Crees are not cattle to be traded from one government to another, says Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come.

If Canada is to split apart, it’s up to the Crees to determine their own future, he said. Cree lands would not automatically go with a sovereign Quebec.

Crees have inhabited their lands for thousands of years, he said, whereas Quebec has only been in the North for 30 years.

“It’s not a question of Crees seceding from Quebec but rather Quebec seceding from Canada and the Crees,” said Coon Come.

“When you examine the right of self-determination, I think that we of all peoples have the strongest argument,” he said in an interview with The Nation about Quebec sovereignty.

Coon Come said Crees should start examining their rights and options at the grassroots level, and those discussions will continue at the Cree Gathering this summer.

“We should not be participating in the debate after secession, nor during secession, but before it becomes a national or international mess,” he said. “Decisions will have to be made on protecting Cree rights.”

How concerned is the Grand Council over the possibility of Quebec separating?

The debate on the possibility of Quebec seceding from Canada started a time ago with the Quiet Revolution with the coming into power of Rene Levesque. We have always kept a close eye on it, and considering the PQ’s platform with elections coming up and with the Bloc Quebecois, it’s a real issue that has to be dealt with.

With all that, I feel that the government of Canada seems to be into another “alert neutrality.” I think the position of a party like the Bloc as her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition makes it dear that the possible secession of Quebec from Canada will dominate the political constitutional agenda.

The problem is this is a grave matter and it’s delicate, a matter that may inflame passions within Quebec. To me, none of these are legitimate reasons to avoid dealing with this issue. We’ve addressed this issue, and we’ve made presentations to the National Assembly committee established by Bill 150 [the Belanger-Campeau Commission].

Since our presentation to the United Nations, we have always maintained that as the Cree Nation, we are a people. We live on “Eenou Astchee” and that we have the right to self-determination and other fundamental rights.

Do you feel that the Crees have the same right to self-determination that parties within Quebec wish to take upon themselves?

Let me put it this way. Let’s go back a bit so you can realize where I’m coming from. First of all Cree rights, our rights as a people predate the existence of the Canadian state by several thousand years. So our basic rights could not have been abrogated by an act of European powers who have been here in the last few hundred years.

To me, it is totally unacceptable that this active and ever growing separatist movement intends to dismantle the Canadian state and carry the Cree territory out of Canadian confederation with or without our consent.

You feel the Crees have the right of total choice?

We, as a people, have the fundamental right of self-determination. We have the right to determine our own destiny. We are not discussing the Cree right to secede but rather the situation we are faced with in Quebec. The Cree people do not seek to oppose or interfere with the exercise of self-determination by the people of Quebec with respect to their own territories.

It’s not a question of Crees seceding from Quebec but rather Quebec that is seceding from Canada and the Crees. But if the entire Canadian landscape is to be unilaterally or bilaterally changed, it is the Cree people who have the right to determine our own political status.

What about the fiduciary obligations and rights enjoyed by Crees under the present system?

That’s one of the things I feel we need to address. The government of Canada has a fiduciary responsibility over the native peoples. That means Canada would have to take a position on whether they’re going to defend Cree interests and that of other First Nations. So far, we have been seeing only “alert neutrality.” Canada has been keeping silent.

Do you think Canada has upheld its end of the fiduciary rights and obligations?

Canada has been bending over backwards to appease Quebec so they won’t leave the Canadian family. That, to me, is very clear.

If Quebec leaves Confederation, what do you think will be the status of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement and the complimentary agreements, which were signed by the Crees, Canada and Quebec?

We signed the agreement with Quebec within Canada and with the understanding that Quebec was within Confederation.

If that changes, we ask the question of whether or not the rights to self-determination will be respected within a independent Quebec. Also, will the government of Canada honour and respect its constitutional fiduciary duty given to the native people.

These are the questions we put to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples back in November in Montreal. We are pressuring the government to come up with these answers.

What role do you see the Crees playing in Quebec’s possible secession? Will we be relegated to the role of pawns, or will we be a major player?

This depends on the extent to which Crees are willing to defend or protect their rights. I think it’s important that this issue be discussed at the grassroots level. That is going on right now and will continue. Decisions will have to be made on protecting Cree rights and we will probably be making visits to all the Cree communities.

So the Grand Council will be visiting the Cree communities to discuss and gain a consensus on this issue?

Yes, we’ve actually been concerned since the Charlottetown Accord failed. The Cree Gathering, as you know, will be coming up this summer and we will be discussing that there too.

Do you envision holding a referendum at the same time as Quebec?

That’s an interesting issue because we certainly don’t want to be part of the referendum process, for our numbers to be included. But if Quebec was to hold one, I don’t think the Crees should be lumped within the general referendum, where their wishes would be submerged by the Quebec majority. This isn’t an approach Quebec would tolerate if proposed by Canada. Why should we?

The Allaire report [Liberal proposals on sovereignty-association] says that an independent Quebec would share responsibility for natives jointly with Canada. Basically it means that an independent Quebec would take over Canada’s control of Indians and their lands with or without the agreement of Canada or, more importantly, native peoples. Do you see this report as outdated?

I see that report as outdated. They’re misunderstanding the political clout of the First Nations and our arguments. When you look at history, when you look at the concept of terra nullius [the European idea that the lands were empty when they arrived], when you examine the right of self-determination, I think that we of all peoples have the strongest argument.

For the Crees, the question of timing is very important. We should not be participating in the debate after secession, nor during secession, but before it becomes a national or international mess. We should be right in there now so we aren’t coming at the 11th hour waving a flag “what about us.”

In the Allaire report, we’re transferred like baggage from one government to the other. We need to prevent that from happening so we aren’t treated like cattle.

We have to keep pounding away on the Cree history of thousands of years. Our self-determination predates their arrival by thousands of years. We have to attack the terra nullius concept.

We have to get away from these concepts because this is framework of fiction the dominate society has erected to legitimize the taking of lands and resources from the First Nations.