Quebec nationalists come in many different stripes. Some like Jean Allaire, the controversial leader of the new nationalist party Action démocratique du Québec, want immigrants to pledge an oath to “live in French.” If they don’t, they’ll have to pay back the money spent to “integrate” them.

But other nationalists see sovereignty as a way of making Quebec a more just and equal society, not a more divided one. Perhaps the most influential progressive nationalist is Gérald Larose, president of the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN), Quebec’s second-largest union federation.

Larose is also co-chair of the Quebec-Native Forum, a coalition of organizations whose members account for half the population of the province, including the CSN, unions representing Quebec teachers and farmers, the Assembly of Bishops and the Mouvement Desjardins credit-union network. First Nations are represented by the Native Women’s Association, Montreal’s Native Friendship Centre and leaders of five First Nations in Quebec, including the Crees.

Larose helped prepare the forum’s brief to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, which called for the recognition of the right to self-determination of the First Peoples. For Larose, that right isn’t some vague concept. It means that should Quebec separate from Canada, aboriginal peoples have the right to stay in Quebec or leave.

“Our view is that the colonial heritage should be abandoned through a process of sovereignty. The proposition of the Quebec-Native Forum is that in the process of Quebec achieving sovereignty, it should also be the occasion for the aboriginal nations to accede to their own sovereignty, to leave the federal stranglehold,” said Larose.

“We are against the authoritarianism of the federal government. We are against the colonial heritage that aboriginal nations have experienced in Canada, I would say in a more dramatic way than the Quebec nation. What we would like is for the aboriginal nations to ally themselves with Quebec sovereignty to assume fully all the privileges and responsibilities that come with it.”

Larose said in an interview that his union also opposes the Great Whale River project. “Considering the economic constraints, in our view there is no need. We don’t think energy development requires the development of mega-projects like this one. Also, it requires negotiations with the aboriginal nations, which hasn’t been done.”

The union leader argued that Hydro-Quebec’s development of the North should not be blamed on Quebec nationalism, but on “short-sighted capitalism.”

“It comes from an old tradition of economic development,” he said. “It’s short-sighted development based on the belief that natural riches can be exploited immediately without any consideration of sustainable development. It has nothing to do with nationalism. It has a lot to do with capitalism.”

But when asked whether Crees are right to be wary of the Bloc Québécois and PQ, Larose was critical of some First Nations leaders. “I think there is among some aboriginal leaders a pollution created by federalists who promote fears among aboriginal peoples so that they become an instrument to derail the debate. I regret that,” he said.

“When we speak frankly, clearly and honestly with aboriginal peoples, they understand very well that one can support Quebec’s sovereignty and still have a sincere and firm will to support the economic and social betterment of aboriginal peoples.”

But other Quebec separatists are less willing to trust the Bloc and PQ. One is François Saillant, a leading housing activist in Montreal and member of the Regroupement de solidarité avec les autochtones.

In a letter to La Presse on March 9, Saillant attacked Bloc leader Lucien Bouchard for launching a “hate campaign” against Mohawks over the cigarette-smuggling issue. Saillant took Bouchard to task for making “alarming accusations, insinuations and generalizations against the Mohawk nation and all aboriginal peoples.” The Bloc’s campaign has “stigmatized an entire people and has dangerously boosted anti-native sentiments rooted in a large part of the Quebec population,” Saillant wrote.

Saillant is a member of a coalition of grassroots groups lobbying for social housing, which presented a brief to the Bélanger-Campeau commission in 1990 calling for recognition of aboriginal peoples as nations “having the right to decide their own future.” The brief also supported independence for Quebec because it said the province “suffers a position of inferiority and oppression in Canada.” It cited statistics showing that poverty, illiteracy and poor housing are disproportionately present in Quebec compared to the rest of Canada.

Another influential Quebec grassroots activist, Marianne Roy, also said there is ample reason to be wary of the nationalist parties. Roy is the coordinator of Solidarité populaire Québec, a coalition of 110 major grassroots organizations and unions representing two million Quebecers. “Crees are right to be skeptical,” she said.

Roy’s group is working on a People’s Charter for Quebec that supports Quebec sovereignty as a means of fighting poverty and inequality. The charter also supports the aboriginal right to self-determination and nation-to-nation talks with the First Nations.

Roy said she is still unsure herself whether she would vote “yes” in a referendum on Quebec sovereignty because she doesn’t trust the Parti Québécois. But whatever the outcome, she believes more pressure is needed on the government from the grassroots to create social change. For change to happen, she said grassroots groups in Quebec and aboriginal peoples should work more closely together.

Roy herself is putting those words into action in her work as coordinator of the Kahnawake Human Rights Watch, a group formed by the Kahnawake band council, the CSN and church groups to monitor police harassment of Mohawks.

“More emphasis should be put on ties between organizations of the people to put pressure on governments to make sure that whatever comes out of this, it reflects the needs of aboriginal peoples and the people of Quebec,” she said. “In order for change to happen on a political level, there has to be pressure from the grassroots.”