Montage from Kanesatake, 1990
Quebecers in the October crisis of 1970


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 federalism.

But Quebec, a province in the eastern-centre of Canada, is also home to four native nations - the Cree, the Huron, the Iroquois and 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 Quebec's territory.

M. Bouchard

"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 Cree.

Costumed in the early colonial fashion

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 francophones.

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 of nationalism.

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 over.

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 project.

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. The 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 two nationalities.

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 Quebecois.

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."

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, says Dion. "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 says.

"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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