When the federal election started only one of the major parties wanted to talk about what has come to be called "the national unity question" --- that is, the threat of Quebec to separate from Canada and form an independent country. Gradually, the subject has forced itself to the centre of attention --- but there remains an important aspect of the question that is apparently still beyond public discussion --- namely the right to self-determination of the Crees and other Aboriginal peoples of Quebec, in face of a Quebec secession.
We live in the northern two-thirds of the province, and along with the Inuit and Innu, we decided by overwhelming majorities in our own referendum in October 1995 that we will not be forced to secede from Canada. Part of our self-determination is the right to choose, and this is being violated by the Quebec government's refusal to recognize the validity of our democratic decision. Even Canada has not clearly recognized our referendum although it does implicitly recognize that of Quebec every time Canada mentions that it won the last referendum.
Canada and Quebec both have solemn treaty and fiduciary obligations and responsibilities to the Crees. The question is whether these governments will respect and recognize these obligations. We are still waiting for the Prime Minister of Canada to stand before the voters and say, "In the event of an illegal declaration of independence by Quebec, Canada will fulfil its legal obligations to the aboriginal peoples of Quebec."
The subject of Aboriginal rights in the context of Quebec secession has been almost totally ignored by the media, and has popped up very briefly only once in the enormous television coverage of the main parties. That was during a CBC Town Hall last week (May 14), when, during heated argument, StÃ©phane Dion, the federal minister, mentioned vaguely that "the people who live in the north" [ Why no mention of the Crees and Inuit? ] of Quebec had voted against being forced out of Canada. A member of the public, given the chance to ask a question a few moments later, specifically asked about how the parties intended to treat the rights of Aboriginals in the event of secession. Bill Blaikie, NDP member of Parliament responded that, indeed, this was one of the great unasked questions of the whole debate, and Bloc QuÃ©bÃ©cois candidate Daniel Turp soothingly replied that once Quebec was independent, he would try to persuade Aboriginals that they would be much better treated in the new nation than they ever have been in Canada.
The exchange was inconclusive, except to show that major aspects of the Aboriginal right to self-determination are either not understood by the politicians, or are being deliberately misunderstood, down-played and ignored. Apart from this exchange, so far, there has been total silence.
The following day, however, a poll of Canadians taken by Southam News and the COMPASS polling organization produced a surprising fact: Canadians, even QuÃ©becers, are not as reluctant to think about this subjects as are their politicians. The poll, published on May 15 by The Gazette, Montreal, and the Ottawa Citizen, showed that when asked the question,"Suppose the Cree Indians and Inuit of northern Quebec decide to stay with Canada. Would they have such a right?" an astonishing 75 per cent of those asked agreed that we have that right. Even among definite, decided pro-separatist voters, 66 per cent accepted the Aboriginals should have the right to opt out of an independent Quebec. And on the same day, in a long article in the Ottawa Citizen, McGill University Professor of Constitutional Law, Stephen Scott, wrote that Quebec's north (our traditional Aboriginal territories) has no historic connection with New France, "is inhabited largely by native peoples who have no desire to form part of an independent Quebec...and must remain part of Canada."
One would imagine that if the day ever comes when a Canadian Prime Minister is called upon to choose between an illegal entity that is trying to break up his country, and a people who are asking that Canadian law be respected so that they can remain with their huge territories as part of Canada, the choice should not be very difficult. Why then the stunning silence?
Except for the occasional outburst of frankness from a couple of ministers, the Canadian government shies away from mention of the fact that Quebec's proposed UDI implies the partition of Quebec as well as of Canada. It makes us wonder whether there isn't a plan B-2, whereby QuÃ©bÃ©cois federalists are hedging there bets, refusing to recognize the legal realities which would reduce the size of an independent Quebec republic, in the event that the separatist do win a referendum and their interests en up being a small part of a very small country. Or perhaps their reason for refusing to assert and talk openly about our rights to stay in Canada with our traditional Territory is that they have been spooked by the secessionists' repeated assertion that they will impose their will on all QuÃ©becers and all parts of Quebec, should they ever receive even a tiny majority of votes in a future referendum. This, to the federal leaders, appears to suggest that only violence can result from a calash between an independent Quebec, and the established, legal power, the federal government. It is almost as if the federal government has conceded the game to the secessionists' threats even before it starts.
The Crees realize, however, that violence is not inevitable. For one thing, Crees and the federal government have pledged not to use violence, and have challenged the Quebec leaders to make a similar pledge.(So far they have refused to do so). What is disconcerting is the lack of talk about what would be done to pursue the non-violent option.
It is quite clear that the federal government can meet the Quebec challenge simply by maintaining federal authority in Quebec following a UDI. The Federal government should state now that intends to maintain federal authority in the event of a "yes" vote in another referendum. The success or failure of Quebec's insurrection will ultimately depend on whether the new entity is recognized by the international community. International law requires that in these circumstances the seceding entity must exhibit "effective control" over the territory it claims for "a sufficiently long period". To demonstrate this, it has been established by legal authorities, a seceding entity would have to expel all vestiges of the authority of the previous government from its territory. We have put together a few non-violent options as a way of encouraging those interested in this debate to elaborate this option. Non-violent is a Cree tradition.
So long as Canada maintains in operation its customs and border posts, Canadian airports and seaports, and other federal institutions within the claimed territory, international law would not recognize the seceding entity. What then?
The Crees believe many actions are open to Canada short of the use of force. They include:
To create challenges in Canadian courts that emphasize the unconstitutional, illegal, and illegitimate nature of the PQ government's unilateral declaration of independence, and any legislation or actions that might flow from it.
To recognize and strengthen the special relationship between the Federal Government and the Crees and Inuit in northern Quebec, as is called for in the James Bay and Northern Quebec Native Claims Settlement Act (1978).
To declare that Quebec remains a part of Canada, thereby discouraging international recognition of a secessionist Quebec by other States.
To discuss with other major States to ensure that no international recognition is given to a secessionist Quebec State.
To continue to recognize legitimate representatives of the Quebec population, including members of the House of Commons and Senate, under the Parliament of Canada Act.
To continue to recognize Aboriginal peoples in Quebec as nationals and citizens of their own respective nations and of Canada (if they so desire).
To continue (if not increase) application of federal, as well as Aboriginal laws, in at least some regions of the province of Quebec.
To collect income and other taxes from the Quebec population.
To maintain Canadian airports and seaports, as well as customs and border officials at U.S.- Canada border crossings in Quebec.
To continue to work with Aboriginal peoples to strengthen the presence of the federal government in their territories.
To implement and renegotiate existing treaties with Aboriginal peoples in northern Quebec, to reinforce and confirm the federal framework that they contain
The politicians of all parties are acting as if Aboriginal rights are irrelevant to this question of Quebec secession. Not only is it relevant: it is, in fact, central to the whole question. And if the politicians would only admit this frankly, the terms of the whole debate would be changed overnight.