CANADA/COVER

THE NATIVES SAY NO

Quebec's aboriginals may be able to sink the separatist dream

February 27 1995
CANADA/COVER

THE NATIVES SAY NO

Quebec's aboriginals may be able to sink the separatist dream

February 27 1995

THE NATIVES SAY NO

CANADA/COVER

Quebec's aboriginals may be able to sink the separatist dream

their butts in the court of world opinion— and we can do it again’

—Chief Joe Norton

They are not many, perhaps 100,000 people in all. Nearly half are almost invisible, merged into the mainstream of Quebec society. The rest are sprinkled around the province in 54 different communities. Politically, they are divided into 11 nations. A few are thoroughly urbanized and some still inhabit remote outposts in the wild, leading lives not unlike those their ancestors led long before the arrival of the first Europeans. But despite their scant numbers and divided loyalties, Quebec’s aboriginal peoples share a common goal. “We don’t like Premier Jacques Parizeau’s plan for independence,” says Ghislain Picard, grand chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador. “And if he thinks he can take our land out of Canada without

our consent, then he has a fight on his hands.”

At first glance, it’s not much of a contest. Parizeau’s government is the duly elected representative of seven million people, armed with all the persuasive— and coercive—powers of a modem state. By even the most generous estimates, the natives account for little more than one per cent of the population and their concerns continue to be shouldered aside by the larger stmggle unfolding across the province. The federalists in Canada’s Liberal party captured attention last week by winning three byelections, sending two new French-speaking Quebec standard-bearers to Ottawa in Lucienne Robillard and Denis Paradis (page 20). The separatists, meanwhile, drew 16,000 citizens to their roving sovereignty commissions that last week finally moved out of small-town Quebec,

opening hearings to overflow crowds in Montreal and Quebec City. Amidst the hubbub, native voices have been all but drowned out. Parizeau would do well to heed them, however. For the natives are increasingly convinced that they have it in their power to turn the Quebec Premier’s dream of independence into his worst nightmare.

Land is the issue. Quebec’s native peoples—the Inuit in the far north and 10 Amerindian nations farther south— claim huge chunks of the province as their own. In a rare show of unanimity, they have met three times in the past four months to reject the entire concept of the “territorial integrity” of Quebec. They have argued that the province’s non-native populations may have won—by treaty or by force—access to portions of their ancestral homelands, but not ownership or exclusive sovereignty. And they have resisted all the Parti Québécois government’s many attempts to split their ranks, change their minds or buy them off. The government’s efforts, in fact, have backfired, fuelling rather than quelling native militancy. Quebecers may not opt for secession in the coming referendum (a new poll for the CBC last week put support for sovereignty at only 40 per cent, with 60 per cent against). But if they do, there is a growing likelihood that many natives a will refuse to co-operate. Some may even attempt to march out of an independent Quebec, taking large chunks of the province with them.

“The separatists have no monopoly on rearranging borders,” warns Zebedee Nungak, vice-president of the Quebec Inuits’ Makivik Corp. Like many other native leaders, Nungak has little patience with the Parizeau government’s oft-repeated refrain about the hallowed nature of Quebec’s frontiers—a view largely shared by francophone federalists. He has even less with the argument that natives have no choice but to bend to the will of the majority. “They keep telling us that our numbers are too inconsequential to carry any weight in the debate about separation,” Nungak complains. “Well, it may be true that our numbers are inconsequential but the land we tread—where we have had our homes for thousands of years—is not inconsequential at all.” The Inuit’s ancestral homelands, in fact, amount to roughly a third of present-day Quebec, everything north of the 55th parallel. Aside from 7,700 Inuit in 14 villages, there are no more than a few hundred other inhabitants in the raw terrain of bald rock and rolling tundra that the Inuit call Nunavik. Though poor in population, however, Nunavik is rich in natural wealth. The contentious Great Whale River hydroelectric power scheme lies principally on Inuit lands, as does the $486-million Raglan nickel and copper project under development by Toronto-based Falconbridge Mines Ltd. Nunavik, in fact, is a potential treasure trove, an invaluable asset for any state, particularly a newly independent one in search of economic viability. Nations have gone to war for lesser prizes.

The Inuit’s immediate neighbors to the south are similarly placed. Quebec’s 12,000 Cree, like the Inuit, inhabit a wilderness populated

by few but their own kind. Their lands, too, are resource-rich and strategically located, occupying a belt of territory as large as France that stretches right across the province’s midriff. And they, too, have come to deeply resent the Parizeau government’s assumption that their future rests in hands other than their own. Under the vigorous leadership of Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come, the Cree are, if anything, even more outspoken than the Inuit in demonstrating a willingness to break up Quebec in order to protect their own interests (page 16). Coon Come is the first to admit that there are “obvious dangers” in pursuing policies capable of provoking a direct, possibly violent, confrontation. But he places the blame for that squarely on the shoulders of those who advocate secession. “Isn’t that what they want?” he asks. “Isn’t that where these people are leading us?”

David Cliche, the provincial government’s chief spokesman on native issues, does not agree. He argues that independence presents Quebec’s native peoples with a “golden opportunity” to fashion their own future in partnership with the PQ government by negotiating arrangements on a host of issues the natives have always regarded as critical—including self-government and an equitable share of natural resource revenues. “Everything is on the table,” he says. Everything, that is, except the freedom to walk away from an independent Quebec. “That’s where we don’t agree,” Cliche concedes. ‘We can never accept the idea that aboriginal lands can be taken out of Quebec.”

But Quebec’s vaunted territorial integrity is a faintly absurd concept viewed in light of the history of those who have inhabited the place continuously since the last ice age ended 10,000 years ago. To the natives, the current provincial frontiers are arbitrary lines on a map, drawn by European newcomers who paid scant attention to the well-established territories of many native populations. Almost all of Quebec’s aboriginal nations are divided by political boundaries: the Mohawks are scattered between Quebec, Ontario and New York state; the Montagnais are divided between Quebec and Labrador; the Cree and the Algonquins between Quebec and Ontario; and the Abenakis between Quebec and New England. One of the driving forces behind the Inuit’s opposition to Quebec secession is the fear of severing the link with the 30,000 Inuit who live in Labrador, Nunavut (the eastern Arctic) and the western Arctic. In an effort to underscore the trans-boundary nature of their nation, the Inuit are planning their own referendum on Quebec’s future, probably before Parizeau calls his own provincewide vote. All Inuit, no matter where they reside, will be eligible to vote.

Most of Quebec’s major aboriginal nations are contemplating similar moves. Like the Inuit, the three largest Amerindian nations—the Mohawks, the Montagnais and the Cree—are all planning to poll their own peoples. Others may follow. There is even some thought of a pan-aboriginal referendum to parallel Parizeau’s. “How can they possibly deny us the same right of self-determination they claim for themselves?” asks Picard.

It is a good question—one that troubles Parizeau’s government. For the natives, like the separatists, are counting heavily on the weight of opinion outside Quebec, both in the rest of Canada as well as the world at large, to make their case for recognition. And the natives, in a period the United Nations has proclaimed as the Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, are not without friends on the international scene. Both the Mohawks and the Cree have an extensive network of international contacts, and both have been working assiduously in recent weeks to keep those networks alive. “We’ve kicked their butts before in the court of world opinion,” says Joe Norton, grand chief of the Mohawk band at Kahnawake. ‘We can do it again.” That may be an idle boast. If current trends continue, it may never even be put to the test. But all the same, it is not a threat to be taken lightly by a fledgling, would-be state whose claim to legitimacy might well come to rest upon world approval.

BARRY CAME