There is lots of talk about Quebec possibly separating from Canada. What isn’t being talked about are the rights and options Crees have if Quebec separates.
The separatist Parti Québécois is the favoured winner in the next election, which could beheld as early as June. A growing number of Quebecers seem convinced that Quebec will be an independent country within two years.
If Quebec splits from Canada, this will have a radical impact on Cree life. What happens to Cree people and Cree traditional lands? Quebec assumes the land will go with Quebec. Some Canadians think that Canada has a good claim.
But what do the Crees want? No one, particularly the Parti Quebecois, wants to ask the Crees. If the Crees don’t decide, someone else will decide for them.
In this issue of The Nation, we examined the positions of the Grand Council of the Crees, the Assembly of First Nations and Quebec nationalists. In our next issue, we will talk to Cree ambassador Ted Moses and the various political parties in Ottawa, and we will look at Cree rights from the perspective of international law.
If Quebec separates from Canada, Crees have three basic options: staying in Quebec, staying in Canada or going it alone.
To open up the discussion, we look at all three options below, and list the advantages and disadvantages of each one.
Staying in Quebec
PQ leader Jacques Parizeau has yet to meet with Cree leaders to discuss sovereignty or the future of the First Nations in Quebec. Officially, the PQ recognizes the existence of the 11 First Nations in Quebec. But, the PQ has not officially recognized that aboriginal peoples have an equal right to self-determination if Quebec separates, including the right to leave Quebec.
• The James Bay Agreement would be null and void, and the Crees would be in a position to negotiate full control over the territory, including something like a territorial status.
• If Quebec would stop treating people who aren’t “real” Quebecois as a threat, perhaps the Cree Nation and the Quebec people could support each other as threatened peoples and cultures.
• The PQ promises that if Quebec separates, all federal treaty obligations would be assumed by the government of Quebec. It also promises a public debate on energy policy and the party also says it opposes construction of the Great Whale River project.
• Do you trust the Parti Québécois to deal fairly with native peoples and to keep their word?
• The PQ intends to separate with northern Quebec. The party states that it will take over the rights and obligations of the government of Canada, including final say over native peoples, the lands and resources. In this way, the PQ hopes to maintain the so-called “extinguishment” of Cree rights over their lands.
• Quebec will have a huge debt (in the hundreds of billions) if it separates. Will the Crees be willing to weather the economic storm in Quebec after separation? Quebec will be a poorer society for many years, if not forever. Will Quebec be able to afford obligations to Crees?
• Cree territory will be seen as a vast treasure house of natural resources to be exploited, especially if the new country of Quebec is in economic difficulty.
• Other native nations may not stay in Quebec. The Crees would be cut off from native peoples in the rest of Canada, including west-coast James Bay Crees.
• French is not as prevalent among Crees as a second language.
• The francophone press continually puts down First Nations peoples (never mind Oka!) and a recent poll in La Presse (see Editorial, page 4) revealed a strong racist attitude among francophone Quebecers toward native peoples.
Staying in Canada
If Quebec separates, Crees have a strong argument for remaining with Canada. Canada handed over Cree territory, known as Rupert’s Land at the time, to the province of Quebec in 1898 and 1912. But this “gift” was made to the province of Quebec, not a separate country called Quebec.
Historically and under the law, native people have been the responsibility of the government of Canada, not the provinces.
• If Canada splits apart, the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement will be null and void, and could be rewritten—minus all the flaws. The Crees signed the James Bay Agreement with Canada and the province of Quebec, not an independent country called Quebec.
• Going with Canada opens up the opportunity for the Crees to redefine their sovereignty over the land, to negotiate for meaningful control over the territory and management of resources. Crees could redefine their relationship to Canada on the basis of true self-government.
• Canada has the obligation to defend Cree rights in the event of Quebec separating. If Crees go with Canada, the federal government would be obliged under the constitution to continue meeting its obligations in fields like education and housing.
• Canada’s territorial governments (the NWT, Yukon and Nunavut) are good examples of the kind of arrangement that could be suitable to the Crees. Crees could have their own Territorial Assembly and similar powers to the Northwest Territories.
• English, the main language in the rest of Canada, is much more prevalent among Crees than French.
• The Crees would maintain their ties with other First Nations coast to coast.
• Canada hasn’t exactly been a generous and trusted protector of Cree interests. It was Canada that gave away Cree lands to Quebec without Cree knowledge or consent. Do you trust Canadian politicians to keep their word? During the talks over James Bay Phase I, the federal government assumed the stance of “alert neutrality,” letting Quebec do what it wants.
• Quebec will be VERY angry if the Crees go with Canada. The territory is worth billions of dollars in forestry, hydroelectricity, mining and tourism. It is a huge portion of Quebec. Without it, Quebec will be a much smaller country. At the very best, there will be a backlash against native peoples in Quebec. Is Canada able and willing to protect the Crees in such a context.
• Will Canada sell the Crees out to Quebec? If Quebec separates, there will be tough negotiations with Canada on many issues, like the debt, access to the St-Lawrence Seaway, the status of federal assets in Quebec. The Crees may become a bargaining chip for Ottawa.
• The Inuit appear to be more favourable to staying in Quebec. If they did this, Crees would be boxed in from the north and south.
• Economic ties with Quebec businesses, provincial government agencies and non-Cree towns near the Cree territory would be disrupted. The situation of towns like Radisson within Cree territory would also cause problems.
Going It Alone
When Canada handed over Cree territory to Quebec in 1898 and 1912, it can be argued that this was both inappropriate and illegal. Crees have inhabited and cared for the land as long as anyone can remember. Morally, the Crees are the true people who should have sovereignty over the territory.
Crees have representation at the UN and can make just a strong case as Quebec, if not stronger, for becoming an independent country. The question is can the Crees carry it off?
• The Crees would have real control over our society, destiny and the development of the territory.
• The land would finally cared for by the people whose lives are intertwined with it, not people who only want to profit from it.
• Crees could move away from dependence on outside governments and paternalism.
• Chance to recreate a Cree-style democratic society, with more open institutions.
• The Cree Nation would become the first native-run country on the planet—a model for other native nations. Crees would become the first indigenous people in almost 500 years to regain control of their destiny.
• Crees have the traditions of land use, democracy, expert knowledge of the territory and value system that would create a fair and healthy society, and preserve the land for all future generations.
• Crees could seek associations with Canada and/or Quebec.
• Huge and immediate administrative challenge. The Crees would have to set up a state with all the institutions that go with it in a very short time.
• Can the Crees defend their borders from a hostile Canada or Quebec?
• Ending of funding for social services, housing, income security dependent on welfare payments from Canada and Quebec. Disrupted economic ties between Crees and non-Cree society.