Indigenous leaders, community groups want voices heard at G7

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Viens Commission waking up Quebecers to plight of Indigenous peoples, says Huron-Wendat grand chief

Environmental concerns, gender equality issues and Indigenous rights are among the subjects grassroots groups want to see on the agenda of world leaders who will gather in Quebec's Charlevoix region in two weeks.

But community leaders are expressing their dismay at how much the G7 summit is costing — and how little the region will benefit from it.

Premier Justin Trudeau met citizens and local officials on Wednesday and Thursday ahead of the two-day meeting in La Malbaie on June 8 and 9.

The grand chief of the Huron-Wendat Nation, Konrad Sioui, said he hopes the world's focus on Canada and Quebec will help reshape stereotypes of the country's Indigenous peoples.

"We don't want to be seen as token Indians. We want to be seen as full players," Sioui said after a roundtable meeting with Trudeau on Thursday morning.

Sioui said he hopes to promote international commerce with Indigenous nations in other countries and allow the Huron-Wendat to share their expertise in tourism and economic development.

"[We don't] want to be seen as a bunch of victims who are at the mercy of different governments," he said.

Sioui also counts on the presence of Indigenous leaders to make sure gender equality and environmental concerns are brought to the attention of the likes of U.S. President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, "making sure also that our children and grandchildren not born yet will have their rightful place in this country."

Expensive conversation

Not everyone in Charlevoix shares Sioui's optimism the summit will offer a platform to get across these messages.

The last estimates submitted by the House of Commons put the cost of the two-day meeting at $224.6 million.

Marianne Guay, who works with the women's group Femmes aux Plurielles, said taxpayers' money could have been put to better use.

"This will only deepen social inequalities and have the biggest impact on women, because they are often the ones who need these services," Guay said, referring to the funding gaps in social programs and unemployment benefits her group lobbies to close.

Out of sight

The community groups with which Guay is collaborating intend to highlight the social problems affecting both the region and the other industrialized countries represented at the G7.

But she says there is little chance G7 leaders will pay much attention to what will go on in the official protest zone, a "free-speech area" security officials have set up more than one kilometre away from the actual conference rooms inside the Manoir de Charlevoix.

"What we're denouncing is the anti-democratic aspect of this summit, that it is not transparent," Guay said.

Marie-Noël Thibault, who works with local youth centres in Charlevoix, agreed the meeting wouldn't lead to any real conversation with the population.

She said all these talks behind closed doors could be held in a more private setting, without having to disrupt an entire town.

Thibault said young people in La Malbaie have grown anxious, seeing barricades go up around them and the heavy police presence.

"They were pretty discouraged to see they were cutting down trees to install these giant barricades that they'll be taking down in no time," Thibault said.

Trudeau responded to the concerns raised by citizens, vowing the G7 will be worthwhile.

He said it was important that Canada be host to an event that will invest in global co-operation.

"Making sure that all Canadians have the support and resources they need to succeed is a priority for this government," Trudeau said.