Crees don’t have to sit and watch if Quebec decides to separate from Canada. Separation may lead to big social disruptions, but it’s also a tremendous opportunity for Crees to redefine their relationship with Quebec, Canada and with each other.

Crees have several options before them, each with its own merits and pitfalls. We can stay with Quebec, leave and join Canada, or strike out on our own and start building the world’s first aboriginal-ruled country.

Whichever option turns out to be the best, it’s the Crees’ right to decide and no one else’s. That’s the point which the Grand Council of the Crees is making as the possibility looms that Canada may break up.

In a recent speech in Germany, Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come told prominent academics that if Quebec separates, the Cree people will not be handed over from Canada to Quebec as if they were a piece of property.

“It is we who will determine our relationship with Canada, Quebec or both,” said Coon Come. “We do not seek to prevent the Quebecois from achieving their legitimate goals. But we will not permit them to do so on Cree territory and at the expense of our fundamental rights, including our right to self-determination.”

Cree leaders believe that if anyone has the right to self-determination, it’s the First Peoples. “Matthew was not saying Quebec doesn’t have the right to self-determination, just that Quebec’s rights are not greater than the Crees’ right,” said Bill Namagoose, the Grand Council’s executive director. “Quebec can’t split and say, ‘We’ll decide afterwards what rights natives have.'”

The Grand Council doesn’t believe it’s realistic for Crees to go it alone and completely separate from Canada and Quebec. But what is realistic is for Crees to gain recognition of their jurisdiction over the territory they have occupied for at least 5,000 years.

“If the Crees keep after it they will get it,” Namagoose said. “But are the Crees resolved to get it? I believe if they want it they will have it. It’s just a question of how long and how hard they can fight for it.”

The present system, where Quebec exploits and controls the territory and the Crees receive assistance from the federal and provincial government, doesn’t work, said Namagoose. “In the long run, the costs incurred by the Crees in services, etc at some point have to come out of the territory. The majority of these costs have to be tied to how the territory will be developed,” he said. “By the year 2020, the Crees will be over 25,000 people and growing. The Crees’ interests over the longterm will be best served by having jurisdiction over their own land.”

The Grand Council is set to begin talks with the federal government about relations with Canada should Quebec separate. As yet, no talks have started with the Parti Quebecois or the Quebec Liberals.

Currently, a Parti Quebecois spokesperson promises that if the PQ is elected, the Crees might get royalties from any developments in northern Quebec. However, Namagoose says the PQ has to realize it’s not just a question of money but how the resources are managed. “That’s like saying Quebec can continue to clear-cut land and build mega-projects as long as Crees get their two per cent of profits. This is unacceptable.”

The PQ also says the Crees have the right to self-determination, but this right is as a minority within the Quebec population. PQ policy as it stands now is that the Quebec people have the right to determine their own political status, taking the native peoples with them, and to determine native rights some time in the future.

Prominent separatists have talked about a municipal-type of self-government for native peoples (which the Crees already have), but not about meaningful control over their traditional lands and the resources in them, according to the Grand Council.

“If governments want to deal with the meaning of aboriginal rights, then that can be determined in the context of the recognition that Crees are the rightful owners of the resources of their traditional lands and waters and the resources in them,” said Namagoose.

He said Cree society would become more democratic if Crees have control over their own destiny and the future of the territory. “For example, if the Crees were the ones to determine if a project went ahead or not, then the discussions would be much more internal to Cree society. There would not be information held back the way it is now, there would not be the distrust. The people would be more in control.”

Today, those Crees who prefer to have dams built have no control over how they are designed, and how the Crees will benefit, he said. If Crees were in control, there would be concrete ways of accomplishing job development and training for projects. French would no longer be a problem and, most importantly, the effects of a project on the environment and animals could be properly considered by Cree experts.