Jacques Parizeau seems convinced he will be celebrating Quebec Independence Day on June 24, 1996, but he still hasn’t figured out how to deal with the biggest obstacle in his path: the First Peoples of this land.
The Parti Québécois has put a lot of energy into trying to convince Quebecers to vote “yes” to independence in a referendum. But winning the referendum will be a relatively easy task compared to convincing the 11 First Nations in Quebec to separate from Canada too.
That seemingly impossible task is the job of one man, David Cliche. Cliche, a well-known Quebec environmentalist, is the PQ’s official liaison with the First Nations. He has spent the last few months trying to convince them of the merits of his proposals on aboriginal issues and sovereignty.
Cliche sees sovereignty as an opportunity to create social justice in Quebec and a “new social contract” with First Nations. “It’s a way of improving the situation. I would not be a sovereigntist if I did not believe it would improve my situation socially, politically and economically,” he said.
“The Indian Act is a colonialist approach. The basis of it is wrong. This is not the way natives will become partners and equal,” said Cliche.
The PQ position is that First Nations have the right to self-determination, but with an important restriction. They cannot leave Quebec if Quebec separates from Canada.
In the event of separation, the PQ promises that Quebec will assume all federal treaty obligations and funding for the First Nations. As an example, take the Cree School Board. Today, 25 percent of its funding comes from Quebec and the rest from Ottawa. A PQ government would assume 100 per cent of its funding after separation. “Quebec will assume all federal responsibilities. The minimum would be the status quo,” said Cliche.
The PQ would also immediately enter into talks with each First Nation to redefine relations on a nation-to-nation basis. One possible arrangement being discussed with the Inuit is a form of “home rule” similar to the relationship between Greenland and Denmark, with substantial powers being transferred to an Inuit government, including some international authority. Royalties would go to the Inuit from all development on this territory, including hydro-projects. But jurisdiction over resources would be shared between the Inuit and Quebec.
Cliche sees other changes, too. For the first time, aboriginal peoples on reserves would start paying income taxes—to their own governments. “The fact that Indians don’t pay income tax to their own government for services they receive is a way to keep them from being responsible. That would be the first step,” Cliche said, suggesting that aboriginal peoples may eventually be forced to pay income taxes to other levels of government.
As for the Great Whale River project, Cliche had some seemingly positive words. “Personally, I don’t see a need for Great Whale for years and years, if ever,” said Cliche, who also chairs the Great Whale Forum, a coalition of ecologists, unions and others opposing Great Whale.
He promised that, if elected, the PQ would create an independent commission which would conduct a public debate on Quebec’s energy policy, something Crees have wanted for years. “We would give priority to energy conservation and alternatives would be evaluated on the basis of integrated-resource planning, taking into account all social and environmental costs. We would also explore wind and solar power,” he said.
It may sound interesting on paper, but Cliche hasn’t actually managed to take his deal directly to Crees yet. He has told the Grand Council he is interested in starting talks, but the Cree leadership is interested in dealing directly with Parizeau, not his side-kick—no matter what Cliche promises, it’s not clear it will be adopted as party policy. Cliche has also indicated that Parizeau is willing to meet with ordinary Crees in a public assembly in a Cree community.
The position of the Liberal Party of Quebec on all this remains unclear. It’s also unclear what the Liberals themselves are offering the First Nations as they go into the upcoming elections. The Liberals also haven’t met the Crees. The Nation repeatedly called the office of Native Affairs Minister Christos Sirros, but got no response.