Since early October, the Atikamekw of the Haute-Mauricie region have been occupying land located 40 kilometers from Manawan in order to keep an eye on logging companies' abusive practices. The "occupation" is one among numerous means which will be used in the coming months in order to save and protect ancestral Atikamekw lands. On October 17, the Regroupement spoke with Marie-Louise and Pierre-Paul Niquay of Manawan, on a movement which seems to be making waves...
Marie-Louise: The movement is called Nutcimik which means "from where we come from" and in this case we're talking about of the forest and the land.
It originated when about a dozen young people from Manawan, all in their twenties, went into the interior. They quickly realized that the forests around Manawan were being destroyed by the logging companies. It's something that a lot of people have realized, but that very few have dared talk about. Today, when people get to specific areas of the land, they feel lost. There are roads everywhere and there is no way to live off the land without being disturbed.
Everything started with a small group of five people; then ten, later thirty. They decided to bring the issue up in the community, with the people of Manawan. They used the community radio station to talk about it and they hosted open-line programs and people phoned-up to talk about their experiences on the land. And that's how the movement got started.
Nutcimik's objective in Manawan is to save and protect Atikamekw ancestral lands. To do so, we've decided to raise awareness among the people of Manawan, which was easy enough, and then to raise the government's and the people of Québec's awareness.
With regards to Québec, we're asking ourselves many questions. Last March, for instance, Minister Guy Chevrette came out with a study that concluded that the Atikamekw and Montagnais had disappeared. But, in fact, we're here, we exist, we know the land and speak out language. There's the whole issue of Québec territorial integrity, as well... and we haven't seen too many Québécois journalists either. It seems they never have enough money to go beyond the large urban centers along the St-Lawrence River. They've never been sent any farther and they won't usually come anyway, because it's not worth it unless there's blood or fire...
So, we're also thinking about trying to gather support internationally. But we also don't want to go too fast, we don't want to get co-opted because that has happened with other Native people who have lost their autonomy within their own struggles. We want to stay in control, we know what we want and we have our own proposals.
We'll do our thing in order to apply pressure, but the Band Council is also going to have to go forward and do its share as a political body. So that's where we're at.
On the land itself, it's gotten to the point where we can't go somewhere without bumping into someone who wants to kick us out. Most of the Québécois or others who come from elsewhere are convinced that we have sold the land in order to live in reserves, in houses. Every time an Indian goes onto the land, someone says: "What are you doin' here? You got no business bein' here, you sold the land. Now we're payin' to be here, so get lost!"
The Atikamekw have chosen a peaceful approach to this issue. There was a time when young and old felt exhausted, there was a lot of anger and they wanted to resort to much stronger acts in order to assert their sovereignty on the land. It's as if they were being pushed to act in a violent manner, as if they were being provoked, because no other means were at their disposal in order to have their sovereignty and their rights recognized.
Marie-Louise: Land claim negotiations have been going on for an entire generation, they're not going anywhere and we've seen no results. In the beginning, when talks started between the government and the Native people who, at the time, had gathered in the Atikamekw Montagnais Council (CAM), our people had asked for a moratorium on all logging activities on our land for the duration of the negotiations, but the governments never accepted...
Anyway, in that sense, regardless of the actions, regardless of the venues where Native people could go to defend their rights, they've always been blocked or locked-out. On the political level and the legal level. Whenever an Indian found a way to defend the land, there was always a rule or a law that the government would whip out to block everything.
So, if we look at history, Indians have always said that this was their land, that it had always belonged to the, that it had never been ceded, nor sold. They've always talked well in that sense, but they've never been listened to. They have always been blocked everywhere. So, the Band Council can't do anything, then it's up to the people, together, to work to save and defend our land. Maybe they'll be heard or listened to...
Marie-Louise: When you go into the forest, you see lakes with no trees around them. Along the highways, there is a row of trees along either side, but as soon as you leave the beaten path, there's nothing.
Pierre-Paul: And that's why there is an encampment at the moment on hunting grounds that have been devastated by the logging companies, about 40 kilometers from Manawan...
Our lives are linked to the land and if we're experiencing the problems that we are in the community, it's because we're living in a very confined space called a reserve and the forced settlement of our people has provoked many problems.
People are understanding more and more the importance of the land in our lives. When the elders saw the movement rising, they said: "Finally, they're moving. Finally, they're understanding and we hope you keep doing something for the land and our future".
Today, people in Manawan have a better understanding of the situation, a better understanding of the consequences of deforestation on our day to day lives. We also understand the consequences for our future as Atikamekw. But, deforestation isn't just happening on Atikamekw lands near Manawan, it's happening around the world...
The young people won't give up. I'm certain of it because it's about the land and I think it's going to go much farther. People are waking up, they're opening up and the young people are asking themselves many questions with regards to their future. They're saying: "If the people in power can't do anything to guarantee us a better future, then we'll take care of it ourselves."
The movement is very necessary at the present time. People need to move and protect the land, and the governments, the logging companies, the multinationals are going to have to listen and change their ways. We have a project, we have thousands of years of experience and we're going to have to start putting it in practice before it's too late.