CANADA

The great divide

Quebec reacts bitterly to native activists

BARRY CAME March 30 1992
CANADA

The great divide

Quebec reacts bitterly to native activists

BARRY CAME March 30 1992

The great divide

CANADA

Quebec reacts bitterly to native activists

The message was blunt and left no room for diplomatic concession. It was delivered by Richard Le Hir, vice-president and general manager of the 2,000-member Quebec Manufacturers’ Association. And it was aimed at the native inhabitants of the province’s north—in particular, the 10,000 members of the Cree nation. Appearing last week in Montreal before a federal-provincial environmental review of the proposed Great Whale hydroelectric project, Le Hir bitterly assailed the Cree, comparing their society to an antiquated aristocracy. In Le Hir’s view, the Cree and other native groups who oppose the $ 13-billion development are engaged in “odious blackmail” that has “taken the government and the people of Quebec hostage.”

Le Hir’s outspoken attack underscored the frustration among Quebec’s business leaders over the fading prospects of the Great Whale megaproject, which they once hailed as the spark that would ignite the province’s economic recovery. But it also reflected a widening atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion that is souring relations between Quebec’s natives and the province’s French-speaking majority. “The relationship is bad,” acknowledged David Cliche, an adviser on native issues to opposition Parti Québécois Leader Jacques Parizeau. “It is as bad as I have ever seen it.” In an apparent recognition of that fact, Assembly of First

Nations (AFN) Chief Ovide Mercredi last week publicly urged Premier Robert Bourassa to take part in the current round of federalprovincial constitutional negotiations, describing the premier as the only politician who “can save the country.” A day later, however, Bourassa voted in favor of a PQ motion to continue Quebec’s boycott of the talks.

The reasons for the strained relations are varied. One factor is the continuing international campaign by Quebec natives to tarnish the image of the entire James Bay power project. Another is the lingering resentment among many Quebecers over the 1990 Mohawk standoff at Oka, Que. But the major irritant is the fact that native leaders, including Mercredi, have disputed Quebec’s claim to be uniquely qualified to constitutional recognition as a distinct society. Mercredi has repeatedly vowed to resist any recognition of collective rights for Quebec that does not acknowledge the same rights for native people. “Some people may be miffed that we dare to be equal,” the AFN leader told Maclean’s recently. “But we don’t apologize for asserting our rights.”

Mercredis intervention infuriated many Quebecers. At the same time, Parizeau has derided threats by some native groups to secede from an independent Quebec. “Do you really think they would do that?” he asked during a recent dinner with editorial staff of the

Quebec City daily Le Soleil. “Do you realize how those people live?” Asked what he would do if natives tried to carry out their threats, he scoffed: “We’d smile. We’d laugh a bit.” Later, the PQ leader imposed a temporary ban on all official dealings between party members and native groups. “We need to allow tensions and passions to subside,” Parizeau said.

Some Quebec nationalists suggest that Mercredi is acting in a deliberately provocative manner for ulterior motives. “Ovide is a politician— and a hell of a good one,” said Cliche. “I think that he believes the sovereigntists can-

not win a referendum and that it is best to be on the winning side—the federalist side. That’s why he has re-

sorted to scare tactics.”

In fact, federal officials say privately that they were ap-

palled by Mercredis remarks. Constitutional Affairs Minister Joe Clark spent an hour criticizing the AFN leader during a meeting between the two men in the minister’s office last month. According to an official who was there, Clark told Mercredi that he was acting “like a kid on a tricycle, spinning on ice.” Clark added that, without Quebec’s support, there would be no constitutional reform for natives.

Mercredi appeared last week to be trying to mend fences. Speaking at a Canadian Club luncheon in Ottawa, he declared that he was prepared to be more flexible if Quebec’s leaders would guarantee native rights. He added: “Without Bourassa, there can be no real advancement on the inherent right to self-government, on the treaties we have with Canada and the rest of our constitutional role.”

Although Bourassa did not respond directly to the native leader’s overture, he adopted a conciliatory tone towards the rest of Canada in a speech at the opening of a new session of the National Assembly in Quebec City. The premier praised Canada as a “privileged country in terms of peace, liberty and the standard of living”—but he warned that national unity can be preserved only if Quebec’s demands are met. And in Ottawa, Quebec government officials stayed away from the first meeting in which native leaders joined federal and provincial officials in the arduous task of trying to hammer out a constitutional reform package by the end of May.

For his part, Quebec Indian Affairs Minister Christos Sirros welcomed the “new tone of flexibility” in Mercredi’s remarks, but declined further comment. In view of the strained relations between Quebec and native groups, that, at least, was one positive step.

BARRY CAME

E. KAYE FULTON