The province and First Nations hit the reset button

·3 min read

It was a few days after Joyce Echaquan's death in a Joliette hospital had jolted Quebec, intensifying the spotlight on the province's relationship with Indigenous people, and Premier François Legault wasn't a happy man.

Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador Grand Chief Ghislain Picard had been scheduled to meet with Legault in the premier's Montreal office, but decided there was no point attending if the leaders of Manawan's Atikamekw community, of which Echaquan was a member, couldn't come with him. They couldn't, so he didn't go.

Legault was visibly annoyed, telling a news conference on Oct. 1 that "once again, I don't know what Chief Picard is playing at."

Fast forward six weeks, and the change in the ambient temperature is startling. Indeed, the parties appear to have hit 'reset' on their relationship.

On Tuesday, Picard met with Legault and Indigenous Affairs Minister Ian Lafrenière in Montreal and not only was the meeting cordial, it resulted in what the people involved believe could eventually become a bona fide breakthrough.

At least, those are the hopes Picard is investing in the "joint political table" he and Lafrenière announced.

"It's looking positive for the next few weeks and months," he said.

Creating a 'common space'

Calling it a "common space" for a nation-to-nation dialogue, Picard noted the new committee will report to the premier, "and directly commits the premier's office to our priorities."

Both parties were at pains to say the new structure doesn't preclude individual meetings and negotiations.

Much remains to be settled — how often the group will meet, what issues it will focus on, who will be invited to sit in the room, and the like — but this much is known: Picard and Lafrenière will be co-chairs, and it is a political and bureaucratic structure the AFNQL didn't have this time last week.

Lafrenière, for his part, was similarly upbeat, calling the joint committee "an extended hand."

He pointed out it would have been easy for the province to attempt to dictate how it will work, but said "we will take the time to define the 'hows' together."

There is also a renewed effort to involve First Nations groups earlier in the legislative process. Lafrenière cited the government's response to Joyce's Principle, an initiative

When Picard was asked how he went from refusing to meet the premier in October to setting up a formalized, recurring meeting structure now, he said "I have a responsibility to engage the government of the day and to create the conditions for dialogue."

Legault, too, has acted to create a rapprochement. He apologized publicly for the conditions in which Echaquan perished, and swiftly dumped Indigenous Affairs minister Sylvie D'Amours from her post.

New minister, new agenda

Since taking over Indigenous Affairs post just over four weeks ago, Lafrenière has been a busy minister.

He's announced more funding for health care services, barnstormed the province to meet with Indigenous leaders, and checked in with Picard once a week.

On Monday, Lafrenière travelled to Val d'Or to meet with Algonquin leaders in hopes of addressing tensions over moose hunting in the region. One result from that meeting is the draw for hunting licences will be delayed in 2021 in order to provide more room for a negotiated settlement.

Lafrenière has promised to make one announcement a week between now and Christmas that addresses an issue raised by the Viens Commission, which issued a 520-page report on systemic anti-Indigenous discrimination last year.

"This is tangible," he said of the formal process announced Tuesday.

Asked by a reporter whether he is developing the same kind of chemistry he had with former Liberal minister Geoffrey Kelley, Picard said "we're learning to win each other over."

But there is still clearly work to do. Without naming D'Amours, Picard described his relationship to the Legault government to this point as "almost a two-year void."