The days are long gone when aboriginal peoples could be ignored in any discussion of Canada's future. In the 1980 Quebec referendum on sovereignty, native voices were barely a whisper. As the decade progressed, they rose to a crescendo. Standing defiantly in the Manitoba legislature with an eagle feather in his hand, Elijah Harper administered the coup de grâce to the Meech Lake constitutional accord. Defying their own leaders in 1992, aboriginal peoples turned thumbs down on the Charlottetown accord, even though it included the entrenchment of the inherent right of self-government within Canada. Native leaders have entered the fray over Quebec sovereignty, brandishing threats before the Bélanger-Campeau Commission and the National Assembly committee on sovereignty.

No issue has the potential to poison relations more between Canada and a Quebec that's determined to seek its sovereignty than a conflict over the rights of native peoples. Quebec's aboriginal leaders have already stated that they have no interest in separatist demands for an independent Quebec and will do all in their power to remain in Canada. Canadians sympathetic to aboriginal claims will surely urge the federal government to step in to protect Quebec natives. Quebec, on the other hand, will be insulted by any suggestion that it discriminates against natives and will see any effort to wrest territory from a sovereign

Quebec as an affront. Keeping the situation under control will require cool heads and a sober analysis of Canada's self-interest.

Many Canadians have savoured the sight of English-speaking Crees and Mohawks thumbing their noses at the Quebec government. It was about time somebody took on those nasty separatists who are always tiresomely talking about leaving Canada. We would have liked to do it ourselves, but we're peaceable Canadians. Better to have the Mohawks man the barricades and the Crees to deliver the inflammatory speeches.

Don't be misled. Aboriginal leaders are not unqualified flag-waving Canadian patriots. Their own people and ancestral lands come first. They have their own agenda of self-government and land claims. As Mary Ellen Turpel put it, "There is a natural alliance which could be struck between aboriginal peoples and the secessionists whereby aboriginal self-determination could be respected as a priority." Algonquin Chief Richard Kistabish from Quebec was even more blunt, declaring that he would support Quebec sovereignty if native peoples could be partners in the sovereignty process.

If Quebec offers the best deal, Quebec aboriginal people may take it, however reluctantly. And why shouldn't they? They haven't gotten such a great deal from Canada. We can't fight our battles with Quebec through aboriginal proxies in the same way that English colonials used their Iroquois allies to strike terror into French hearts.

Aboriginal people inside Quebec and outside the province are strongly opposed to Quebec separating and taking along aboriginal people and their lands without consent. According to a June 1994 Angus Reid/Southam News poll, they are supported by 8 in 10 respondents in English-speaking regions of Canada who believe that aboriginal people in Northern Quebec have the right to chose to remain in Canada. Even a bare majority in Quebec support this view.

In the words of Cree Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come, speaking in Washington days after the PQ victory in September 1994, "The secessionists are simply saying that we Crees may not choose to stay in Canada. They are saying whether we like it or not, and with or without our consent, we are aboard the canoe of independence, and may not stay where we are on the dry land of Canada. We are being told we must join with secessionists in their adventure to redress their historic wrongs."

Some oppose separation so strongly that they may be willing to take action that could lead to violence to prevent separation. Cree Chief Billy Diamond has gone so far as to guarantee violent confrontation with Quebec.

Ovide Mercredi, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, has warned the National Assembly committee on sovereignty that "There can be no legitimate secession by any people in Quebec if the rights to self-determination of First Nations are denied, suppressed or ignored in order to achieve independence. Our rights do not take back seat to yours...Only through openness, of the mind and of the heart can questions of such vital importance to your people and ours be reconciled. The alternative, which we do not favour, is confrontation..."

In his Washington speech, Coon Come was categorical in his rejection of violence. "We are not contemplating secession or insurrection. We have never and will never use violence." But after the speech, he told journalists that the risk of violence is real and frightening.

The blowup at the Kanestake Reserve at Oka, in the summer of 1990 warned Canadians that native grievances have a very short fuse. All it took to set off the violence was a dispute over the expansion of a golf course into an old Mohawk burial ground. Images of masked Mohawk Warriors, with improbable names like Lasagna, staring down Canadian soldiers in full combat gear have been seared into the Canadian consciousness.

The ugly events at the Mercier Bridge outside of the Kahnawake Reserve near Montreal that same summer shocked many of us out of our liberal complacency. A howling mob of hundreds of Quebeckers, infuriated by the native blockade of the bridge, retaliated by casting insults and stones at native women, children and elderly being evacuated from the reserve, while constables of the Sûreté du Québec stood by. Racial prejudice and antagonism still persist in Quebec as elsewhere in Canada. Imagine the added tension if the Oka confrontation had occurred in a newly-independent Quebec.

Relations with the James Bay Cree have also been tense, but have not yet reached the level of violence. The Cree have mounted a fierce and sophisticated campaign against Hydro-Québec's Great Whale hydro-electric development, which would flood vast northern acreage, polluting the water with mercury and upsetting delicate eco-systems. Teaming up with the Green movement in the United States and eco-celebrities like Robert Kennedy Jr., the James Bay Cree have struck Hydro-Québec where it hurts most. Some politically correct investors have been persuaded to sell their Hydro-Québec bonds. In early 1994, the New York State Power Authority backed out of a contract to purchase additional electricity, arguing that it didn't need the power and that it was worried about the ecological impact of the Great Whale project. Hydro-Québec, despite its billions of dollars in assets and a big public relations budget, was blindsided by the Crees.

The Crees' success in battling Hydro-Quebec may have pleased a lot of Canadians but the potential for more serious confrontations will rise in an independent Quebec. Disaffected Crees could, as economist William Watson speculated, take advantage of the isolation and vast spaces of the north to blow up hydro-electric transmission towers as a way to escalate their resistance to the Quebec government. The Quebec government would have no choice but to take action to defend its property and enforce the law. The spectacle of the Quebec government putting down a Cree uprising could bring calls for Canadian government involvement.


The federal government has always had a fiduciary responsibility for aboriginal peoples. It has exclusive responsibility for "Indians and Lands reserved for Indians" under section 91(24) of the Constitution Act, 1867. This authority has been exercised through a series of Indian Acts in an admittedly paternalistic manner. Aboriginal people have long become accustomed to looking to the federal government, and mostly in English, for their needs. In Northern Quebec, it was only with the James Bay hydro-electric project in the 1970s that the Cree and Inuit began to have significant dealings with the Quebec government.

When the constitution was repatriated in 1982, the existing treaty rights of the aboriginal people of Canada were recognized and affirmed in two sections of the updated constitution (Sections 25 and 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982). The days of Indian Act paternalism are numbered. Since 1987, aboriginal people have claimed an inherent right to self-government. This was recognized in the ill-fated Charlottetown constitutional accord. Aboriginal leaders consider the enshrinement of the inherent right to self-government unfinished business. Aboriginal people in Quebec don't want to give up their hard earned rights for a bowl of porridge if Quebec separates. They want to keep these rights and perhaps get more.

It's not only rights at stake. It's money. In 1993-94, the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs spent $340 million on Quebec aboriginal nations. The aboriginal people of Quebec will want to make sure they don't lose any money.

All the media attention notwithstanding, the aboriginal community in Quebec is relatively small, numbering only 62,000, 55,000 of whom are Indians and 7,000 Inuit (this excludes non-status Indians who are about as numerous). There are eleven main aboriginal nations in Quebec. Of these, only the Mohawks, Montagnais and Cree each number over 10,000 people. Together, aboriginal people account for less than 1 per cent of the total Quebec population. This is significantly lower than the natives' 2-per-cent population share in the rest of Canada and much lower than the almost 7-per-cent population share in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, the two provinces with the highest concentration of aboriginal people. The costs of meeting aboriginal demands are directly proportional to the number of aboriginal people. The relatively low number in Quebec means that a separate Quebec can afford to be generous in dealing with their claims.

There is another important implication in the relatively low number of aboriginal people. The native population is only about one-tenth of the size of the anglophone and one-hundredth of the francophone community in Quebec. In a democracy, where numbers count, such a small minority cannot expect to impose its will on the majority, but only to have its rights respected.

Last May, Indian Affairs Minister Ron Irwin found himself casting about in sovereigntist waters when he told reporters that Quebec natives have the right to stay in Canada if Quebec separates. Lucien Bouchard, the Bloc Québécois leader, was quick to rise to the bait, exclaiming that "Native people do not have the right to self-


The James Bay Cree see it differently, denouncing the double standard that would give Quebec the right to self-determination while denying it to them. In August, they announced their own plans to hold a referendum parallel to that of the PQ. They plan to ask the Cree whether they wish to remain part of Canada, to separate along with Quebec or to become independent. The Cree aren't alone in defending this right to self-determination. Several prominent Canadians, including Gordon Robertson, the constitutional expert and former Clerk of the Privy Council, and, more surprisingly, Bloc Québécois advisor Daniel Turp, have argued that aboriginal people have as much of a right to self-determination as Quebec does.

The aboriginal right to self-determination is based on the principle of self-determination of peoples included in the United Nations Charter and a myriad of other UN declarations. The purpose of the right of self-determination is to protect "peoples" from being ruled by foreign colonial or imperialist masters. Using this definition, aboriginal people possess more of the essential characteristics of a "people" than Quebeckers. They are governed by others who are different ethnically or otherwise. The Crees and the Inuit live far away and isolated from the Quebec government. No one can deny the fact that the Quebec government of Premier Parizeau is more foreign to the natives of James Bay than the government of Prime Minister Chrétien is to the citizens of Montreal.

But as we pointed out in the chapter on territory, the international community does not really recognize a right to secession except for colonialized peoples or previously sovereign states. Self-determination is usually interpreted in the more limited sense as the right of a people to participate in the political, economic, social and cultural choices that concern it. This is what the negotiations with the aboriginal nations are all about.

The only reason Quebec has a right to self-determination is that Canada appears to be willing to grant it that right. Quebec, on the other hand, does not appear to be willing to grant a similar right to aboriginal nations living in Quebec. So if aboriginals in Quebec are to obtain the right to self-determination, Canada would have to grant it to them before Quebec becomes sovereign.

The key question that must be answered is whether the seceding government has effective political control over its territory and population. Because of their small numbers and lack of military capability, aboriginal nations would not be able to secede from Quebec or remain part of Canada unless they were backed up by the force of the Canadian government. That's because Quebec separatists have made it clear they intend to assert control over the North. Jacques Brassard, a PQ Member of the National Assembly, has suggested that the Sûreté du Québec could be used to keep recalcitrant natives in Quebec.

All of this is largely academic. The fact is that the aboriginal people of Northern Quebec - the Inuit of Nunavik and the James Bay Cree - couldn't by themselves form a viable state even if Quebec weren't successful in exerting control over the territory. They are too few in number (and outnumbered by non-native Quebeckers except in Nunavik), too dispersed over a vast territory, too different ethnically, and too lacking in the economic necessities of life. Their only option is to remain in Canada or to go with Quebec. Other aboriginal groups in the rest of Quebec have even less choice. They are spread across Quebec in little pockets separated by land inhabited by non-native Quebeckers. So it wouldn't be feasible for them to stay with Canada in case of Quebec secession, let alone form their own states.


Canadians get a distorted impression of the Quebec government's relations with the aboriginal community because of all the bad press over Oka and Kahnawake. In fact, Quebec has been something of a pioneer in settling land claims and establishing self-government.

It all got off to a rocky start when Hydro-Québec enraged natives by beginning construction on the James Bay hydro-electric project in 1971 on traditional aboriginal lands without so much as notification. The Cree and Inuit took the Quebec government to court and in 1973 succeeded in winning the landmark Kanatewat case recognizing their rights on the northern territories transferred to Quebec in 1898 and 1912. The decision led Quebec to begin negotiating a land claims settlement with the Cree even though the original court decision was overturned later by the Quebec Court of Appeal.

In 1975, the Quebec government resolved the issue by signing the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, settling land claims over two-thirds of its territory and marking a major breakthrough for aboriginal peoples. The Cree and Inuit of northern Quebec were given land rights over an area of 14,025 square kilometres for communal lands, exclusive hunting and trapping rights over another 162,324 square kilometres, and priority hunting and trapping rights over the rest of the territory amounting to 889,650 square kilometres. They also received $225 million in compensation. Later in 1978, Quebec also signed a separate lands claims settlement with the Naskapi of northeastern Quebec. These agreements are implemented through the Cree-Naskapi (of Québec) Act, which replaces the Indian Act as the regulator of the Northern Quebec Cree, and through provincial legislation.

For the record, the Cree are no longer satisfied with the James Bay Agreement, which they say was entered into under conditions of duress and real oppression. They argue that Quebec has violated its terms and they have aggressively taken on Hydro-Québec over the Great Whale project. Paradoxically, language is not an issue since the English speaking Cree have obtained an exemption from the controversial French language charter.

The Inuit, in contrast are still largely satisfied with the agreement. In the summer of 1994, the Makivik Corp. representing the Inuit signed a further agreement establishing self-government in a territory north of the 55th parallel called Nunavik and providing more than $500 million in additional financial compensation provided the Great Whale development goes ahead. And in July 1994 following a referendum, the Montagnais Indians on the Uashat-Maliotenam reserve signed a compensation agreement with Hydro-Québec worth $66 million over 50 years, giving the go-ahead on the Ste. Marguerite River development.

In 1985, when the PQ was last in power, the National Assembly passed a resolution officially recognizing the existence of aboriginal nations within Quebec. The resolution included a commitment to conclude agreements with aboriginal nations providing the right to self-government within Quebec; the right to their culture, language and traditions; the right to own and control lands; the right to hunt, fish, trap, harvest, and to manage animal resources; and the right to participate in economic development.

In a review of the treatment of aboriginal people in different jurisdictions prepared for the National Assembly committee on sovereignty, University of Ottawa law professor Bradford Morse concludes that Quebec has been more favourable to aboriginal peoples than other provinces. More land has been transferred to aboriginal people than in other provinces. The gap between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people, when it comes to income, education and other social indicators is actually smaller in Quebec than it is elsewhere in Canada. No other province makes as great an effort to ensure the survival of aboriginal languages and in supporting aboriginal educational initiatives than Quebec. Not everyone would agree with Morse, but his conclusions still make it difficult to contrast Quebec's backwardness with our own enlightenment on such issues.

Even Mary Ellen Turpel, the aboriginal constitutional advisor, is willing to admit that "the Province of Quebec is no worse than any other province in terms of its history of a strained relationship with aboriginal peoples."


The PQ platform pledges that Quebec will move rapidly to ensure better relations with aboriginal peoples by promising natives comparable government services to those provided to other Quebeckers, and promising funds for self-government and increased financial autonomy. They also promise to make French language training available, which is not very high on the priority list of the English-speaking Cree and Mohawks, to say the least.

The PQ also commits itself to replace the colonial and paternalist relationships under the Indian Act with a new social contract negotiated between the Quebec and aboriginal nations which it claims will make aboriginal peoples full partners in an independent Quebec. First Nations are assured that they will participate fully in the preparation and ratification of the new Quebec constitution. It also promises a say to aboriginal people who live off reserve.

According to the PQ platform, the new Quebec constitution will define the rights of aboriginal nations and will provide for responsible aboriginal governments, which will exercise their powers over native lands. The PQ promises that Quebec will sign agreements that will determine the recognized powers of aboriginal governments, including citizenship codes, tax regimes, education, language and culture, health, the management of resources and the environment, economic development, and public works. Aboriginal governments will be able to raise taxes and resource revenues and will benefit from a government financing formula that will take into account the ability to pay of aboriginal peoples. The PQ also promises to name an ombudsman for native claims and issues and to recognize existing treaties until they are replaced with new agreements which they say won't extinguish aboriginal rights.

The PQ platform plays all the right tunes that aboriginal people should want to hear. Yet many wonder if it is not too good to be true. Is it like many other campaign promises made to be broken once in power? And will these promises conflict with traditional Quebec demands to be masters over all of Quebec territory?

Premier Parizeau moved quickly after his election victory to reassure Quebec aboriginal peoples, knowing full well that they could play the spoiler in his plans for an independent Quebec. In his first declaration after the election, he said, "In the 1990s, we want to be in the forefront of self-government for the native populations and we pledge to offer these communities the same or a greater amount of autonomy than anything that exists in North America." As a token of his seriousness, he personally took on responsibility for the Aboriginal Affairs portfolio. One of his first acts was to offer the eleven first nations natural resource royalties to give them more control over their economic development.

If the PQ keeps its word, it looks as if aboriginal people will get a pretty good deal in an independent Quebec. But some aboriginal leaders still distrust Premier Parizeau and his government and vow never to embark on the independence canoe. They worry that his hard line during the Oka stand-off, when he wanted the Sûreté to storm the Mohawk blockade and open the Mercier bridge, might reveal something about his attitude to native issues and not just his sympathy for stressed-out commuters. Quebec aboriginal leaders, meeting at Lac Delage after the PQ victory to plan their strategy, rejected the Quebec government's offer to begin negotiations before the referendum.

The PQ governments draft bill on sovereignty guarantees that the New Constitution of Quebec will "recognize the right of Aboriginal nations to self-government on lands over which they have full ownership" provided "such guarantee and such recognition are exercised consistent with the territorial integrity of Quebec." Yet aboriginal leaders are still opposed. Cree Leader Matthew Coon Come denounced the bill as "a unilateral denial of all aboriginal and Cree rights." Zebedee Nungak spokesman for the Inuit also rejected the PQ government's plans for sovereignty and asked the federal government to intervene. The Inuit are worried that Quebec independence would cut their ties with other Inuit in Canada and end their special relationship with the federal government.

The record of injustices against aboriginal people in the rest of Canada is depressingly long. Indians have been moved and lands confiscated. The federal Indian Act has created a culture of dependence and paternalism. Residential schools sought to uproot native culture and languages and in the process destroyed individual self-esteem and self-confidence. Aboriginal people weren't allowed to exercise the basic democratic right to vote til Canada was almost 100 years old. The conspiracy of silence that followed the tragic rape and murder of a young Cree women named Betty Osborne in The Pas, Manitoba was a national disgrace. Donald Marshall's murder trial and wrongful conviction was a travesty of justice. Canadians have little to be proud of.

And we have to be fully aware that if we encourage Quebec natives to secede from Quebec, other aboriginal nations in Canada may seek the same rights. If Northern Quebec can be lopped off because it is supposed to be native land, then why not northern Ontario and northern Manitoba, which were also part of Rupert's Land before being handed to the provinces.


It is the responsibility of Canadians to support natives residing in Quebec in their legitimate aspirations. In any pre-sovereignty negotiations, Quebec must prove that it will fulfill all of the responsibilities of the federal government for natives under the Constitution and the Indian Act and will be subject to all of the UN requirements for treatment of aboriginals.

While backing native rights in these talks, we should not go so far as to encourage civil disobedience and false hopes. When all is said and done, and if Quebec separates, it will be best if Quebec natives resign themselves to living peacefully under Quebec law. There is no reason to fear that they will be treated any worse in Quebec than in the rest of Canada.

In fact, the Quebec government shows every sign of being willing to go out of its way to offer aboriginal people a good deal just as it has promised. First, the Quebec government can well afford it because there are so few natives in Quebec relative to the number in the rest of Canada. Second, the Quebec government realizes that it has to try keep aboriginal peoples sufficiently happy that they won't become a bone of contention in negotiations with Canada, distracting attention from other issues higher on the Quebec government's agenda. Third, the PQ government needs international recognition and knows that the world community will be closely watching Quebec to make sure it treats its aboriginal people fairly. The U.S. Congress will probably be more sensitive to the fate of Quebec natives in a sovereign Quebec that it will be to the fate of the hundreds of thousands of anglophone and francophone Quebeckers who will want to stay in Canada.

Any serious transgression by Quebec could delay diplomatic recognition and make the transition to sovereignty more arduous. It could also add serious obstacles to the road to Quebec's acceptance in NAFTA by the Congress.

Canadians will have to be careful about what we pressure Quebec to do. Aboriginal people living in Canada will expect no less from us than what we champion for Quebec natives. Aboriginal self-government and land claims are far too complex to be settled quickly at the same time as the country is trying to come to grips with the separation of Quebec. A hasty and ill-conceived attempt at resolution would only add to the centrifugal forces that will have to be resisted to keep the rest of Canada strong and united.

There are many higher-stake issues, such as the division of the debt, and trade and monetary relations, that need to be resolved. An early acceptance by Canada of the territorial boundaries of an independent Quebec would enable us to get down more quickly to the hard business of settling these bread-and-butter issues as part of a package deal that would include territorial recognition.

Back to Dividing the House Table of Contents