For eight of the past 13 years, I have had the privilege of serving as Quebec’s ministre responsable des Affaires autochtones. It has been a challenging period, to say the least, in the development of relations between ten First Nations, the Inuit and the Government of Quebec. In all, there are 55 Indigenous communities, representing approximately 1 per cent of Quebec’s total population, which have their own realities, needs and challenges. In light of many recent significant changes to the landscape, the government is looking to adapt its policies and programs.

These changes include landmark decisions of the Supreme Court of Canada on issues such as the duty to consult and accommodate Indigenous peoples and on aboriginal title, the 94 Calls to Action contained in the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and serious allegations concerning government actions or inaction with regard to various issues. These allegations led to the creation of two inquiries – at the federal level, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG), and at the provincial level, the Public Inquiry Commission on Relations between Indigenous Peoples and Certain Public Services in Québec: Listening, Reconciliation and Progress (the Viens Commission). All of this in the context of a changing demographic reality, where more and more Indigenous people are arriving in our cities and towns, creating challenges for provincial services, notably in the area of health care and education.

The challenges for the new minister holding this portfolio are significant, and I cannot list them all in this article. But I will lay out four areas of concern, and share my hopes for the future of our relations with the First Nations of Quebec and the Inuit of Nunavik.

Challenge 1: Qui fait quoi?

The federal government is preparing a major proposal to help define more clearly self-government for Indigenous people in Canada. The area of governance and constitutional responsibilities for governments is a murky one. The principles are not always easily applicable in practice, and the changing demographic reality has created a significant Indigenous presence in our cities. This presence has led to increased demands for provincial government services, notably in health, education, housing and employment.

For example, despite federal responsibilities for education, fully one third of Indigenous students are now enrolled in Quebec’s public school system. In addition, once secondary studies are completed, students enter the provincial CEGEP and university system, or move toward employment training programs. Over the past decade, the Quebec government has opened four adult education centres in Lac-Simon, Uashat, Kahnawake and Listiguj to attract young adults back into the educational sector, and to prepare them for postsecondary studies. A First Nations college, the Kiuna Institute, was opened in Odanak and continues to develop new programs for a primarily Indigenous clientele.

In addition, our colleges and universities, with some support from Quebec’s Ministère de l’Éducation et de l’Enseignement Supérieur, have increased their efforts to welcome Indigenous students and to provide them with support, to include more Indigenous content in their courses and to strengthen the preparation of various professionals who will work with Indigenous communities. The creation of the Pavillon des Premiers Peuples in Val-d’Or as part of the Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue (UQAT), the work on Indigenous school success done by the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi (UQAC), McGill University’s ambitious Provost’s Task Force on Indigenous Education, Université Laval’s work on the challenges facing northern Quebec and John Abbott College’s work with Inuit students are just a few examples of the progress being made.

But much work remains to be done. The First Nations and Inuit want a greater say in the management of their schools, and seek greater emphasis on Indigenous languages, cultures and history as part of the curriculum. In Quebec, under the auspices of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA), the Cree and Inuit have their own school boards, and the Naskapi have special status for their school. Over 40 years have passed since the signing of the agreement, and these institutions have struggled with issues related to academic success rates and with helping students transition to college or other training programs. But the JBNQA has allowed for a definition of the respective roles and responsibilities of the federal and Quebec governments, as well as the Indigenous population.

Things are less clear for the eight First Nations in southern Quebec. Given the importance of improving academic success rates for Indigenous communities in Quebec, the parties should now sit down and develop a comprehensive plan for ensuring that young Indigenous people receive the education they will need in the future. The curriculum must be designed in collaboration with the First Nations and Inuit. It must include instruction on their languages, cultures and history, but there is a delicate balancing act required to ensure that these students pursue core subjects (reading and writing of both official languages, mathematics and science) in the Quebec curriculum. Without mastering these subjects, Indigenous students cannot aspire to be teachers, doctors, lawyers, nurses and other professionals necessary for the future success of Quebec’s Indigenous communities.

Another area where the lack of a clear assignment of responsibilities has created disappointing results is health and social services. Quebec and Ottawa recently “agreed to disagree” over the funding for ambulance services for the Atikamekw community of Manawan and the construction of a long-term care facility in Wendake. In both cases, since these essential services are provided on-reserve, the costs should be covered by the federal government. However, both projects have consequences for the Quebec health and social services network. In the case of the long-term care facility, the elders of Wendake are now often cared for by provincial services in neighbouring municipalities. Transferring the elders back to their community in their cultural setting is a favourable outcome for the provincial health care network. Once again, community partners, including the Indigenous communities, must find a better formula for assigning roles and responsibilities to ensure that the most vulnerable in our society receive the care and services that they deserve.

Finally, on the question of who is responsible for what, issues related to the production, distribution and consumption of cannabis are very much on everyone’s minds. Opinions in Quebec’s First Nations and Inuit communities on the legalization of marijuana are mixed. In a day-long consultation held in the fall of 2017 in Quebec City, many Indigenous leaders requested the authority to prevent the sale – and even the use – of marijuana in their communities. This was especially true for the 14 Inuit communities in Nunavik. But as the experience with alcohol has shown, it is impossible to limit access to a product which is legal and readily available in Quebec. How can the federal government help Indigenous communities govern the use of marijuana?

This question becomes even more complex on the other side of the issue. Some communities are interested in the production and sale of cannabis. The production question is a federal matter, but key retailing questions, including the age of consumers and whether the sale should be in the hands of a crown corporation or the private sector, are left to provincial jurisdiction. The experience of tobacco sales has shown that this is a recipe for conflict, as several Indigenous communities sell tobacco on a tax-free basis – a boon to smokers, but a huge loss for the Canada Revenue Agency in Ottawa and Revenu Québec in Quebec City, and a disappointment to public health advocates, who believe higher cigarette prices are a valuable deterrent, especially in discouraging use among young smokers.

In these and many other areas, overlapping jurisdictions and the absence of a clear definition of the roles and responsibilities for the federal, Quebec and Indigenous governments will continue to be a challenge for the next minister responsible for Indigenous affairs.

Challenge 2: Sharing the wealth

A key prerequisite for self-government is finding sources of revenue for Indigenous governments. As long as the bulk of the funding is dependent on government programs and subsidies, it will be difficult for Indigenous governments to set their own priorities and tackle the challenges they confront. How can we discuss self-government and the consequent accountability without some form of own-source revenue?

This includes the necessary debate over taxation in First Nation communities. Once again, the Quebec experience is uneven. The Inuit of Quebec, who were not governed by the Indian Act, do pay taxes. We have had success as a result of the JBNQA and the subsequent Paix des Braves (2002), which provides a steady income for the Cree of Eeyou Istchee, indexed to the level of economic activity on the territory. On a more ad hoc basis, we have had success in developing energy projects with Hydro-Quebec and the First Nations. For example, the three Mi’kmaq communities in the Gaspé, in partnership with a company led by non-Indigenous management, have developed a 165-megawatt wind farm near Escuminac. Also, the Innu community of Mashteuiatsh, in partnership with local Regional County Municipalities (known in French as MRCs), have built two modest hydroelectric projects that provide needed income for the community. For other First Nations, timber harvesting permits have been granted. In addition, since 1999, the Quebec government has made funds available within an Aboriginal Initiatives Fund to promote economic development. The third edition of this fund, announced in 2017, makes $135 million available over the next five years for businesses, for infrastructure projects and to finance the costs linked to consultation on various government initiatives.

But this remains a piecemeal approach, especially for the eight First Nations which benefit from neither a modern treaty nor a 19th-century treaty comparable to those signed west of Quebec. For many years, some of these First Nations have embarked on comprehensive land claim negotiations that have not borne fruit. As a result, there is no consensus on the extent of traditional territories of the various First Nations. This has important consequences. First, the Quebec government is bound by several Supreme Court of Canada decisions regarding the duty to consult and accommodate First Nations. This duty is especially significant where no comprehensive land claim settlements have been completed, to ensure that development does not infringe on the rights of the First Nations.

Quebec remains dependent on the development of natural resources – in the mining sector, forestry and energy production. Both for private promoters of projects in this sector and for the government, the lack of clearly identified boundaries makes the duty to consult a complex challenge. When the JBNQA was signed 44 years ago, it created problems for the Anishnabe, Atikamekw and Innu nations, which felt that their rights had been compromised by the establishment of a boundary for Cree territory. They continue to contest the boundaries set out in the JBNQA.

For a promoter seeking to obtain approval for a natural resource project, and for a government called upon to issue permits and to give a project a green light, court decisions have created requirements for consultation and benefit sharing with Indigenous communities that are far from clear. What is meant by “effective” consultation? How do we apply the concept of “social licence”? To ensure social acceptability of natural resource projects, it is important to sign agreements that can provide employment, training, procurement guarantees and royalties. But which community should benefit? If more than one community is affected, how should the benefits be shared?

This question is also of great importance when trying to apply the principles contained in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). There are frequent references to “their traditional territories” in the Declaration. However, in the absence of a mutually accepted notion of where those territories are located, application of the UNDRIP is difficult. This is coupled with the debate over the meaning of “clear, prior informed consent” of Indigenous peoples before government projects can proceed. Some have argued that this obligation does not create a veto power for Indigenous peoples. Others disagree. It will be important to have a common understanding of the concepts of “traditional lands” and “consent” if we are to succeed in implementing UNDRIP.

We must, as a society, correct past wrongs and provide for a more equitable sharing of the wealth, particularly that wealth which is created by natural resource development on lands claimed by the First Nations. But if we are going to attack the endemic poverty in far too many First Nations and Inuit communities, if we are going to overcome chronic housing shortages, unemployment and unsatisfactory academic success rates, we must find ways for communities to develop own-source revenues.

Challenge 3: Responding to the public inquiries

In 2019, if everything goes according to schedule, two important public inquiries will submit their final reports. In August 2016, the federal government established the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, which has held public sessions across Canada, including stops in Quebec. The cases of women who have been reported missing or murdered and the treatment their families have received from various police forces have been under the spotlight. But the hearings have also shed light on Indigenous women living in vulnerable situations, the lack of resources to help women living in violent relationships, and the acute housing shortages and pervasive poverty in far too many Indigenous communities. The legacy of residential schools and the more general impact of the colonial mindset that informs the Indian Act make for a daunting body of evidence for the MMIWG commissioners to work with. The MMIWG inquiry is due to publish its report in April.

In December 2016, the Quebec government of Premier Philippe Couillard announced a second inquiry, the Public Inquiry Commission on Relations between Indigenous Peoples and Certain Public Services in Québec: Listening, Reconciliation and Progress, chaired by Jacques Viens, a retired judge of the Superior Court of Quebec. It was mandated to examine the situation brought to light by accusations of police misconduct in Val-d’Or, revealed in a Radio-Canada report that aired in October 2015. After police investigations failed to lead to criminal charges, the commission was established to examine existing police policies and practices. While the police forces were intended to be at the root of the inquiry, the mandate was expanded to include other government services, notably in the health and social services sector. Much of the testimony focused on the issue of youth protection. Judge Viens has held hearings across Quebec, and is finishing public sessions at the end of 2018. His report is due in September 2019.

These are independent public inquiries, and I do not know what recommendations they will make to the government. What follows is merely my hunch as to what those recommendations may be, and what challenges the government will face thereafter.

In the area of policing, two major issues must be addressed. Most Indigenous communities in Quebec have their own local police forces, jointly funded by Ottawa (52 per cent) and Quebec City (48 per cent). Indigenous leaders maintain that this funding is inadequate to meet the needs of the communities served, despite recent increases brought about by an agreement signed in 2018. No doubt more resources will be requested in the inquiries’ final reports. In addition, there will be renewed calls for increased awareness training for members of the Sûreté du Québec and municipal police forces, and stronger external review mechanisms for complaints about police misconduct. It will be up to the newly created Bureau des Enquêtes Indépendantes (BEI) to develop these review mechanisms.

Another key area will be youth protection. Steps have already been taken to strengthen the obligation to keep children in their culture should recourse to a foster family be necessary (Bill 99, adopted in October 2017), and to implement measures to recognize traditional adoption practices (Bill 113, adopted in June 2017). The Quebec government has also signed a groundbreaking agreement with the Atikamekw communities, Manawan and Wemotaci, to transfer the responsibility for youth protection to the communities. This agreement came about after a pilot project demonstrated the advantages of local management of these sensitive services. Researchers found that families at risk were identified more quickly and services were provided before the situation got out of hand and required more drastic measures. It is hoped that other communities will sign similar agreements and thereby enhance Indigenous control over the protection of at-risk children.

The situation facing vulnerable women will no doubt be the subject of recommendations. Part of the solution is funding of shelters for women who are survivors of domestic violence, both in their communities and in urban areas. Healing for violent spouses also needs to be addressed. In addition, chronic housing shortages on reserve – a federal responsibility – will undoubtedly be cited as part and parcel of the problem.

In June 2017, the Quebec government unveiled an unprecedented five-year action plan, the Government Action Plan for the Social and Cultural Development of the First Nations and Inuit 2017–2022, with total funding of $147 million. This fund was intended to remedy some of the social and cultural challenges facing our Indigenous population. The government understands that the recommendations from the inquiries will require additional resources.

Challenge 4: Demographic changes

The Indigenous population in Quebec presents two vital demographic challenges. The first is the striking youth of the population. Fully 40 per cent of Quebec’s Indigenous population is under 25 years of age, a population pyramid that is very different from that of the rest of Quebec. What kind of future will these young people face? I’ve already noted the urgent need to focus on education. We need more high school graduates. We need more postsecondary students. We need more young people taking courses in vocational and technical education. In the recent election campaign, many observers pointed to labour shortages in the regions of Quebec. In a cruel irony, many of these regions include Indigenous communities where the unemployment rate exceeds 50 per cent.

For many reasons, a high proportion of Indigenous students fail to complete secondary school by their early twenties. It is therefore important to expand adult education to enable young Indigenous adults to obtain high school equivalency and, hopefully, postsecondary training. Often these students are young parents, so access to daycare is an essential component of academic success. Progress has been made in this sector, but much more needs to be done. As a society, we have an important rendez-vous with this young generation. Failure to provide them with education, training and employment opportunities is a recipe for further hardship.

The second demographic shift is from the reserve to urban settings. Increasingly, for a variety of reasons, Indigenous people leave their communities of origin and move to Montreal, Val-d’Or or other municipalities. For those who are moving with a game plan, for example to accept a job or enrol in CEGEP or university, this shift can be accomplished fairly smoothly. But for others who arrive with no direction, often escaping from difficult situations in their home communities, the path can be much more uncertain. Poverty and homelessness are often the result. Women are preyed on by the sex trade. People encounter problems when trying to find a job or rent an apartment.

In 2016, the Quebec government set up the Programme d’Aide aux Autochtones en Milieu Urbain (PAAMU), an $11 million fund to strengthen Native Friendship Centres and other social services working with Indigenous people. Fifty per cent of the money is allocated to improve infrastructure, and the other 50 per cent is for program funding. The goal of Friendship Centres is to provide a reference point for individuals arriving in the city, as well as to organize cultural activities to keep newcomers in touch with their Indigenous identity. Finally, the centres build bridges between the growing Indigenous population and the rest of society. There are now 11 centres across Quebec. Recently, a 55-bed homeless shelter for Indigenous clients, Projets Autochtones du Québec, moved to a more modern facility. Kijaté, a 24-unit housing project, opened its door to vulnerable Indigenous families in Val-d’Or. Meanwhile, new Friendship Centres were opened in Maniwaki and Roberval. But with the Indigenous urban population growing rapidly, more will need to be done in our municipalities to provide housing, employment and social services to this new clientele.

Over to you, Sylvie D’Amours

I am writing in mid-October, on the day on which Premier Legault revealed his new cabinet. Sylvie D’Amours, first elected to the National Assembly in 2014, is Quebec’s new ministre responsable des Affaires autochtones. I trust that what I have said here will be taken as friendly advice, and not as partisan warning. The cultivation of warm and productive Nation-to-Nation relations in Quebec is important for the future of the First Nations and Inuit, and for our entire society. Economic development, protecting and preserving the natural environment and sustainability require harmonious relations with Indigenous peoples. The social and cultural challenges associated with the Herculean task of lifting communities out of poverty, reconnecting and strengthening the link to Indigenous culture and traditions, and the duty to preserve and promote Indigenous languages in the era of the internet also require cooperation and mutual respect at all levels of government. I wish the new minister every success as she grapples with these and other challenges.