Thirty years ago, as Konrad Sioui walked past the armed barricades near Oka, Que., he spotted the blood of a provincial police officer who had been killed in a shoot-out the day before.
Twenty-four hours earlier, the Sûreté du Québec had tried to dislodge Kanesatake Mohawks from a sacred patch of land they were defending from a golf-course development.
Tear gas led to gunfire. When the dust settled, Cpl. Marcel Lemay was dead and a tense standoff between Mohawk activists and police (later replaced by the military) had begun.
As head of the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador, Sioui arrived in Kanesatake — about 60 kilometres west of Montreal — hoping to defuse the volatile situation.
“The atmosphere was very, very tense,” said Sioui, now grand chief of the Huron-Wendat Nation. The standoff lasted another 76 days.
Relations between the Quebec government and its Indigenous populations were already troubled when the Oka Crisis erupted.
Just weeks before, the lone Indigenous member of the Manitoba legislature, Elijah Harper, voted against ratifying the Meech Lake Accord.
His opposition effectively torpedoed the reform agreement that would have recognized Quebec’s “distinct” status in exchange for signing the Constitution.
Robert Bourassa, Quebec’s Liberal premier at the time, blamed First Nations for the collapse of the accord.
“You can’t correct an injustice with another injustice,” Bourassa had told Sioui at a St-Jean-Baptiste Day celebration in 1990.
In the 30 years since the Oka Crisis, Quebec-Indigenous relations have improved markedly, Sioui said: “It’s not the same ball game. People understand the issues a lot better.”
Since the late 1990s, more provincial money has been set aside for the economic development of Indigenous communities, a landmark resource agreement was signed with the Cree in 2002 and, last year, Premier François Legault issued a public apology for Quebec’s mistreatment of First Nation and Inuit peoples.
But a younger generation of Indigenous leaders and activists in Quebec is growing concerned the pace of change has slowed, especially under Legault’s conservative nationalist government.
“There has to be more political will here in Quebec,” said Constant Awashish, the 39-year-old grand chief of the Atikamekw Nation.
“Things seem to be getting done in other provinces, whereas here there are a lot of nice words. But when it comes time to take concrete action, politicians are never ready to make the jump.”
Burning through goodwill
Many Quebec governments have been content, in the past, to defer to federal jurisdiction when it comes to Indigenous issues. That, however, is an increasingly difficult position to maintain.
Supreme Court decisions have, if unevenly, done more in recent years to recognize ancestral land rights. These decisions have allowed Indigenous communities to claim more control over things like hunting, fishing and resource development — areas that fall under provincial jurisdiction.
Moreover, growing numbers of young Indigenous people are moving to cities, where they confront systemic discrimination in schools, the justice system and other provincially supervised institutions, said Melissa Mollen Dupuis, an Innu activist and one of the early organizers of Quebec’s Idle No More movement.
“The province is discovering that certain rights it thought were strictly federal involve Quebec as well,” said Mollen Dupuis, who is also an environmental campaigner with the David Suzuki Foundation.
In 2016, the Liberal government of Premier Philippe Couillard created an inquiry to investigate how Indigenous people were treated by provincial bodies.
The report, written by retired judge Jacques Viens, concluded in 2019 that it was “impossible to deny” Indigenous people in Quebec are victims of “systemic discrimination” when it comes to accessing provincial government services.
Almost immediately, Legault offered a public apology in the National Assembly. It seemed to reinforce a promise he made early in his mandate to forge a new relationship with Indigenous communities.
But since then, Legault has burned up a lot of that goodwill.
His government is appealing landmark legislation (C-92) passed by the federal government, which is slated to give Indigenous communities control over child-welfare services. Quebec says the legislation violates its jurisdiction.
Ghislain Picard, current head of the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador, called the province’s move “shameful.”
When Mohawk activists in Kahnawake, a reserve south of Montreal, erected a rail blockade in February in support of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs in British Columbia, Legault accused them of hoarding “AK-47s.”
The premier provided no evidence to support his claim, and ignored pleas from Indigenous leaders to issue a retraction or apologize.
“For people in positions like that, to make a comment like that — it spurs hate toward First Nations. It reinforces stereotypes,” said Awashish.
And then there is the issue of systemic discrimination, much discussed amid the current wave of anti-racism protests.
But Legault’s government continues to deny it exists in Quebec.
In an interview with CBC Montreal, Quebec’s minister responsible for Indigenous affairs, Sylvie D’Amours, twice refused to endorse the central finding of the Viens commission.
“The expression ‘systemic racism’ is very charged and creates a lot of confusion,” D’Amours said. “I would say we are, rather, in action mode.”
Overall, D’Amours said, her government has “good relations” with the province’s Indigenous communities. But to first-hand observers, that’s less obvious.
“They are sending mixed messages,” said Alexis Wawanoloath, 37, a member of the Abenaki First Nation and a Parti Québécois MNA between 2007 and 2008.
“On the one hand they apologized for discrimination by the Quebec government after the Viens report,” said.
“But on the other hand, they don’t want to talk about systemic racism.… I feel like Indigenous issues are negligible to this government.”
Is Quebec ready to commit to decolonization?
Sioui said his own community’s relationship with the Legault government has been fairly positive, pointing to a long-term care home the province is building in Wendake.
He defended D’Amours from some of the criticism she’s faced.
Unlike other provinces, such as Ontario and British Columbia, Quebec does not have a ministry dedicated to Indigenous affairs.
Though D’Amours has a budget at her disposal, she has to work with other ministries in order to implement substantive policies. “She’s doing the best she can,” Sioui said.
But for younger Indigenous leaders, the question facing the provincial government is more profound: Will it commit to decolonization?
This, they say, entails more than lip-service to reconciliation or collaboration on small-scale projects.
“It means giving us the tools to control our future,” said Wawanoloath, who remains the only Indigenous person to be elected to the Quebec legislature since status Indians were given the right to vote in 1969.
Awashish said there is a widespread sense of frustration at Quebec politicians for the slow pace of change on key issues like policing, housing and education.
But, he added, there is greater awareness today among the general public of the consequences of colonization than there was thirty years ago. And that is generating pressure on the provincial government to act.
“The silent majority wants a better relationship with First Nations,” Awashish said.