New post on Montreal Gazette
After decades of a David versus Goliath struggle with the federal government, three small Innu nations are on the verge of securing a land claim settlement unlike any other in Canadian history.
The treaty would see the First Nations and Quebec governments co-manage a territory 16 times larger than the island of Montreal — setting aside certain areas for conservation and opening others up to mining partnerships with the Innu.
It would also guarantee royalties of at least three per cent for the group on all development within their vast traditional territory — centred in Quebec’s Saguenay and Côte Nord regions. The Innu would retain exclusive hunting, fishing and logging rights on most of the 8,000-square-kilometre land mass.
And unlike previous federal land claim settlements, the Innu nations of Essipit, Mashteuiasth and Nutashkuan wouldn’t have to surrender title over their traditional territory. They wouldn’t be subject to the Indian Act and would have a level of self-government seen in just a handful of reserves across Canada.
The proposed treaty gives communities control over their children’s schooling, deputizes aboriginal park rangers to enforce Innu hunting laws and creates measures to safeguard the preservation of their language and culture.
“Even with the James Bay Agreement — which probably made the (Quebec) Cree the most powerful aboriginal organization in Canada — there was a surrender of title,” said Daniel Salée, a political-science professor at Concordia University. “Having title implies self-government, autonomy, full and total control over their land. It’s huge.”
But there is a catch.
Within 12 years of ratifying the agreement, most federal subsidies to the three reserves would expire. The Innu could counteract those losses by levying their own property and income taxes from band members. There’s also an acknowledgement, by the Innu, that much of their traditional territory has permanently been lost to the growth of cities populated by non-Aboriginal settlers.
“As in any negotiation, there’s give and take, but we have a chance at something huge here,” said Raoul Kanapé, a member of the Innu negotiating team. “If we reach a deal, the Indian Act is over. We’re taking care of ourselves now and if we make a mistake it’ll be ours and no one else’s. This is what independence looks like.”