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June 14, 2024

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Update 2023/5/2
Rights of nature

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AFN leader confers 'personhood' status for St. Lawrence River
Interview with Grand Chief Ghislain Picard, Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador (AFNQL)

By WT Staff

 "I think ultimately what we are saying is, Mother Earth is a person...and human rights are dependent on the rights of our Mother Earth." -- Grand Chief Ghislain Picard

WT: It’s been a while Chief! Just for fun, how many terms has it been?

Chief Ghislain Picard: I am midway into my eleventh term.

WT: From your interpretation, what is the legal personhood of the St. Lawrence River as recognized and presented by First Nations to the UN? What does it mean and what does it do?

Chief Picard: I think most people would probably agree, this action is more symbolic than anything else, judging by the type of action taken elsewhere. It has been for some time now, that other countries have taken this route in order to raise our collective awareness of the state of the environment, the state of the climate. At the same time, when one comes closer to home, in the case of Canada, and Quebec more specifically, both levels of government have tabled bills going back to May of 2022 wanting to take the direction of confirming personhood status to the St. Lawrence River.

In our case, we say we have that same capacity. We feel that by taking this position, we are making not only our voices heard, but making sure that First Nations and Indigenous peoples as a whole are part of the solution, meaning that we are involved every step of the way. Ultimately, whatever action needs to be taken to protect the St Lawrence, First Nations peoples are involved from the outset. That is what we are searching for.

As for the two bills that have been tabled over the last year, no one really knows what has happened since then. All we know is, it doesn’t seem to be a priority for either of these two governments.

We are just saying, a step has to be taken for the First Nations as having a longstanding -- in thousands of years --relationship with the St. Lawrence. In a way, we are taking a constructive stand, to say, “Let’s get to it!” Otherwise, once again, we won’t go beyond our hopes to do something about the St. Lawrence (River).

WT: When you talk about the St. Lawrence River being represented with the same rules and rights as a person, is that what you understand this to mean too?

Chief Picard: Most definitely. Obviously, we did not speak beyond the St Lawrence River here. One would have to look at how far our own responsibility (extends). We could easily have gone as far as the Great Lakes, and from there, all the way to the Gulf of St Lawrence. This is another part of the position taken, that we would explore avenues to broaden the alliance, to make an even bigger statement for the whole watershed, the whole basin. 

I think ultimately what we are saying is, Mother Earth is a person.

If you look at the philosophy of Indigenous peoples, the human being and the environment are one.

To me, this is what needs to be understood, and has to be made clear, we do not have the Occidental views.

As well, I feel that we need to involve our peoples as much as we can.

Essentially what we are saying is, human rights are dependent on the rights of our Mother Earth.

WT: Your team must have looked at what was done around the Magpie River. Is this a similar case, is the personhood of the St. Lawrence similar to the Magpie? Did you get any legal help from that group?

Chief Picard: The spirit of cooperation between the Innu Nation in the case of the Magpie River and cooperation between the Innu Nation and the municipalities in that area has certainly guided us in going even further.

You speak of the Magpie, I know there is also a movement within the Anishinaabe Nation to reach the same objective with the Gatineau River. All of those initiatives are certainly very key to positioning the First Nations in their role and collective responsibility.

If you speak of the St Lawrence, you have to consider all the watersheds that flow into it. And so, most of the nations in Quebec certainly have concerns, and they need to be involved, with the capacity to join this alliance that the resolution or position speaks about.

WT: I read the federal government’s St. Lawrence Action Plan. Minister Wilkinson is quoted, I didn’t see anything in this action plan about the river having rights. I would suppose after being involved this long with the AFN, would you say this current government action plan is status quo. Would you agree that there is nothing in the action plan relating to your new proposal for the St. Lawrence River?

Chief Picard: I can only repeat what I said earlier. It’s going to be one year now. Your question tends to confirm not much has happened since May 2022. To us, this is again, sadly another reason to raise the legitimate question, is this a priority? We are raising this same question as well. To me, it really speaks to the urgency of doing something. 

The Earth Assembly 2024 is scheduled within the UN structure and is quickly coming, we have to be ready. Will the action plan have more than it has today? That’s really a challenge that we obviously are ready to take on. We will do our part. 

Are governments going to be doing theirs? This is the question now.

The dialogue session we attended at the UN was supposed to be an inter-dialogue between the states and those groups concerned about the climate and the environment. Next year the meeting at the UN will not only speak to water and rivers, but it will also be much broader. We had very limited participation from the states in that session on Monday. 

WT: Was Canada represented?

Picard: No officials.I believe for a part of the morning session one person was there. I heard after that she was a student. With all due respect to her, if this was a priority, there should have been proper representation in my view.

WT: Up to the last 4 or 5 years, it seems progressive governments in Canada have adhered to the concept that nature is the domain of man. I see in this movement you are flipping that on its head. What do you say to people that would tell you it will never work?

Chief Picard: If you want to be defeatist, you could say “too little, too late”. We certainly want to remain optimistic for the future. Simply put, and this is what it comes down to, our future depends on what we do today. 

At the same time, I think our communities and their leaders are also challenged with finding that proper balance between sustainable economics and how we protect our environment.

Everyone that has an interest and follows the news will see that from one COP to the next, the word we recycle the most is “ambition”. We haven’t seen any great action, except an international report reminding us we are still very much in that grey zone in attaining our climate objectives.

To me, it's not very encouraging, but it shouldn’t be a reason to declare defeat. I think this is the reason to put forward more effort and more energy to ensure governments live up to their own promises. What it comes down to is, how close are we to achieving our objectives, to provide more certainty?

WT: I have seen the motion put forward by the NDP about the St. Lawrence in Parliament. I believe there were 11 points in the submission to the United Nations, one of these conditions being the right to sue.

How would you see a lawsuit happening around the St. Lawrence? If a company dumped, or there was a reason for litigation, how do you see a river’s right to sue? Who sues on behalf of the river? Does someone have jurisdiction to sue on behalf of the river?

Chief Picard: We haven’t gone to that extent yet, but definitely this will be part of many considerations for the future, I would say medium term. I think it’s going to be important to provide detail in terms of the capacity we are trying to get at.

The immediate action that needs to be taken is to make a statement like the one we made last week. A second step is to consolidate the alliance, with our sisters and brothers from the Indigenous Nations who are part of Ontario and who have the same concerns that we do, in their case for the Great Lakes. This is what we are trying to create and sustain at this point. Details such as what you are raising are probably going to be part of the reflections we need to take on as the next steps as well.

WT: Chief Picard, just before I let you go, I read your statement around Oka. You say you think nothing has really changed, do you still think so?

Chief Picard: I think that era was an awakening. It took time for many people and opened wounds on both sides. It brought us to reality, were we going to continue on with this ignorance about Indigenous rights?

As a society and as people, I think we have made an effort to reach out to one another. At the same time, it seems we are falling back to what created the conditions for Oka to happen, which is the land. To me, this is where we are experiencing shortcomings in terms of the political will to find solutions that will be lasting.

It really goes back to that bigger question of the lands and resources. How are we providing Indigenous peoples with the means to have a quality of life comparable to the people around them? Are conditions there to see another Oka? I don’t think so, but at the same time it doesn’t mean the determination of our peoples has lessened.

On the contrary, I meet a lot of young people and many of our youth are still very much determined, maybe even more so than we were at that time (of the Oka crisis). To me, that issue will remain. If you want to look at the bright side, I think we have seen progress and we hope we can stay that course.

Who would have thought of a United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples when Oka happened in 1990?

And who would have thought, with Canada opposing the UN declaration in 2007, that we would have a federal law proposing its implementation today?

I think there are reasons to rejoice, however, we are still far from an ideal situation when it comes to our peoples.

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