Indians enter the fray over one Canada: Quebec separatists' guns spiked

ONLY days after the separatist Parti Quebecois (PQ) was voted into office, Quebec's Indians - who, as the province's original inhabitants, lay claim to most of the territory - are planning to publicise their strong anti-independence views. This seems likely to be merely a prelude to tougher action when the sovereignty campaign gathers momentum in the run-up to the referendum next year.

The key question is whether the Indians' campaign will develop into the kind of armed resistance that caused severe disruption and bloodshed in Quebec four years ago.

On that occasion, a large and heavily armed group of Mohawks, many of them Vietnam veterans, protested successfully against the expansion of a golf course on to their land. With firearms and crossbows, they provoked a 78-day standoff in which a Quebec policeman was shot dead, and which ended when the Canadian military was called in to restore order. The operation cost Cdollars 200m ( pounds 94m).

But for the time being at least, Indian objections are still verbal: thus tomorrow Mathew Coon-Come, Grand Chief of the Crees, whose traditional homelands in Northern Quebec are the size of France, is taking the Cree case to Washington.

'I'll be talking about everything, including this concept that Quebec can separate with Cree territory without Cree consent. That's illegal, and I will lay it all out,' says Mr Coon-Come. He expects his speech to the prestigious Institute of Strategic Studies will trigger a row between the new PQ government and Quebec's 40,000 Indians comprised of 11 tribes.

The PQ has reacted angrily in the past to suggestions that Quebec's Indians had the right to self-determination if the province separated from Canada. And the Indian Affairs Minister, Ron Irwin, caused a big argument recently on phone-in radio when he said Quebec's Indians had the right to stay in Canada with their territory if the province decided to separate.

Premier-elect Jacques Parizeau, mindful of the storm of protest that his plans for independence are provoking (he promised last Tuesday that he would definitely hold a referendum on sovereignty next year) has already offered to give the native people more autonomy - a placatory pledge met with scorn by the Inuit leader Zebedee Nanguk, who said: 'No native leader would be impressed by that talk. We want action not words. That Parizeau and those ultra-nationalist Francophones don't have native people's interests at heart.'

Mr Nanguk said he recently became 'infamous' as the man who told the Francophone separatists to 'go and secede' with a thin line of territory around the St Lawrence River - all they had a right to, he said - and leave the rest of Quebec to the Inuit and Cree. 'They got very angry. But at least,' he added, 'the fact we've already been introduced will save time for the big battle ahead.'

The issue of territorial integrity - and the Indians' view of themselves as custodians of a region they have inhabited for 4,000 years - lies at the heart of their objections to the new Quebec government's plans to take la belle province out of the Canadian federation. Several Indian spokesmen for the Cree and Huron said this was illegal and that Canada had a duty to protect their native rights.

Informed observers believe that, despite comprising such a small proportion of Quebec's population of almost 7 million, the Indians could cause Mr Parizeau and his government serious difficulties. Thanks to skilful lobbying, their claims to self-determination and territorial integrity enjoy growing international support, which could add to the pressure Mr Parizeau already faces in trying to push forward his controversial bid for separation.

The other threat further down the road is, of course, direct action: Mohawk spokesman Billy Two Rivers, a former wrestler in the UK, did not rule out 'militancy' and an 'appropriate response' if the tribe's land was at stake, adding: 'If it comes to a showdown at the OK Corral, we want to be on the winning side.'

A less robust but more ingenious response with which Mr Parizeau will also have to grapple is that presented by the Crees: they plan to hold their own referendum on whether to remain in the federation or join the separatists. And their referendum will contain a third option - an independent Cree country within Quebec - which will be discussed shortly by the 14 Inuit communities in the Quebec Arctic.

Mr Parizeau may have his hands full.

(Photograph omitted)