Thank you very much, Madam Chair.
Honourable members of this committee, good morning.
[The witness speaks Atikamekw]
My name is Constant Awashish. I am the Grand Chief of the Atikamekw Nation.
I only received this invitation last Friday. I would like to make a comment, without animosity. We tabled a brief, but we would have liked it to be longer. We did what we could despite the short notice. I will try to inform you as best I can to help you in your work.
The Atikamekw Nation has 7,700 members, and I am their Grand Chief. Our nation has been negotiating with governments since 1979, close to 40 years. The topic of today's study is comprehensive land claims negotiations. The members and politicians of the Atikamekw nation often wonder whether there is a real will to come to an agreement with us, since there are always new developments that arise during the negotiations.
Our natural resources and territories are being exploited, and this is increasing. That has always been the case, and that has not slowed down at all since 1979. We deplore that fact.
After several meetings with our members, and several surveys, we concluded that comprehensive negotiations are still relevant and still important in the eyes of the communities of the Atikamekw Nation.
We believe that comprehensive negotiations will give us the tools we need to develop as a nation and as a first people of this country.
You are aware of the economic and social situation of most of the first nations of Canada. In your work you have probably been made aware of indigenous reality and the Atikamekw Nation is no exception. In our communities, unemployment rates are high, a lot of people must resort to social assistance, and there are almost no jobs. Despite the fact that our natural resources are exploited on our territory, there are very few spinoff benefits for our communities.
When a resource is developed there is a value added chain. Despite that, no jobs are created for us, and the profits and fees often go to the government. For centuries, the Atikamekw nation has received nothing. That is a situation we deplore as members of this country, Canada. I do not think that the situation is viable in the long term.
That is the viewpoint of the Atikamekw Nation on that, and this is a message I have been delivering for three years now.
In speaking about the Atikamekw Nation, I am also speaking about all of the first nations. I think that in order to have a prosperous country or province, indigenous nations must also prosper.
We are all interrelated economically. As I already mentioned, if a first nation develops economically, if it has a good rate of progress and employability, if there is a lot of work there and if it can develop its own natural resources in its own way, there will be economic benefits for the neighbouring regions and towns, which will lead to economic benefits for the province, which will also be felt in Canada. I think that is today's reality. We must invest in first nations to give them an opportunity to develop their economies. They have to have the opportunity of shaping their own destinies.
There has been much talk of reconciliation over the past few years. In my opinion, reconciliation implies recognizing mistakes. As we speak, that is almost done. Now there has to be an acknowledgement of mistakes regarding economic development. What are we going to offer first nations so that they may develop their economies? How are we going to allow them to participate or contribute to the economic development of the province or country? That is the message I have been trying to deliver from the outset.
As Grand Chief, I am often asked what we will do if we manage to conclude an agreement or a treaty and if we have our territory, our self-government, and some funding. I am asked how we will develop our territory. One thing is certain and that is that we cannot pick up and leave with our territory. That is why, on the topic of developing our territory, I always mention the interrelationship among all of the people of Canada. We want to develop our territory precisely in order to make a greater contribution to the evolution of this country. To get there we have to be given the means to do so. The Atikamekw Nation believes that the best way to get there is through a treaty.
For the Atikamekw Nation, the important thing is to arrive at something concrete. Soon we will have been negotiating for 40 years. The duration of those negotiations is perplexing to the nation. That is an issue that must be solved. In my opinion, to correct things, we have to bring politicians closer to the negotiating table. Often, we play a game of cat and mouse. We ask for certain things from our negotiators, they propose objectives and recommendations at the negotiating table. But when they arrive at the table, the door is closed and they are told that that is not part of the mandate. Where is the negotiation in that? In my opinion, the politicians need to pull up a chair and come closer to the negotiating table to make things move more quickly.
That is the intention of the Atikamekw Nation this year. Our objective is to settle this matter by the month of June 2018.
Within the Atikamekw Nation, there is increasing disillusionment with regard to the duration of negotiations and the will of governments. The month of June 2018 will be very important for us, as we will decide whether to continue the negotiations or simply to use pressure tactics to accelerate the process and pursue our objective, which is the sovereignty of our territory. As I said, this would be a last resort, and what we want is pure and simple participation from the government. We want the government to truly commit, one hundred percent, to the negotiations, so that we may be given the means to contribute to the development and growth of the country that is today known as Canada.