Tall, athletic and charismatic, the leader of the Atikamekw Nation and the Atikamekw Nation Council arrives at the location of our interview, a restaurant in Trois-Rivières, explaining to me that he will need to leave soon to attend some meetings in his role as grand chief... A native of La Tuque born in March 1981, he has all the attributes of a leader. He’s a skilled, persuasive communicator and good listener whose positive attitude rubs off on others.
Grand Chief Awashish, who grew up in the forest near the community of Obedjiwan, says he is keenly aware of the huge challenges faced by his people. Raised by his maternal grandparents, he experienced the traditional lifestyle of the region at a very young age, which revolved around activities such as hunting, fishing and trapping. His studies led to him obtaining a law degree from the University of Ottawa. He was a gifted student whose social skills were an asset during his academic career. He began his post-secondary studies at CEGEP de Trois-Rivières in electronic engineering and administration.
The young, trilingual leader experienced the difficulties that indigenous peoples face in urban environments while living with his single-parent mother in the small town of La Tuque. He was surrounded by the poverty and social problems that affect many Aboriginal communities. “A number of people around me committed suicide, including friends and family members,” he says.
“I made it my personal mission to fight poverty and suicide and to nurture the pride and dignity of my people,” explains Grand Chief Awashish, today a father of three children aged 2, 9 and 12, with passion and commitment in his voice.
At a declaration of sovereignty made to the media on September 8, 2014, he made the following statement: “For thousands of years, the Atikamekw have been able to preserve their language, their culture and their relationship with Mother Earth. We’re strong, and we’re resilient. We’ve grown tired of seeing our territorial rights flouted, so we’re asserting our identity and making a point of reminding others of the sovereignty of the Atikamekw in our territory, the Nistaskinan.”
Elected grand chief on September 2, 2014, at the age of 33, this combative leader has always been good at hockey. He was also named as the referee for a friendly Canadian Armed Forces game in February 2019.
Considering himself a protector of his people, he wants to seize any available opportunities to ensure the Atikamekw’s social and economic development. “The new generation has more academic education, and young people want to assert themselves,” he notes. “That means we need to evolve within the Quebecois and Canadian context by developing economic partnerships with relevant stakeholders that respect our rights. That involves the hiring of Atikamekw workers at all levels of organizations, career development opportunities, the establishment and promotion of Atikamekw companies and investments in culture and tourism.”
The new governmental relations leader believes in the respectful development of Nitaskinan and its natural resources based on a vision of sustainability and eco-friendliness. “The power of political, economic and strategic alliances with other governments is good for the Atikamekw people,” he remarks.
In October 2018, Grand Chief Awashish was also named an honorary colonel of Shawinigan’s 62nd Field Artillery Regiment, becoming the first indigenous person in Canada to receive this honour!
When it comes to co-existing with the rest of Canada, he emphasizes the importance of indigenous principles of justice and a system of values and conflict resolution that respects his people’s culture, especially sovereign administration of the territory, customary adoption and restorative justice.
The grand chief speaks with pride about several of his accomplishments: the young Atikamekw leaders forum, education policies, the Fablab initiative to support digital technology usage, the transformation of governance, etc.
As someone who strives to foster his people’s sense of belonging and promote the development of Atikamekw society, this indigenous leader is an undoubted inspiration for young people. No wonder both those closest to him and residents of the area refer to him as the “Atikamekw Obama”!