Important: This article was not originally in English on Radio-Canada. It has been translated from French to English specifically to cater to the majority of English-speaking members of the Naskapi community.
Canada grants Indigenous peoples the right to adopt their constitution. In the country, at least fifty communities have taken advantage of this. The Naskapi Nation is currently in the midst of this process, which will result in almost complete emancipation from the law that governs it.
Naskapi Chief Theresa Chemaganish has no trouble explaining it: the goal for Canada’s only Naskapi community is to establish its own constitution to gain more powers and competencies.
Since 2019, they have been negotiating a self-government agreement with the federal government. This agreement envisions that the Naskapi people can adopt a constitution that will be recognized by Ottawa.
Currently, the Naskapi people, residing in Kawawachikamach, 1100 km north of Montreal, can only adopt regulations. However, a constitution would empower them to go further and enact their own laws independently, without federal interference.
For instance, it would grant them the authority to manage everything related to the protection of the Naskapi language. This is one of the areas where the Naskapi people want jurisdiction, as they believe Quebec completely disregards Indigenous languages in its legislation.
Having their own constitution would also give the Naskapi people the opportunity to create their mode of governance or take charge of youth protection.
The federal government granted them this power in 2019, but the governments of Quebec, Manitoba, Alberta, and the Northwest Territories are contesting it in the Supreme Court.
“It’s very important for us because the rules we have to follow don’t suit us,” emphasizes Chief Chemaganish.
“That’s why we’re writing our constitution – to replace these government rules. With laws, we’ve chosen ourselves. It’s crucial for the Naskapi identity and for future generations to protect who we are, our way of life, and our values. The constitution will strengthen our governance and democracy,” says the chief.
“Having our constitution will help [people] better understand who we are” – Theresa Chemaganish, Naskapi Chief.
The adoption of a constitution would also allow the Naskapi to decide how they want to govern themselves and almost completely break free from the Indian Act. However, their status, tax exemptions, and inviolability would not be affected.
In practical terms, the Naskapi could, for example, decide to no longer have a band council in the form imposed by the Naskapi Act. This law closely resembles the Indian Act and has been in existence since 1994. The Cree have already exited the Act when they instituted their constitution.
This initiative also reflects the Naskapi’s frustration with consultations required for projects around natural resources found on their territory.
Like many Indigenous peoples, they consider what non-Indigenous people call “consultations” not truly consultative.
“Decisions are already made before they consult us. They include us, but it’s often too late”, says the chief. Having their constitution would give them greater weight and a more significant voice in these consultation processes.
The community has established a committee of 10 to 15 people to discuss what should be in the Naskapi constitution.
This committee meets once a month and consults different groups of Naskapi: the elders, the youth, etc. The idea is that they can express what they want to find in their constitution.
No band council member sits on this committee to prevent the constitution from becoming the property of elected officials.
The Naskapi chief explains that the constitution must belong to the entire Nation and be written in total collaboration. The Naskapi constitution aims to be a collective document, for which all members have contributed. A vision that is very dear to the chief.
The lawyer advising the Naskapi Nation, Christina Caron, emphasizes the importance of people speaking freely on the subject without fear of reprisals from elected officials. Their points are therefore submitted to the committee anonymously.
“We discuss all aspects of our governance, how we make decisions, how we adopt laws, our values, our rights, and our responsibilities,” continues Chief Chemaganish.
When the Naskapi have drafted this constitution and it has been adopted by referendum, the approval of the governments of Canada and Quebec will not be necessary for it to take effect.
What do you say to those who may fear that this is creating a state within a state? Lawyer Christina Caron recalls that band councils are already mini-governments. But, above all, she explains that the adoption of a constitution frames and clarifies the interactions between band laws, federal laws, and provincial laws.
“We’re not in a declaration of sovereignty in every respect. It’s a mutual recognition of certain subjects. Some are excluded, like criminal law and intellectual property.
“The word “constitution” can be scary, she concedes. But we’re far from a revolution”, says Mrs. Caron.
Theresa Chemaganish is aware that this is a significant challenge, but she says she’s excited.
The Naskapi hope that their constitution will be drafted and adopted by 2025. This would be a huge step towards taking control of their destiny.