tow truck on the CN Rail line that carries freight from the camps into La Tuque.
The blockades were lifted at the beginning of July after a trucker drove through one of the protester encampments near Wemotaci.
“It was a direct action, but it was peaceful,” Chilton said. “We didn’t break anything, we were very polite and soft-spoken and we let tourists and other cars through. Yet our peace was met with violence.”
Ultimately, cooler heads prevailed and the confrontation led to reinvigorated talks between the government and the First Nations groups. But even with a handshake deal in place, the Atikamekw remain wary of the government’s intentions after centuries of strained relations between both groups.
Despite the progress made in protecting surrounding forests, the decades-old land claim remains unresolved. In a statement released on Friday, chiefs from Atikamekw communities of Opitciwan, Manawan and Wemotaci said it was time for the government to address economic issues like royalties and resource development.
“We’re not stupid, we know we can’t completely stop the logging industry,” said David Boivin, grand chief of the Wemotaci Band Council. “But if people are going to profit from cutting down our trees, it’s only fair that we be compensated somehow.”
An influx of cash would go a long way toward helping the community solve its unemployment crisis, Boivin said. Local estimates place the unemployment rate in Wemotaci at 30 per cent. Outside of a few construction jobs and work at the grocery store or gas station, the only employer in town is the band council.
“We need an accumulation of wealth to start our own businesses, to rid ourselves of this dependence on the government,” Chilton said. “That has to come from royalties, which we aren’t getting.”
Chilton’s personal experience speaks to another major problem on the Atikamekw reserve: housing. The elder lives in a small house with 13 of his relatives.
“I’m under the same roof as three generations of my family, it’s a very combustible atmosphere,” he said. “I sleep on the couch, so I’m the last one to go to bed and the first one to get up in the morning. Then if one person has a drinking problem, it becomes everyone’s problems. There’s a lot of refereeing involved, a lot of peacekeeping.”
With an estimated 75 per cent of the reserve’s population under the age of 35, the housing crisis is only expected to worsen as more young couples begin forming their own families.
“It would take at least 100 new homes in town for us to have normal living conditions,” Chilton said. “So in the meantime, people move to La Tuque to get a home or to be closer to work. In doing so, they lose sight of their culture, their language.”
In a bid to fast track stalling land-claim negotiations, Boivin summoned chiefs from 43 other Quebec First Nations to Wemotaci last week to present the federal and provincial governments with a more united front.
The group threatened more direct actions against the government if meaningful land concessions aren’t made by early October.
“We’ve identified strategic locations, highways, roads, bridges all the way across the province,” Boivin said. “We’re allied with First Nations throughout Quebec and we’re not afraid to hit (the government) where it hurts.”
The 36-year-old chief said he’s been inspired by grassroots movements like the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. He wants the province’s aboriginal nations to band together and effect meaningful change in the relationship between natives and the government.
“Our parents were taken away from their homes, they were placed in residential schools and raised under an iron fist,” Boivin said. “But we weren’t raised in fear. We’re not going to back down, we won’t be bought off and we won’t turn on each other. This is about more than money or royalties; it’s about our home.”
In the Atikamekw language, the same word is used to describe home and the surrounding forest. “Notcmik” literally translates to “the place where I live.”
The symbolism isn’t lost on Chilton, who said he wouldn’t dream of calling any other place home.
“I’ve been out west and I’ve worked construction in the city, but that’s not for me,” he said. “If I were in Trois-Rivières for just a few days, it wouldn’t be long before you’d see me crying into a beer, just wishing to be back home. This place is all we have. We’re not a rich people, but with notcmik there’s a richness to our lives.”
Posted By David Robeck at 1:58pm on September 04, 2012
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