The sovereignty debate and the threat of separation in Quebec has torn apart families, devalued property and given the province a bad name for many years. APTN decided that they would consult Quebec’s first peoples about the issue last April 18.

A panel of seven invited guests traded observations and theories and even had a little bit of time to spar with one another in the lively debate held at the Just for Laughs Theatre in downtown Montreal.

The night started off with a live flutist serenading the audience to their seats. And then the fun began.

Michael Doxtater, a Mohawk elder and professor of education at McGill, started off with a history lesson. He talked about a meeting in Brantford, Ontario in 1869,2 years after Canada’s birth, when the Queen of England sent Arthur, Duke of Connaught, to reiterate the equality between the new country and the Mohawk people.

First Nations were seen as sovereign, yet connected to Canada.

He also said that an important teaching tells of each nation being a rafter in the longhouse. Whether there are 1,000 Abenaki or 30 million Canadians, each rafter is equal, as is each nation.

Cree Youth Chief John Matoush brought up the subject of self-determination under the context of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement“Crees have a right to self-determination, but it will be assuming responsibility under the JBNQA. To achieve true sovereignty, we must have autonomy and be in control of our economy and our future,” he said.

The night marked the live season finale of Contact, an APTN political affairs show that also takes questions from callers, audience members and emails.

It also marked the last show hosted by Madeleine Allakariallak, an Inuit from Nunavut. She will be leaving APTN to go back home and she was emotional on air and after the show.

Ex-Olympian Waneek Horn-Miller who hails from Kahnawake, took offense to the separatist ideals in the province.

“How could our land be taken away? It’s not thetists. Why do they think they have more rights than a recent immigrant from Rwanda? We’re not saying we’re better than others, we’re just saying we have rights as Indigenous peoples who were here first and they aren’t being respected.”

Ellen Gabriel, a Kanesatake Mohawk activist who became famous during the Oka crisis, went a bit further.

“Canada and Quebec are unceded territory,” she said. “The land has not been taken, at least not in a proper way.”

The overall feeling was that if Quebec does separate, Native people won’t necessarily opt to stay within the colonial boundaries of Canada, but the act itself would enable Aboriginals to cede their territories as well, if they so choose.

The Cree and Inuit referenda, held just before Quebec’s 1995 vote on secession, were cited as proof that if Quebec separates, Aboriginals want no part of it.

“Everyone has a right to self-determination, but indigenous people are the only ones who are limited and not able to exercise that right,” Gabriel observed.

Audience member Kahente Horn-Miller, who is studying for her PHD in anthropology and sociology at Concordia, explained sovereignty in simple terms.

“Sovereignty starts within yourself,” she said. “It’s about putting food on the table and having a place to sleep.”

An audience member, Annie, who is an Inuk student in Montreal, said that the talk was too negative.

“(With) Sovereignty and independence, I think we’re talking about a lot of the bad things that can happen. Our greatest fears aren’t what bad can happen, what the government will take away or what’s going to happen down the road, I think our greatest fear is how great we can really be,” she said.

Mohawk Elder Billy Two Rivers said that Aboriginal rights, while entrenched in the constitution, still do not fully protect First Nations people. “We don’t look at ourselves as protected because we know that in order to truly be protected, we have to protect ourselves. No one else will.”