Chevrette’s European tour provokes controversy

Quebec’s native affairs minister, dissident native leaders exchange accusations during European tour.


MONTREAL — The Quebec provincial government recently spent about $1 million on a grand European tour for its minister of native affairs, a select group of aboriginal leaders and about half-a-dozen provincial officials.

Whether this trip was a waste of taxpayers’ money or a sound investment all depends on who’s talking: those who went on the 10-day junket, or the Cree and Innu representatives who improvised their own parallel protest tour.

Quebec’s native affairs minister, Guy Chevrette, has provided plenty of justifications for spending taxpayers’ time and money on the jaunt.

“It was important to go. It was even urgent to go,” Chevrette told reporters in Quebec City after his return to Quebec on Feb. 10.

Chevrette maintained the trip was necessary to correct information, conveyed by some “bearers of bad news,” that Quebec mistreats native peoples.

In a press release, Chevrette said his trip “allowed us to realize the extent to which relations between the government of Quebec and the native people are misunderstood by Europeans.” Makivik Corporation’s president, Pita Aatami, and its corporate treasurer, Anthony Ittoshat, as well as Simon Awawish of the Attikamek community of Obedjiwan, and Clifford Moar, chief of the Innu community of Mashteuiatsh, accompanied Chevrette on the trip.

But tracking them through Paris, Brussels and London were RomÈo Saganash from the Grand Council of Crees and Armand McKenzie, a lawyer for the Innu of Nitissinan.

The Crees and Innu have been at loggerheads with Quebec since the late 1980s, even bringing their complaints before the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and the European Union’s parliament. Chevrette was less than pleased about them shadowing his footsteps through Europe. At one point he even accused the pair of spying on his group during a meeting in Brussels.

He said McKenzie was eavesdropping on the other side of an adjoining door during a meeting. “They made me think of my granddaughter of two-and-a-half years old, when she plays hide and seek with me,” Chevrette told the French-language Montreal daily La Presse.

Saganash called this accusation a “cheap shot.” He explained that, while in Brussels, he and McKenzie used office space lent to them by a sympathetic, high-ranking official of the European Union.

This space turned out to be on the same premises where the Quebec delegation met with another official.

Chevrette must have been frustrated, Saganash speculated, because few articles surfaced in any European media on the Quebec visit. Several European journalists told him they were not fooled by the trip’s hidden agenda.

“I think the unsaid objective of the whole thing was to promote sovereignty, and to tell Europeans that if Quebec does vote for sovereignty, don’t worry about the indigenous people,” Saganash said.

But Aatami insists there was no pressure at all to defend Quebec’s aboriginal policies during meetings with government officials, academics or journalists. He said he mainly spoke about the impact of the 1975 James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement and the challenges of life facing Inuit in Nunavik.

“We were free to say whatever we wanted to,” he said.

Aatami said, overall, the trip was a good opportunity to get to know Chevrette beyond his official role as minister.

“I met a person who’s just like you and me,” Aatami said. “And I want to work with the people who are elected in this province.”

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