Language, legislation, and the river discussed at latest AFNQL general assembly

·4 min read

The Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador (AFNQL) chiefs’ general assembly took place last week, with Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK) grand chief Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer and chief political advisor Winona Polson-Lahache in attendance, and MCK chief Ross Montour attending virtually.

According to Sky-Deer, there was a lot of strategizing about how to deal with the provincial government’s overreach, as the AFNQL and First Nations Education Council (FNEC) launched a lawsuit last Thursday against the Quebec government over Bill 96, the province’s controversial language law.

“It feels like they’re always trying to legislate matters that are not their jurisdiction or their business,” said Sky-Deer of the Legault government. “We know what we’ve got to do when it comes to language and culture; we know what we have to do when it comes to our families.

“We have a language law here in the community,” said the grand chief. “We’ve had it since 1999. It was created and passed by our elders.”

The AFNQL and FNEC say Bill 96, now known as Law 14, is in contravention of Indigenous ancestral rights and will affect every sector from healthcare to education to the economy. While First Nations look to be removed from Bill 96’s purview, the Quebec government has plans to develop new legislation focused on Indigenous languages and cultures.

“How would Quebec feel if Canada said, ‘Hey, we’re going to pass legislation to protect the French language and culture.’ They would probably say, ‘it’s not your business,’” said Sky-Deer.

The grand chief said she personally told Ian Lafrenière, the minister responsible for relations with First Nations and the Inuit, to reach out to AFNQL chief Ghislain Picard and schedule a meeting with the assembly, but that Picard and Lafrenière had not been able to organize a time. However, after Picard instructed the AFNQL chiefs to text the minister and tell him to come, Lafrenière showed up last Wednesday.

“I asked him point blank, I said, ‘Look, if you get a direct clear message from the chiefs that we don’t want you to proceed, are you going to stop?’ and (Lafrenière) said, ‘Well, absolutely,’” said Sky-Deer. However, the minister claimed to have received support for the legislation from some AFNQL chiefs in private.

“He heard, but I don’t think he’s listening,” said Sky-Deer.

The theme of this year’s assembly was “governance and self-determination” and highlighted various commissions, advocacy efforts, and legislative victories that have signified steps towards self-determination.

Also on the docket for the assembly was Canada’s draft plan for the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), plans for which were met coldly by the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) in Ottawa just two weeks ago, with many Indigenous leaders arguing that plan does not go far enough and ultimately upholds Canadian sovereignty.

Sky-Deer felt there was not enough time to adequately address the UNDRIP action plan, especially given the federal government’s June deadline for tabling the action plan quickly approaching.

With the AFNQL tackling important issues with both the provincial and federal governments, some reprieve was found in the passage of a resolution to assign legal personhood to the St. Lawrence River.

“The links between the St. Lawrence River and the history of our nations are written on every inch of the banks of this majestic waterway,” said Picard in an AFNQL statement published Monday. “We have an obligation to ensure its protection and sustainability.”

Picard and Jean-Charles Piétacho, chief of the Innu Council of Ekuanitshit, were in New York on Monday to submit the resolution to the United Nations (UN).

Montour hopes that the AFNQL’s resolution will lead to a recognition of the river’s personhood from federal, provincial, and state governments and prevent pollution caused by shipping, construction, and other human activity.

“The concern is to protect all life,” said Montour, who leads MCK’s lands and environment portfolio. “When you finally tick off that last part of creation … that’s the end. The river is a dead thing,” he continued.

For Montour, it all comes back to the Ohèn:ton Karihwatéhkwen – the words that come before all else – and the obligations he holds to future generations.

“If we treat our environment with respect, it will continue to sustain us,” he said.

nicky@easterndoor.com

Nicky Taylor, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eastern Door