A Clash of Quiet Revolutions:
Quebecers meet Native Nationalism.
The murmur of Quebec's 'quiet revolution' in the 1960s,drowned the first whispers of nationalism among Canada's aboriginal peoples. Today, Quebecois separatism is screaming across Canada in bold-faced headlines while native Canadians are beating a slower but steady path towards self-government.
Both nations share similar grievances - they are frustrated and often at
cross-purposes with the federal government, they have shared the historic
humiliation of conquest and colonialism and they want the right to
self-determination. Unfortunately, there is no harmony between the anthems of
Canada's two most frustrated nationalities. In fact, they may be heading towards
a dangerous clash.
Canadians are listening to the gun-fire in the former
Yugoslavia and the marching of soldiers through Russia's breakaway
republics and many are wondering if they will be hearing a similar
war cry in Canada.
Canadians are "sleep-walking towards tribal violence," says
Mordecai Richler, the well-known Canadian author of the
non-fictional - and controversial - book, Oh Canada, Oh Quebec
Quebec nearly won its second referendum on secession. In 1995,
only fifty-one percent of voters opted to remain in Canada while
forty-nine favored secession. It was a dramatic increase from the
first referendum of 1980, when sixty percent of Quebecers supported
But Quebec, a province in the eastern-centre of Canada, is also
home to four native nations -
the Huron, the
the Innu - who are dead-set against secession.
"Should they (separatists) win in a squeaker, there will be
real trouble with the Cree of northern Quebec. Undoubtably, they
also form a distinct society. And what if they do opt to remain in
Canada? Do they start to blow up power lines? I'm afraid these are
real possibilities," says Richler.
Fears of violence between natives and francophones arise from
recent and historic events.
Recently, native groups in Quebec have taunted the separatist
governments - the provincial Parti Quebecois (PQ) and the federal
Bloc Quebecois (BQ) - by insisting they will opt to remain in
Canada if Quebec secedes. If Quebec can separate from Canada
because it is a distinct society, natives can secede from Quebec,
say native leaders. This would mean carving up Quebec's land, since
natives have unsettled land claims on seventy-five percent of
"What really upsets the separatists is the new increasingly
bold talk about partition... Such talk enrages (Quebec Premier
Lucien) Bouchard because of recent polls that show many French
Canadians can see the logic," says Richler.
But not all separatists believe natives have the legal right to
secede from an independent Quebec.
"It's a fundamental right of the Quebec people. It's not a
right that can be claimed by a village, a region. It is a known,
unequivocal right in international law. It was applied during the
dismantling of the U.S.S.R.. It was applied during the dismantling
of the ex-Yugoslavia. In international law that right to self-
determination, or autonomy, that we recognize for native people
doesn't go as far as the right to secession," says the PQ's
Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Jacques Brassard.
As Quebec's secession seems increasingly likely, Canadian
observers wonder if the dispute between natives and separatists
will be settled by lawyers or snipers. In May 1994, when Brassard
was a member of the opposition government he suggested Quebec could
use force to prevent partition.
"That means laws, the courts and police - which are also the
institutions, the instruments of the state," Brassard said then.
There has been tough talk from both sides in the debate. But
Premiere Bouchard has insisted that natives will be peacefully
awarded full human rights in an independent Quebec. Still,
Canadians cannot ignore recent clashes between the groups which
forbode a less happy ending to their sometimes tense co-existence.
Two of the best documented clashes between the nationalities
concerned the construction of hydro-electric projects near James
Bay during the 1970s, and a plan to extend a golf course onto lands
claimed by the Mohawks in 1990.
The significance of the James Bay project can only be
understood by peering backwards into the history of Quebec and the
The French settlement of Quebec, founded in 1608, was the first permanent European settlement in Canada. British settlers followed
and when the two European nations went to war, their battles were
carried overseas to the colonies. The British conquered Quebec in
1763, and British policy towards the francophones of Quebec swung
like a pendulum between assimiling and accommodating the French
culture, language, laws and religion.
But when the northern colonies (except Newfoundland which
remained independent until 1949) were peacefully bound together
into Canada, under the British North American Act of 1867, Quebec
entered the confederation as an equal partner. The BNA Act
guaranteed the language, religious and legal rights of
Up until 1960, Quebec's sluggish, mostly agrarian economy was
dominated by English-Canadian businessmen and politics were deeply
intertwined with the Roman Catholic Church.
But the 1960s would be a turning point socially, economically
and politically for Quebec - a period known in Canadian history as
Quebec's Quiet Revolution.
Quebec's provincial government under the liberal Jean Lesage
revamped the priest-run school system - considered archaic in the
Western world - in favour of a secular system. Lesage pushed for
industrialization, modernization and the promotion of francophones
and the french language in Quebec's industry.
The new-found spirit of Quebec nationalism was manifested in
the popular slogan "maitres chez nous". In 1970, a small illegal
group of separatists known as the FLQ (Front de Liberation du
Quebec) kidnapped two officials, one of whom - Pierre Laporte,
Quebec's Minister of Labour - was murdered. Many Quebecois
sympathised with the ideals of the FLQ - but not their means - and
pursued secession through a legal separatist party, the Parti
Quebecois, founded by Rene Levesque in 1968.
The 1970s saw the first clash between native and Quebecois
nationalism, over the construction of hydro-electric dams along
James Bay in the historic lands of the Cree.
The James Bay project was a continuation of Quebec's
modernization and the project was intertwined with strong feelings
But the Cree saw the project differently.
The Cree, like most
indigenous peoples of Canada had been forced from their land by
early European settlers. The Cree moved to northern Quebec, near
James Bay and never relinquished their title to this land where
they struggle to maintain their traditional way of life. But as a
young confederacy Canada had ignored the land treaties of
its European parent-states. Both the Cree and the province of
Quebec claimed title to the land.
The government of Quebec never consulted the Cree during the
construction of the James Bay project and continued to build the
hydro-electric dams even while the Cree challenged the project in
court. Eventually the dams were built, flooding much of the land,
draining some rivers and poisoning others with mercury.
The federal government eventually granted the Cree limited
rights to the remaining land, but the legal war was not
In 1980, seven Cree children died from drinking contaminated
water.The Cree say the government ignored their requests for
sanitary water systems.
Next, the provincial government of Quebec planned to expand the
James Bay project in the 1990s, but protests from the Cree and
environmental interventionists forced them to cancel the second
The next time natives challenged the government of Quebec it
would lead to an armed confrontation over the extension of a golf
course onto Mohawk burial ground.
The Mohawks, a tribe of the Iroquois nations, once lived near
modern Montreal, the capital of Quebec. But the French Sulpicians
pushed them from their land to the village of Kanehsatake, near the
Lake of Two Mountains in southern Quebec. In 1676, the King of
France gave the Mohawks a section of land nine miles square. Beside
the Mohawk land a smaller lot, one and a half miles by nine miles,
was given to the Sulpicians. But the Mohawk land was located on an
important trading route and the Sulpicians, backed by the governor
of Quebec, convinced France to give them all of the land.
Mohawks were not informed and remained loyal to France, even
fighting against the British in the Seven Year War. The Mohawks
only discovered the illegal transfer of their land in 1873, when
Chief Joseph found the second deed. Chief Joseph demanded the
Sulpicians return the land to the Mohawks and was imprisoned for
his defiance. The land claim was never settled.
In March 1990, the mayor of Oka, Jean Ouellette, decided to
extend a golf course on the disputed land, a pine-filled burial
ground. On March 10, a band of armed Mohawks Warriors (the guardians of the eastern door of the Iroquois nations) erected a blockade on the dirt
road leading into the golf-course. When the Mohawks were
tear-gassed by the Surete du Quebec on July 9, they boldly moved
the road block onto the main highway, route 344. Native groups
across the country erected their own road blocks in support.
The federal government called in the army to replace the Quebec
police force and the stand-off lasted for over a month. Individuals
on both sides were wounded and one man, Corporal Lemay, was shot
and killed. After 78 days the Mohawks stopped the stand-off, but
the land claim was not resolved.
The incident was upsetting to Canadians outside Quebec who
wonder if they will be caught in the middle of a clash between the
Secession means Quebec would become a separate nation with
strong economic ties to Canada. Canadians seem willing to
let Quebec separate peaceably, but worry the federal government
could be dragged into a confrontation between natives and
Federal officials say that won't happen.
"What Mr. Brassard, in the past, has said is that he may use
force to keep, for instance, aboriginals within Quebec. But the
truth is he will not be able to use force because Quebecers and
other Canadians will not accept it," says federal Intergovernmental
Affairs Minister Stephane Dion.
Nor can native groups yank the federal government back into an
independant Quebec through partition.
"Aboriginal Canadians would not have an automatic right to
secede from Quebec, says Rene Dussault, the co-chairman of the
royal commission on aboriginals. "They can (be entitled to)
self-determination within the country, mainly through
Self-government, the expressed goal of natives across Canada
would mean that natives have the status of a province in a loose
federalism with control over civil law, education and other
traditionally provincial jurisdictions. It is not like secession,
"Unless they were really ostracized, discriminated and
excluded from the mainstream political system - then
self-determination could mean secession, but only then," says Dion.
But native groups in Quebec say they are ostracized,
discriminated against and excluded from the mainstream political
system and they cite the examples of James Bay and Kanehsatake.
A Royal Commission Report, released four months ago seems to
agree. The report condemned the Canadian government for its
treatment of native Canadians and recommended sweeping changes
including new lands, resources, respect and self-government.
Canadians have to "confront the evidence of their little
hypocrisies when it comes to treating all human colors, creeds and
cultures as equally deserving of respect and fairness," the report
"If the government doesn't do anything about it there will be
troubles at the end of the day, because tensions are building up.
I think that aboriginal peoples have shown a lot of patience but I
think at one point that patience... they won't have enough," says
chief commissioner Michelle Falardeau-Ramsay.
The criticism extends beyond the borders of Canada. The U.S.
State Department noted that Canada's treatment of aboriginal
peoples was a blemish on its human rights record in a report
released last January.
"Aboriginal people remained under-represented in the workforce,
over-represented on welfare rolls and more susceptible to suicide
and poverty than other population groups," stated the report.
The prospect of violent clashes may seem unbelievable to
Canadians who haven't seen a domestic war since a squirmish with
the Americans in 1812.
But fears of tribal warfare are increasingly infiltrating the
Canadian psyche and are being voiced on radio and television talk
shows across the nation.
It's a subject that will not disappear. Premier Bouchard
insists he will call another referendum. It is likely a third
referendum will father a new nation, says Richler who notes that
many anglophones who voted no in 1994 are streaming out of Quebec.
The only voices left to break the cry of separatism could be
those of Quebec's aboriginal people.
Meanwhile, native groups have marked April 17 as a national day
of protest, aimed at forcing federal and provincial governments
into discussing self-government. Protests will take the form of
peaceful highway blockades, says National Chief Ovide Mercredi.
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