Negotiations over land dispute in heart of the boreal forest are stalling
It’s zero hour for leaders in the Atikamekw First Nation. Last month, chiefs in three impoverished Atikamekw communities gave the provincial government an ultimatum: resolve a 33-year-old land dispute by Aug. 30 or face blockades on logging roads across the Haute Mauricie region.
With negotiations stalling and the deadline expired, groups in Opitciwan, Manawan and Wemotaci must decide whether to resume disruptions on roads used by forestry giant Kruger Products.
About 30 people in the Aboriginal reserves set up checkpoints to prevent Kruger’s trucks from carrying lumber through their territory in June and early July. They also blocked all CN Rail line traffic passing through Atikamekw land.
Grand chiefs in the Aboriginal towns said they wanted a bigger stake in the management of natural resources on their reserves as well as a “James Bay Cree” style agreement with the provincial government.
“We’re a community that is suffering, that’s plagued with massive unemployment and housing shortages,” Wemotaci grand chief David Boivin told The Gazette. “We can’t wait any longer, we’re at wit’s end. We can’t just sit idly by while large companies exploit our resources and reap the benefits.”
The blockade was temporarily lifted in July when Native Affairs minister Geoffrey Kelly said the government would be willing to make concessions on logging royalties and possible land grievances. But as both sides continue to grapple at the negotiating table, Aboriginal residents are getting desperate.
The remote Atikamekw villages lie in the heart of Quebec’s massive Boreal Forest, where the faltering logging industry is the only major employer. Although a small, Atikamekw-owned sawmill in Opitciwan accounts for about 130 local jobs, Kruger’s mills dominate the region and hire mostly non-native labour.
It’s estimated the unemployment rate among the northern communities could be as high as 50 per cent. Boivin is hoping continued blockades could create enough of a disturbance to fast-track negotiations and force the government to invest in job-training and jobcreating programs for young Aboriginal people.
“We’re going to make a decision (Wednesday night) and then consult with our communities,” the grand chief said. “If they decide to go ahead with blockades that’s what we’ll do. We’ve been at the negotiating table since I was three years old. It’s time to see results.”
Boivin hosted a gathering of First Nations chiefs on his reserve this week to raise awareness of the struggles his people are facing. The chiefs are hoping to band together and present the government with a more united front.
“I don’t think there’s much hope for us to establish something concrete with the government within the next few hours,” said Assembly of First Nations regional chief Ghislain Picard. “What makes it even more difficult is that this is all happening during a contentious provincial election. So we might have a whole new government to deal with in just a few weeks.”
For the rest of this article, please go to the Montreal Gazette website: http://www.montrealgazette.com/life/Aboriginal+groups+poised+resume+blockade/7164990/story.html