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Speaking notes for the Minister of Transport, Minister for Native Affairs and Minister responsible for Wildlife and Parks, Guy Chevrette, On the occasion of a mission to Europe dealing
with aboriginal affairs

January 30, 2001

(Check against delivery)


I am pleased to be with you today as part of Québec's mission on aboriginal issues. We will be visiting three cities during the course of this mission, Paris, Brussels and London, describing the Québec government's relations with aboriginal people to elected officials, the press, representatives of non-governmental organizations and interested academics.

Let me begin by introducing the people with me. They are aboriginal leaders who are firmly committed to the development of their nation or their community and with whom I have become friends over the last few years. They are the President of Makivik Corporation, Pita Aatami, representing the 10 000 Inuit of Nunavik, the Chief of the Attikamek community of Obedjiwan with a population of 2 050, Simon Awashish, and the Chief of the Innu community of Mashteuiatsh with a population of 4 500, Clifford Moar.  They will give you their perspective on the history and current state of relations between Québec and aboriginal people.

The Québec government's purpose in this mission is to:

  • sensitize European players with an interest in aboriginal issues and develop an international network to more effectively publicize the efforts the government is making to harmonize its relations with aboriginal people and thus provide a more complete picture than is presented in some quarters;
  • respond to the expectations of many players in Québec who want the Québec government to tell the international community about the true situation of aboriginal people in Québec and Québec's policy regarding aboriginal people.
  • give aboriginal leaders an opportunity to describe how they view the development of their community and their nation, as well as their relations with the Québec government.

The situation of aboriginal people in Québec

In order to properly discuss the current state of relations with aboriginal people, I have to begin by describing the geographic, historical, cultural and socio-economic context of Amerindians and Inuit in Québec.

There are 54 aboriginal communities spread throughout Québec, as you can see on the map we have given you. The population of these communities ranges from a few hundred, for instance on the lower North Shore and in the Far North, to about 8 000 in Kahnawake, a community located on the outskirts of Montréal.

With the exception of the Inuit communities which are constituted as municipalities under the James Bay and Northern Québec Agreement, a modern treaty signed 25 years ago, which Mr. Aatami will describe at greater length, these communities are constituted as reserves, in other words, territories, often very small, set aside for the use of the Indians by the government of Canada in the 19th and 20th centuries.

About 75 000 Amerindians and Inuit live in aboriginal communities in Québec, and close to 40 000 live outside such communities, either in Montréal, Québec City or other municipalities in Québec. Aboriginal people account for about 1% of Québec's population.

The aboriginal population of Québec is young, in fact I'd say very young.  Young people under 30 account for close to 60% of the population of aboriginal communities, and almost 34% are under 15. Though it is trending lower, the birth rate among aboriginal people in Québec is still about double the Québec average, which itself is comparable to the situation in Europe.

Culturally and ethnically, the situation of aboriginal people in Québec is far from uniform.  On the contrary, and the leaders with me can address this, what we have is a varied and complex mosaic of 11 nations, all officially recognized by the National Assembly of Québec. These nations have different cultures, traditions and languages that are still very much alive. Eight aboriginal languages are still spoken in Québec, and many of them are also written. They are taught in school and we back not only their preservation, but also their development since it is essential to maintaining the vitality of each nation's identity.

The Québec government is proud of this cultural richness and supports it every way it can with the resources at its disposal and in a spirit of mutual respect.

In spite of the success of recent years, much remains to be done on aboriginal issues. The aboriginal population of Québec consists of communities and nations of various sizes, scattered throughout the territory, at very different stages of development. You should also be aware that some of these communities are experiencing significant social and economic problems. Many are in the process of moving from a traditional way of life to modernity. Mr. Awashish, whose community is currently undergoing this transition to a more modern lifestyle, will have more to say on this.

Some communities are decidedly in the process of taking charge of their own development, making use of enlightened leadership, skilled human resources and responsible financial management. Others, with far fewer resources, definitely need help to develop acceptable basic infrastructures, including housing in some cases. They are also dramatically in need of support to develop their human and financial capacity to become self-sufficient.

The major issues

In recent years, dealings with aboriginal people have, on the whole, taken on a much broader scope. Until now, we acted essentially on the basis of administrative agreements to adapt government action to more adequately take the situation of aboriginal people into consideration. However, we are increasingly confronted with much more basic issues, namely aboriginal rights and title in Québec. The agreement reached with the Innus on the Common Approach, which Mr. Moar will discuss, the substantial progress of comprehensive land negotiations with the Attikameks, the work of the Nunavik Commission, the use of the courts as an element of our relations with the Crees, have propelled these issues to the forefront of our relations with aboriginal people.

At the same time, the non-aboriginal population of Québec is worried, particularly in regions with a heavy concentration of aboriginal communities.  While everyone acknowledges the necessity of removing legal uncertainty so that the development of the territory can proceed, there is a fear that governments will go too far in recognizing the rights of aboriginal people.  Non-aboriginal people also fear losing their established rights regarding access to the land as well as wildlife and forest resources. Lastly, the relevance of the tax exemptions aboriginal people enjoy is increasingly called into question.  At a fundamental level, all these concerns often reflect a misunderstanding of the situation of aboriginal people and the government's action regarding them.

These conclusions force us to deal with significant issues. In the short term, we will have to continue supporting aboriginal communities as they take charge of their development, working towards harmonious relations between aboriginal people, our government and Quebecers, while seeking greater fairness among residents of the same territory. In the medium to long term, there is no avoiding the need to settle issues of rights, tied to land and resources, in order to remove the uncertainty that impedes the development of both aboriginal people and Québec in general.

History of relations with aboriginal people
from the arrival of the Europeans until today

These complex issues regarding the rights of aboriginal people require that we look back at our past to better understand the present.

When the Europeans arrived, many groups of aboriginal people were organized in societies, with rules, a common language and system of justice. A European, living on the banks of the St. Lawrence River, in Québec City or Montréal, would not have ventured into the back country without the help of the aboriginal people who knew the territory. Aboriginal people did not attempt to throw the Europeans arriving in Québec back into the sea. And our ancestors did not wage war on them. Each group benefited from the presence of the other and the exchange of know-how. And until the 19th century, aboriginal people and the descendants of the Europeans coexisted.

Not until the Industrial Revolution and the arrival of new technologies did our ancestors begin to push into remote regions, to develop the forest, mines and hydro-electric resources. This period also marked the beginning of worsening relations between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people.  The federal government became the "trustee" of aboriginal people and placed them on Indian reserves.

Today, this past is coming back to haunt us. First, because aboriginal people are claiming their rights. They are saying they were in Québec before us and never gave up the land they have lived and worked on for thousands of years. And second, because aboriginal communities live in economic and social conditions that are decidedly inferior to those of the rest of Québec, something to which we cannot be indifferent.

Relations between the Québec government and aboriginal people over the last thirty years

In spite of this long history of cohabitation, formal relations between the Québec government and aboriginal people in Québec are fairly recent, dating back no further than the early sixties. However, the Québec government's dealings with aboriginal people only became truly significant with the signature of the James Bay and Northern Québec Agreement, in 1975.

Then, in 1983, the Québec government adopted 15 principles to guide relations between Québec and aboriginal people. These principles, together with the work of a parliamentary committee, prompted the National Assembly to pass a resolution in 1985 recognizing the aboriginal nations and their right to develop their identity, culture, economic base and autonomy within Québec. These principles continue to form the basis of the Québec government's current policy regarding aboriginal people.

Partnership, Development, Achievement:
the Québec government's guidelines concerning aboriginal people

In 1998, the 20th anniversary of the formation of the Secrétariat aux affaires autochtones, the Québec government implemented new guidelines enabling aboriginal nations and communities to take charge of their development and achieve greater self-sufficiency. Currently, the major issues for the Québec government and aboriginal nations include land and resources, economic development, self-government and financial self-sufficiency. Agreements have to be negotiated on these issues.

The guidelines:
  • are consistent with previous political actions, namely the 1985 resolution of the National Assembly and the 15 principles of 1983;
  • acknowledge the priority needs identified by Amerindian and Inuit communities;
  • encourage the conclusion of agreements for increased responsibility and development with aboriginal people, under a partnership approach, and the renewal of agreements to continue work in progress;
  • propose that agreements be reached concerning aboriginal institutions and the exercise of contractual jurisdictions;
  • make it easier to pass appropriate legislative amendments;
  • suggest that a bipartite commission be set in place to devise a permanent forum for political discussion;
  • offer a new approach to develop self-government and financial self-sufficiency of aboriginal communities;
  • contribute to economic and community development by setting up a fund and, as a result, foster job creation.

The approach is one of overall fairness: both aboriginal and non-aboriginal populations must have access to the same living conditions, the same general development conditions and a fair share of the collective wealth, while allowing aboriginal people to maintain and develop their identity.

Results after two years

Overall, the results of the measures arising from the Partnership, Development, Achievement policy paper are positive. Over the last two years, we have signed nine declarations of mutual understanding and respect, eleven framework agreements and over twenty sector agreements in various fields of economic and social activity. These agreements make it possible to establish more solid and lasting relations with aboriginal communities. Communities are playing a more active role in their own development, economic and community development projects are being pursued, and the mechanisms set up under these agreements make it possible to build and consolidate more harmonious relations between the government and these aboriginal communities, as well as between these communities and neighbouring non-aboriginal populations.

For instance, the signature of agreements with the Mohawk community of Kahnawake has enabled us to consolidate our relations with them. We have been able to move from a confrontational approach to one emphasizing dialogue and negotiation to resolve even the hardest issues. This change in approach is happening with all the communities with which we are signing agreements.

In addition, with the signature of specific agreements concerning the implementation of the Aboriginal Development Fund with 38 of the 54 communities already, we are carrying out concrete economic and community development projects with them. This means that Québec is participating directly in improving the living conditions of aboriginal populations. In addition to helping meet pressing social and community needs and supporting the creation of businesses and jobs among aboriginal people, the Fund is a valuable tool for Québec. Often, it helps establish contact, build relations of trust and bring aboriginal communities to become more involved in economic activity in Québec.

Major challenges in harmonizing relations between Québec and aboriginal people

As Minister for Native Affairs in the Québec government, the major challenges I will be focusing my energy on in the next few years are:
  • first of all, seeking balance and fairness between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people both in terms of living conditions and opportunities, especially for young people, to become more involved in economic activity in Québec;
  • improving living conditions in the most isolated and poorest communities by providing proper housing for their populations, ensuring they have access to adequate community infrastructures and have the opportunity to develop and flourish in acceptable conditions;
  • supporting the difficult but unavoidable transition from tradition to modernity in certain aboriginal communities, while respecting their culture and identity;
  • working towards solutions concerning questions of rights in order to remove the legal uncertainty impeding the development of aboriginal communities and Québec in general. The challenge lies in the definition of these aboriginal rights and their recognition in a 21st century context;
  • the division of responsibilities between the Québec government, the federal government as trustee of aboriginal people, and aboriginal bodies, as part of the exercise of self-government and financial self-sufficiency.

In conclusion

In carrying out my responsibilities as Minister for Native Affairs, I have seen at first-hand just how deeply we need to talk to each other, get to know each other better, understand and become familiar with each other to establish lasting relations not only between aboriginal nations and the Québec government, but also between aboriginal communities and neighbouring non-aboriginal communities.

I feel that together - with the leaders accompanying me, of course, but also with many of their fellows - we have come a long way in this regard in recent years. However, we must go on with our work to forge lasting links.

I am convinced that we share enough common objectives to build together solid relations that will enable us to deal with the most delicate issues and the most difficult ones. By giving ourselves the chance to build a better future for our respective communities, respecting each other's identity, we are helping to bridge the gaps between us and, together, we are defining an increasingly shared vision of the future.

Aboriginal people are an important component of Québec's past, present and future.  Québec is immeasurably better off thanks to the presence of eleven culturally diverse aboriginal nations, of aboriginal communities in every part of Québec, and of living aboriginal languages spoken in Québec in the 21st century. We are proud, and want other people, including Europeans, to have a better appreciation of this situation.

Thank you for your attention. I now yield the podium to the leaders here with me.
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