'First Nations' fight for freedom

Quebec's Cree and Inuit are turning the tables on separatism, writes Hugh Winsor
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The Independent Online
Ottawa - Concerned that they will lose traditional rights in an independent Quebec, two of the province's most prominent native groups, the Northern Cree and the Inuit, have seized on the French separatists' rhetoric about the right of self-determination to play an independence card of their own. If Quebec has the right to separate from Canada, they argue, they have an equal right to separate from Quebec and turn their substantial land mass into a province of their own attached to Canada.

As Matthew Coon Come, the university-educated grand chief of the Cree, has noted, the arguments to support an independent status for Quebec which are put forward by the Prime Minister, Jacques Parizeau, and his nationalist coalition - that Quebec is a distinct society with its own language, culture and land - apply even more so to the First Nations, as the native peoples call themselves.

Grand Chief Coon Come has even claimed proprietorship to the name "Quebec" as an Indian word meaning "the narrowing of the waters". So the separation- within-separation threat can only worsen the already acrimonious relationship between the native peoples and the provincial government. Most of the Indian groups speak English, a legacy of their missionary education, and identify strongly with Ottawa.

They have always refused to recognise Quebec's authority in their reserves and have prevented provincial police from even entering the settlements along the Canada-United States border which have acquired a notorious reputation as smuggling conduits for drugs, liquor, tobacco and guns.

This week, the Inuit of Northern Quebec announced they would hold their own referendum on 26 October, four days before the Quebec independence vote. The purpose, according to the Inuit leader, Zebedee Nungak, is "to put Quebec on notice that the Inuit are not pushovers". Mr Coon Come has also announced the Cree will hold a referendum.

Together, the 8,000 Inuit and the 12,000 Cree claim almost two-thirds of the north and western parts of Quebec as their traditional land. (There are about 80,000 natives of all groups living in Quebec.)

The Cree land is the size of France and contains the site for the proposed gigantic Grand Baleine hydro-electric power dam, which has been opposed by the Cree on the grounds that their traditional hunting and fishing lands will be destroyed.

Mr Parizeau and his separatist partner, Lucien Bouchard, who heads the Bloc Quebecois Party in the federal parliament, have attempted to dismiss the native claims to self-determination, arguing that a sovereign Quebec would be indivisible.

But constitutional analysis supports the native side. Many claim they have never ceded their sovereignty to the federal or provincial governments and demand to be treated as "domestic nations". They also claim the right of direct access to the Queen, and her protection, without intervention from Ottawa - a right they say is based on treaties signed in the 18th century.

They have a point. Even one of Mr Bouchard's legal advisers wrote in an article for a law journal that "the native nations are in a position similar to that of the Quebecois when it comes to invoking international law in support of the claim that they have the right to self-determination." (The adviser was later dropped by Mr Bouchard.)

The question of self-determination is further complicated by the fact that there have been several changes in Quebec's borders since Canadian confederation in 1867. There is a body of legal argument which maintains that should the Quebec separatists win the referendum, they would only be entitled to the 1867 Quebec boundaries.

The native debate seems to be only one of the separatists' problems as the official 30-day referendum campaign gets under way. Attempts by Mr Parizeau's government to stimulate nationalist sentiment - from an emotion- laden declaration of sovereignty to reports designed to show Quebec would be viable and prosperous - have failed to catch fire.

Mr Parizeau did make some conciliatory gestures towards the aboriginal population, offering some undefined form of self-government within an independent Quebec. But the native leaders were quick to realise he was not offering the kind of guarantees the native population now enjoys in the constitution. Nor did he offer to match the many health, education and welfare programmes now provided to the native peoples by Ottawa.