The Quebec government has signed an agreement that may allow the Inuit to become the first aboriginal nation in the province to achieve self-government.

The deal, signed July 21 in Montreal, only establishes the framework for negotiations on self-government. But it commits Quebec to the principle of greater autonomy for an aboriginal nation and sets a clear deadline—April 30,1995—for completing negotiations.

The agreement comes at a time of great uncertainty in Quebec, practically on the eve of the crucial provincial vote scheduled for Sept. 12. It remains to be seen whether a full agreement on self-government will be forthcoming in the post-election climate.

The deal serves several purposes. Both Quebec and the Inuit say they want to develop a government in the North that responds better to the realities of the region and to the aspirations of its residents. They also want to establish a way to turn over to the Inuit powers and responsibilities currently in the hands of Quebec City.

The agreement also aims to streamline the many organizations and authorities that operate in Nunavik and that were created

as a result of the 1975 James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. Some of those organizations have overlapping responsibilities, which leads to no small degree of competition among them.

The deal was signed in Montreal by former federal cabinet minister Francis Fox (Quebec’s special negotiator) and by Simeonie Nalukturuk, President of Makivik Corporation. But Nalukturuk did not sign the agreement in his capacity as Makivik President; instead, the agreement recognizes him as negotiator for the Nunavik Constitutional Committee, or NCC.

The NCC was formed after an Inuit-wide election to choose a self-government working group in 1989. It drafted a constitution for the territory and started work on a plan fora Nunavik Assembly. Its activities were reduced during the last two years of Charlie Watt’s reign as Makivik President, when negotiations on the Great Whale hydro project picked up speed.

The kind of self-government contemplated in the recent deal is limited. For example, the agreement recognizes the wish of Nunavik residents to establish their own elected regional assembly, a type of local parliament. But this new assembly would remain under the authority of the National Assembly in Quebec City.

And while the framework agreement signed in July confirms the supremacy of Inuit rights contained in the JBNQA and protected by the Canadian Constitution, the deal cannot be said to grant the Inuit, as a people, any new rights.

Both the Inuit and Quebec make the point that self-government in Nunavik will be non-ethnic. The plan will apply to people who live north of the 55th parallel, a region that currently includes 14 communities with a majority Inuit population.

But it remains unclear exactly who will benefit from the self-government scheme. The agreement signed in Montreal grants the future Nunavik Assembly jurisdiction over the entire territory north of the 55th, not including those lands belonging to the Crees and the Naskapi. No native group other than the Inuit is involved in the present plan.

It’s worth remembering that the JBNQA grants anyone married to an Inuk every right that Inuit have. Spouses of Crees have no such formal JBNQA privileges. And because the plan is being called non-ethnic, any nonnatives living north of 55 can and will be able to participate in this new government. Clearly, this is not aboriginal self-government in the way most native nations see it here in Canada.

The story gets even more complicated in the southernmost of Quebec’s Inuit communities. Kuujjuaraapik, a.k.a. Whapmagoostui-Great Whale River Poste de la Baleine, is home to more than 600 Inuit. They and any non-natives associated with their community—and perhaps all other non-natives in town—will get self-government. Nothing for the Crees now though.

Perhaps it’s ridiculous to expect the construction of a new Berlin Wall on the shores of Hudson Bay. But clearly there will be two classes of people, two classes of rights among Great Whale’s residents.

The situation is even more doubtful in Mailasi-Chisasibi, where more than 60 Inuit now live after relocating there together with the Fort George Crees. The Inuit of Chisasibi are full voting members of Makivik Corporation, and participated in the election which chose Simeonie Nalukturuk to head the Nunavik Constitutional Committee. But since they live south of the 55th parallel, they are completely excluded from the self-government package.

Emanuel Lowi is a freelance journalist in Montreal with a lot of northern experience.