The Cree War Room at the Sheraton emptied as speech makers started. Coon Come along with Bill Namagoose and Brian Craik watched to the end as speeches were made. Coon Come had days before announced the results of the Cree referendum to Canadian media. The Cree position was clear and overwhelming. He was in for a surprise as Parizeau blamed ethnics and money as the reasons for the No win situation. Frustrations hit a higher level than before.
After Parizeau’s words some early reports say old Cree-French friendships seem strained. Rumours and predictions of repercussions against Natives, in particular the Crees, are making the rounds.
The Nation asked the Grand Chief to shed some light on the situation. Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come talks frankly about referendums, Parizeau’s sore loser attitude, the Eeyou Astchee Commission and the Cree future.
How did you feel about the referendum race? I found no comfort when the results came in because the margin was so close in the Quebec referendum. It’s still not clear and it’s the separatists who claimed we don’t have the right to self-determination. They’re going to have another referendum sooner than we think. I was deeply disturbed by Parizeau’s reference to the ethnic communities especially when tensions were hot and emotions were high. The Premier of Quebec was blaming the ethnic communities and singling out visible minorities. That’s certainly stirring the pot of anger, disappointment and frustration. Especially after a referendum. I was deeply disturbed because this was unacceptable and irresponsible. Like others I did call for his resignation too. I guess he listened to us.
But haven’t we heard that type of rhetoric before? Yeah, it’s different though when you do it in the heat of the moment It’s not acceptable but it’s understandable that they were desperate towards the end. After that’s all over that would be when one would try to bring the people all together because people were disappointed, angry and frustrated. Parizeau did say if there was a Yes he would call the people to rally together. Then when it came to a No he didn’t do that Do you expect any repercussions for the Crees because of the Cree referendum results? Well, let’s put it this way, we aren’t the only ones to say No. 50.6 per cent agree with us. If there is democracy in Quebec with the right for people to express themselves they wouldn’t be penalized for it It is scary though what Parizeau was doing in singling out a small group of people, which we all know includes the Aboriginal peoples.
The Crees will not be distracted from pursuing, asserting and defending their own interests. Crees are still in the Cree camp. Crees still have the right to determine their own future. Crees have the right to choose who they want to associate themselves with and Crees expressed that view with the results of our own referendum. I will continue to push based on those results.
Quebecers voted 50.6 per cent but if you look at the Crees, the Inuit and the Montagnais, we voted in the high 90’s to maintain the links or the right to choose with whom they want to associate with. So by what democratic principle can it be claimed that these decisive votes by Aboriginal peoples can be overruled.
I think it is clear that the Cree people have been saying that we are not opposed to the aspirations of the Québécois people. We have recognized their right to pursue their future. At the same time we have said time and time again that it should not be done by diminishing our rights or by denying our rights.
Commentators on the evening of the Quebec referendum said that the Aboriginal referendums may have pushed the No side over the top. Do you have any comments about this? That may be possible. People will try to figure out what went wrong rather then accepting the results.
In any event the Cree people in their referendum expressed the will of the people and said that the consent of the Cree people is required if there is to be any political or constitutional changes in the present context So that’s clear and the Crees participated in the Quebec referendum in order to minimize the potential damage and harm that could result in any outcome, whatever it might be.
With all these referendums, do you think it’ll help put Native items on the agenda table with either Quebec or the feds? I think there was an attempt in the Preamble in Bill 1, which began with a denial of our existence as a people. There’s an attempt here to diminish our rights and status. There was an effort made to ignore us as if we don’t count There’s an effort to minimize and to classify us as minorities.
It was only when the Crees stood up and said, “We are Eeyou, we are a people, we have our own lands called Eeyou Estchee.” Then Aboriginal views again were elevated and we could no longer be ignored. I think if we hadn’t said anything we would have been victims of our own silence. The Crees understood that there was a threat here to our Aboriginal rights, to our treaty rights and our human rights with the platform of the separatists.
The Crees no longer wanted to be spectators. The Crees no longer wanted to be on the sidelines and watch the French and the English fight over what is not theirs. The Crees decided to stand up and be heard, be counted, be able to maintain and that we will no longer accept that we are ignored. We will no longer accept that our lands will change status as gifts from Kings, between companies and governments without consulting the people. Crees have upheld the highest law of the land.
We have taken the provincial governments to task regarding their laws, their constitution. It’s only when the Crees stood up. It was only when the Crees defended their rights because nobody else is going to do it for us—we have taken a position that was in our interests because we certainly weren’t in the federal camp or the provincial camp we were in the Cree camp.
People like David Cliche though are saying that Natives would be a part of writing the constitution of a new Quebec. Couldn’t that be argued as giving Natives a say? The problem is that in their preamble and in their Bill 1, the future of Quebec begins with a denial of existence and putting all our treaty rights and the rest of it subject to Quebec’s self-declared rights. What these provisions have done is subjected our rights. They were only proposing to give us municipal powers and try to give us status of our reserves and that’s unacceptable. That’s the old colonial approach and policies that they are adapting and saying we don’t have the right of self-determination. That we are not a people.
They are saying their referendum is valid but not ours. That’s all going to continue but we will be fighting against violations to our treaty. We will continue to fight against the violations of human rights and against the continuation of these types of double standards.
The PQ party have promised that they’ll be back again with another referendum. Are the Crees prepared for the next one? I think the Crees have made very clear their position. The Crees are saying that Cree consent is required. That no one can just automatically assume that the Crees and their territory will be included in an independent Quebec. That is very clear. We will have to continue to reinforce that We’ll also make sure that if there are to be any changes to the Canadian political landscape we are not disregarded and that we are not excluded from receiving any benefits.
If there are any constitutional amendments or arrangements made between federal and provincial governments, that one cannot not ignore the Crees. That one cannot ignore the results of our referendum because that would be fundamentally wrong and undemocratic. In effect it would be illegal and I think we did get a lot of international exposure so that community is well aware of the Crees and the issues.
Recently the Cree Eeyou Astchee Commission went round to discuss the Cree future. What do you feel came out of that process? Did it help the Grand Council look at things differently? Oh, definitely. It reassured and confirmed through consultations what I thought was the heartbeat of the people. That they want to be involved and they want to continue to advance and protect our rights. Cree consent is required. That we assert our jurisdictions. That we don’t want status quo. That we too want change and that change can come about with our right to determine our future and that we have the right to determine who we want to associate ourselves with.
Cree School Board, the Health Board and the president of the Cree Trappers Association, for example, come together and sit in one assembly talking about our collective interests as a Cree society and where we want to go. That’s one of the strong recommendations and we’ll work towards that because they did mention the work done at the Nemaska Special Assembly.
The restructuring of our own entities was discussed and it strengthened the concept of a Cree Legislative Assembly. It’ll take time but work has begun and we’ll continue to work towards putting it all under one umbrella, where we are all sitting together and no longer will we have all the entities going in different directions. We created these monsters and we can certainly dismantle them.
Will the chiefs be discussing the report? Well, we already discussed the report at the Cree Legislative Assembly held in Chisasibi. The purpose of that assembly was to review the report. We’ll continue to be able to digest it and that was a help in formulating and developing our own Cree strategies, the approaches and positions we are going to be taking in the upcoming discussions and negotiations in order to accommodate Quebec’s wishes.
What do you see now as the big issues for the Crees, now that Great Whale is dormant and the referendum is over? Well, there’s still a threat there because there appears to be a movement out there agreeing to recognize Quebec as a distinct society. It goes against federal and provincial laws and possibly even the constitution.
So I think we have to repeat what we have been saying. We are not opposed to recognizing Quebec as a distinct society. But we cannot and will not permit recognition of others’ particular rights where that will lead to a diminishment or denial of our rights.
We have taken the position, as you know, that the rights of Quebecers are not greater than ours, that the exercise of Quebec’s opportunities and the recognition of Quebec as a distinct society, can’t be permitted if it if is at our expense or results in our Aboriginal or treaty rights being diminished or denied.
In our Dec. ’93 interview you described some of our entities becoming monsters. Have you seen any changes since then? Well, definitely. That’s one of the recommendations from the Eeyou Astchee Commission is that we revisit these entities and try to come to a place where all these entities like the chairman of the Cree School Board,
the Health Board and the president of the Cree Trappers Association, for example, come together and sit in one assembly talking about our collective interests as a Cree society and where we want to go. That’s one of the strong recommendations and we’ll work towards that because they did mention the work done at the Nemaska Special Assembly.
The restructing of our own entities was discussed and it strengthened theconcept of a Cree Legislative Assembly. It’ll take time but work has begun and we’ll continue to work towards putting it all under one umbrella, where we are all sitting together and no longer will we have all the entities going in different directions. We created these monsters and we can certainly dismantle them.
So you see hopeful signs for a Cree future? Well, as long as Crees are willing to take those responsibilities, to assume those responsibilities that will determine our future. And it’s going to be a long haul. It’s not easy because of the present political climate. There’s uncertainty as to what’s going to happen but one thing for sure is one can no longer ignore the Crees, the results of our referendum and they can no longer change the Constitution.
We flex our muscles and I think that if the approach continues to be the path of denial rather than a path of inclusion, then we’ll go all-out to protect and advance Crees rights. We’ll continue our on-going process of international advocacy to ensure that the international community is kept up-to-date on the actions that affect the Crees directly. Quebec and the federal government in view of the referendum will be trying to address Quebec’s issues. We’ll be right there to present our views.
One last question.
I thought I heard that a while ago. (laughter) Hey, I’m a reporter. (laughter) Worse than a politician, (laughter) When you were asked by a reporter after the Cree referendum “Is this a declaration of war?” what was your first response? (Lots of laughter) That was my response. I guess that there is still a lot of people who don’t understand Aboriginal issues and where we are coming from. It’s always misinterpreted when all we are doing is defending Cree rights. That we are going to assert our rights as a people to determine our future. If people can’t understand that then I guess they are going to have a serious problem.