Could Crees really break off from a sovereign Quebec and form their own country? How could the Cree Republic survive with such a tiny population—only 12,000 citizens?

Not to worry. That’s still two times bigger than Tuvalu. Tuvalu, a 6,000-person Polynesian nation in the South Pacific, was recognized by the UN as an independent country in 1978.

Tuvalu’s small population is not the only thing that makes this nation interesting to the Crees. Tuvalu used to be part of a larger British colony called the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, which was mainly populated by Micronesians. When the Gilbert and Ellice Islands gained independence, the Polynesians of Tuvalu wanted their freedom not only from Britain but also from the rest of the colony. The UN said okay.

For Crees, Tuvalu is an important precedent. Like Tuvalu, Crees are part of a province that may try to become independent. The Parti Quebecois argues that Quebec would keep the same borders if it becomes separate. But Tuvalu proves the PQ wrong. Crees have every right to go their own way.

The case of Tuvalu is just one of many international legal cases and statutes which support Crees’ right to self-determination. As the prospect looms that Quebec may separate from Canada, Crees and other First Nations in Quebec have an unprecedented opportunity to turn that right into reality, whether in the form of new partnerships with Canada and Quebec, or on their own as sovereign countries.

Whichever option they choose, international law says clearly that it’s up to aboriginal peoples to decide, and no one else. And surveys show that public opinion supports this right. A majority of those polled in Quebec (58 percent) and Canada (80 per cent) said the First Nations within a sovereign Quebec should have the option of choosing independence, according to a Angus Reid-Southam News poll in 1992.

The idea of self-determination got its start in the Atlantic Charter, signed by Allied leaders in 1941. “They [the Allied leaders] desire to see no territorial changes that do not accord with the freely expressed wishes of the people concerned,” said the Allies in the charter. “They respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live.”

The right to self-determination was expanded upon in the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, passed by the UN’s General Assembly in 1960. “All peoples have the right to self-determination,” said the UN declaration. “By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”

To top it off, this declaration also makes it clear that Crees don’t need a well-organized state apparatus or army if they choose to become independent. All they need is to be a people. “Inadequacy of political, economic, social or educational preparedness should never serve as a pretext for delaying independence.”

That’s all well and good, except for the fact that the Canadian government has argued at the UN that aboriginal nations aren’t really “peoples.” So they don’t qualify.

Or do they? Canada’s own constitution recognizes the existence of “aboriginal peoples” in section 35. So does the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which is a part of the law of Canada. It makes reference to “several Nations or tribes of Indians.” And so does the Supreme Court of Canada. Take R. v. Sparrow, a 1990 ruling in which the Supreme Court said, “The Government has the responsibility to act in a fiduciary capacity with respect to aboriginal peoples. ”

What’s more, the PQ government passed a resolution in the National Assembly in March 1985 in which Quebec “recognizes the existence of the Abenaki, Algonquin, Attikamek, Cree, Huron, Micmac, Mohawk, Montagnais, Naskapi and Inuit nations in Quebec.”

UN practice is to use a broad definition of the word “peoples” in discussions of self-determination. Criteria include: common history, racial or ethnic ties, cultural or linguistic ties, religious or ideological ties, common territory, common economic base and a common identity. All of which Crees have.

But what exactly does the right to self-determination mean? After all, the PQ recognizes that aboriginal peoples have the right to self-determination but it says they must remain in Quebec if Quebec leaves Canada.

Not so, says a resolution passed by the UN’s General Assembly in 1970. According to that resolution, entitled the Declaration Concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation Among States, the right to self-determination includes the right to secession. “The establishment of a sovereign and independent State, the free association or integration with an independent State or the emergence into any other political status freely determined by a people constitute modes of implementing the right of self-determination.”

Crees also point to the dubious way in which the northern territories of Rupert’s Land and Ungava were handed over to Quebec in 1898 and 1912. Crees were never consulted much less told that they were being given to Quebec, and this throws doubt on the legality of the land transfer.

It’s doubtful whether the transfers of the land are in accordance with the UN’s Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples. “The subjugation of peoples to alien subjugation, domination and exploitation constitutes a denial of fundamental human rights, is contrary to the Charter of the United Nations and is an impediment to the promotion of world peace and cooperation,” the declaration reads.

With the weight of international law on the side of the aboriginal peoples, Parti Quebecois legalists have scrambled in search of any UN statute that would stop the First Nations from leaving a sovereign Quebec. They found a 1970 UN resolution which, they claim, supports their view.

This resolution, called the Declaration Concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation Among States, says: “Nothing in the foregoing paragraphs shall be construed as authorizing or encouraging any action which would dismember or impair, totally or in part, the territorial integrity or political unity of sovereign and independent States conducting themselves in compliance with the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples as described above and thus possessed of a government representing the whole people belonging to the territory without distinction as to race, creed or colour.”

In other words, if a state represents all the people on its territory, no one has the right to dismember it.

To which Crees have an obvious reply. Neither Canada nor Quebec properly represent the Crees. As the Grand Council of the Crees put it in a 1992 brief to the UN, “Neither Canada nor Quebec is acting in complaince with the ‘principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples’. Neither Canada nor Quebec is ‘possessed of a government reprenting the whole people belonging to the territory’ without discrimination. Asa result, neither Canada nor Quebec could successfully invoke the principle of territorial integrity against the Crees (and other indigenous peoples) in Quebec.”

The international law couldn’t be clearer. It’s the Crees’ right to decide.