Indigenous leaders in Quebec are lamenting the fact that priorities for their communities have been largely ignored during the provincial election campaign.
Atikamekw Grand Chief Constant Awashish says he’s not surprised the campaign has neglected issues such as Indigenous self-determination, use of lands, resource-sharing or nation-to-nation partnerships. Those issues aren’t championed by political parties, he said, because leaders don’t need the votes of Indigenous Peoples to get elected.
“Of course I want things to change,” Awashish said. “I want to have a better future for my people, a better future for my children, and I think there’s a moral responsibility (among parties).”
The Atikamekw community has been asking for a series of measures — called Joyce’s Principle — to be adopted into Quebec law. The principle is a list of recommendations to Quebec and Canadian governments on how to tackle systemic racism in health and social services. It is named after Joyce Echaquan, a 37-year-old Atikamekw mother of seven who died in hospital in Joliette, Que., in 2020, after filming staff using derogatory slurs against her.
The Coalition Avenir Quebec government has refused to adopt the principle because it refers to systemic racism in Quebec’s institutions, a phenomenon the incumbent government maintains doesn’t exist in Quebec. CAQ Leader Francois Legault had to apologize to Echaquan’s widower after saying during a televised leaders debate that the racism situation at the hospital in Joliette was “settled.”
Chief Sipi Flamand of Manawan, an Atikamekw community about 250 kilometres north of Montreal, says the lack of discussion about First Nations during the campaign is not remarkable. “It’s very important for different parties to work together to address issues raised by Indigenous communities,” Flamand said.
Awashish said he would like to see more awareness and understanding of Indigenous communities by Quebec’s political class. “I think First Nations are getting more involved at all levels politically, but the sad thing is (political leaders) only talk about our peoples when there’s something bad happening ? that’s the image collectively society has.
“We need more education, we need more awareness, for everybody, but mainly to non-Indigenous elected people, they need to see us differently, they need to know us differently so they can see us as the solution of the future.”
On Friday, Legault was confronted by the reality of Indigenous people feeling rejected by his government, while speaking with residential school survivors on National Truth and Reconciliation Day in the Abitibi-Temiscamingue region, in northwestern Quebec.
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“We feel ignored,” Johnny Wylde, a residential school survivor, told Legault during the visit. The CAQ leader responded that he would spend more time with First Nations communities should he win the Oct. 3 election.
“The parties do not talk about it enough, we are forgotten on some level, we just talk about Quebecers,” fellow survivor Edouard Kistabish told reporters following the ceremony. “It’s slow going; it’s going to take time before we can trust on our side, we have experienced too much rejection.”
Legault visited the site of St-Marc-de-Figuery residential school in Amos, Que., which operated between 1955 and 1973. The site was razed, and what remains is a plaque, and next to it are dozens of pairs of children’s shoes, a symbol of those children that never came home.
“The first step is to recognize there was a tragedy, recognize the truth, even if it’s painful,” Legault said. “The second part is reconciliation, and we have a duty to create with Indigenous Peoples a relationship that is founded on respect, nation to nation, equal to equal.”
Speaking to reporters later in the day, Legault said his goal was to have agreements with First Nations and Inuit nations involving such things as protected areas and economic development. He said the process has been slow because each of the 11 First Nations in the province wants their own agreement. The Quebec government has thus far signed five agreements.
Legault also said protecting Indigenous languages would be a priority in the next mandate, and he suggested a CAQ government would table a bill on the protection of Indigenous languages.
In Montreal, Liberal Leader Dominque Anglade told reporters if elected, she would immediately adopt Joyce’s Principle in her first 100 days in office.
As well, she said that Sept. 30 — National Day for Truth and Reconciliation — should be a statutory holiday in Quebec, adding that the day is an opportunity to reflect on what happened in residential schools and to focus on the future. Legault has refused to make the day an official provincial holiday; he has said Quebecers don’t need another day off and that the province needs more “productivity.”
Taiaiake Alfred, a Mohawk writer and political strategist from Kahnawake, south of Montreal, said there simply isn’t much incentive for political parties to engage with First Nations and Inuit communities for provincial election. The relationship between settler governments and First Nations should be on another level, he said.
“They’re a nation and we’re a nation; we should relate to them on a collective level as opposed to draw them into our politics and getting involved in their politics,” Alfred said.
Whoever is elected politically — be it a nationalist, federalist or separatist government — matters little to people living in the community, he said. “It makes no difference in terms of how the Crown and Quebec identity manifests themselves toward us, it’s never been a factor so we don’t involve ourselves.”