QUEBEC - The Atikamekw First Nation has declared its sovereignty over 80,000 square kilometres of territory and says any development in that area must get its approval.
Armed with a Supreme Court of Canada judgment recognizing ancestral rights for First Nations in British Columbia, the Atikamekw want to have their say on projects located in the Nitaskinan region.
Constant Awashish, grand chief of the Atikamekw First Nation, says 35 years of territorial negotiations with governments have provided nothing.
Awashish said Monday that elected members of the aboriginal First Nation adopted the unilateral declaration of sovereignty to assert their right to self-government on the Nitaskinan region.
The grand chief says any companies thinking of pursuing projects in the area will have to do it in co-operation with the Atikamekw.
Three communities in particular lie in the affected zone — Manawan in the Laurentians; Opitciwan, which is 300 kilometres west of Roberval; and Wemotaci, which is on the shores of the St-Maurice River.
In June, Canada's highest court granted declaration of aboriginal title to more than 1,700 square kilometres of land in British Columbia to the Tsilhqot'in First Nation.
It was the first time the court has made such a ruling concerning aboriginal land.
The ruling adressed how aboriginal title is determined and whether provincial laws apply to those lands.
It will apply in the case of outstanding land claims.
Awashish says that applies to the Atikamekw.
"Gone are the days of negotiating the rights of the Atikametw, which have not been surrendered, for the benefit of a state that imposes its rules as if such rights do not exist," Awashish said at a news conference Monday.
"Our jurisdiction, our rules and our conditions must be respected."
He said decades of indifference from the federal and Quebec government have blocked Atikamekw development.
Jean-Roch Ottawa, the Manawan chief, said his community is not opposed to development per se.
"We only oppose development that threatens our culture and way of life," he said. "We must act."
The elected Atikamekw officials said they will use all means at their disposal to defend their interests.