Charlie Watt

Charlie Watt showed the world that a giant can be slain. It was under his leadership that the Inuit of Northern Québec, though small in numbers, drew a line in the sand that even Hydro Québec and the politicians in Québec City could not pass. This Aboriginal victory has forever altered the dynamic between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal governments in Canada. It was during the 1970s and Québec was determined to go forward with the massive James Bay Hydroelectric Project. Though Aboriginal lands and a way of life could have been extinguished by the flooding and dislocation called for in the project, Québec planned to proceed anyway. Through the courts and in the hard ball world of politics, the Inuit and Cree fought back, drawing worldwide attention to their cause and forcing Québec to the bargaining table. Once there, Québec officials ran straight into Charlie Watt, chief negotiator for the Inuit, and their worst nightmare. In 1975, the James Bay and Northern Québec Agreement – in effect the first modern-day treaty – was signed. There was an initial compensation package of $90 million and, eventually, $1.4 billion in infrastructure for hospitals, schools, housing and runways, so necessary for a successful tomorrow. Watt didn’t stop there. He was heavily involved in former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s repatriation of the Constitution. Ask him today what his greatest accomplishment has been and he’ll answer: “Section 35”. Because of his efforts, and the work of others, Aboriginal rights are now recognized in the Canadian Constitution. Along the way, Watt founded Air Inuit, Canada’s first Aboriginal-owned airline. He also purchased, on behalf of the Northern Québec Inuit, First Air Limited. It is now Canada’s third largest air carrier. He has also assisted in setting up international shrimp fisheries as well as numerous other First Nations business ventures.  He was appointed to the Senate in 1984 and was made an officer of the Order of Québec by his old foes in 1994. Senator Watt received a 1997 National Aboriginal Achievement Award for the pinnacle role he has played in bettering the lives of the people of Arctic Québec.