Features  Another idea of sovereignty

Looking at Quebec sovereigntism in the context of colonialism

With the rapid approach of the second election in as many years, Quebecers are once again being called to the polls to decide on the fate of the province. The divisions taking form between the parties are those that have divided the province for years: sovereigntist versus federalist, left versus right, Nordiques fan versus Canadiens. As the rest of Canada (ROC) waits with bated breath for the outcome of the April 7 election and (as ever) for a potential referendum, Quebecers may find themselves at the mercy of a Parti Québécois (PQ)-led majority government (just as they did with the Parti Liberal Québécois, the PQ’s predecessors).

Be it as it may, as Quebecers line up behind their respective parties, the hypothesizing and daydreaming of an independent Quebec is already taking form. Although the PQ is playing coy on setting a date for a future referendum – as they have done since losing in 1995 – talk of a Quebec nation’s borders, monetary policy, or even passports consistently remain in the news. One topic that gets consistently forgotten, however, is the place of Quebec’s First Nations in the discussion. The laws binding Indigenous peoples to Canada are negotiated through treaties with the Crown and First Nations; not Quebec. With respect to Quebecers, on the questions of sovereignty, identity, and self-determination, many Indigenous peoples consider themselves worlds apart.

‘Nation to Nation’

“We have our own idea of sovereignty,” said Bethany Douglas. Douglas is a Mohawk from Kahnawà:ke, a reservation just outside Montreal, and a graduate of Concordia with a Bachelor’s degree in History. “Our [governing] Bound Council [and] Band Council cards are [both] established through the Indian Act.”

The Act sets out the rules governing Canada’s First Nations peoples with respect to the organization and formation of Band Councils. It also deals with the regulation of various administrative processes on reserves, even encompassing rules on spending. Within reserves, there are various other decision-making bodies. In Mohawk communities, for example, institutions such as the Longhouse serve as a focal point of traditional decision-making where the community comes together and discusses issues with the goal of finding consensus.

The Indian Act is deeply problematic for many reasons, and the Act in and of itself isn’t a treaty: it’s a piece of legislation. But it’s true that, as Mohawk journalist Irkar Beljaars said, “Our treaties are with the federal government, not with Quebec.”
The Royal Proclamation signed in 1763 sets out the basis for the relationship between the Crown and First Nations, recognizing Indigenous title and governance. At the basis of this recognition is that of Indigenous nationhood. It’s an important distinction when it comes to Quebec, because discussions with Indigenous communities about sovereignty aren’t just about recognizing the legitimacy of Indigenous voices; they’re ‘nation to nation’ talks.

Not so, argued the Quebec government in 1995. The then-PQ government, led by Jacques Parizeau, claimed that in the event of secession, the treaties governing First Nations would be transferred from Ottawa to Quebec. Problematically, such a claim runs up against the very notion of the ‘nation to nation’ negotiations that are required of Canadian governments in discussion with First Nations. Simply transferring treaties without Indigenous consent goes against the very rights of determination that First Nations have been fighting to maintain over the centuries. Separatism in this form, as far as Beljaars is concerned, would be “just another form of colonialism.”

A fraught relationship

The interactions between the Quebec government and First Nations over the years have sometimes been complicated. “[Since the Oka crisis in 1990], there have been some improvements, but not enough,” said Beljaars. Indigenous communities are spread out across Quebec, with, to name just a few: Mohawk communities around the island of Montreal, Mi’kmaq peoples in the Gaspe region, the Cree to the North, and Inuit peoples to the far, far North. In the case of an independent Quebec, Beljaars added, “There will be a lot tension because Aboriginals don’t want to sign treaties with Quebec.”

Negotiations with First Nations have figured into the post-secession game plan. Both the 1995 and the current PQ election platforms envisage creating a National Assembly to write a Quebec constitution that includes First Nations participation, and replacing the Indian Act with a law more “adapted to the current realities,” according to the party’s platform. As of press time, the provincial Liberal Party’s platform contains no mention of Indigenous issues; its 2012 election platform is similarly vague.

“There isn’t much difference between the PQ and the PLQ,” Beljaars said bluntly. “For the political parties in question, First Nations issues are a second or third afterthought.” Although the PQ promises to increase housing, particularly in the North, government inaction is considered to be the norm. “It sounds good on paper to promise anything, but nothing ever comes of it,” replied Douglas flatly when asked about political promises.
The right to self-determination, drawing on Quebec’s distinct language and culture, forms the basis of the PQ mandate for separation. But it’s difficult to imagine seceding from Canada where Indigenous title consists of large swathes of territory and trust in political negotiations is weak at best. Many on reserve First Nations have little interest in Quebec political discourse and engagement.

“We don’t vote in provincial or federal elections,” said Douglas. “Engaging in them would be recognition of a foreign government that isn’t First Nations.” This position would be a significant roadblock to any kind of move towards Quebecois nationhood that would take Indigenous communities into consideration. The Cree people of northern Quebec have made clear their interest in retaining a relationship with Canada, which would be a serious concern to any newly seceded Quebec, considering the hefty amount of electricity generated in the James Bay area on Cree territory.
“The Cree are on some very valuable land that will come under dispute,” said Beljaars. “And [if it does,] Canada will definitely have some claim to Quebec’s north.”

The PQ’s insistence that negotiations with First Nations take place alongside consultations of other minority groups ignores the rights that Quebec’s Indigenous people have that go beyond legal title to their lands. The PQ’s current electoral platform, notably including its Charter of Values, grates on any idea of fair and considerate treatment of First Nations. “How would they improve relations with first nations if they can’t even build relations with minorities?” said Ikar. “[Pauline] Marois is using her ideology to instil fear in white Quebecers and promote her own political agenda.”

A Two Row path

The lack of understanding exhibited by politicians is one that fails to appreciate the political and cultural rights of First Nations people compared to those of the majority of Quebecers. A way that one might envision the situation is through the Two Row Wampum Treaty signed between the Iroquois and Dutch settlers in the 17th century. Drawn on a white belt, the treaty is symbolized by the separation of two parallel purple lines on a white backdrop, one representing a canoe of the Iroquois, the other that of settlers. “We can co-exist, but never touch,” said Douglas.

The settler-Indigenous nexus in Canada remains a difficult and complex question; however, as often is the case concerning Indigenous affairs, politicians have shown little appetite for discussing the realities, cultural, legal, or otherwise, of engaging with Quebec’s Indigenous groups regarding sovereignty in any meaningful way. Ultimately, the question of a sovereign Quebec is not one that a majority of Quebecers could unilaterally decide on. Rather, historical treaties and obligations between First Nations people and the government, federal or provincial, demand a commitment to First Nations’ right to decide which country they want to be bound to, regardless of the outcome of a referendum.

Alas, the experiences of 1995 suggest that even if there is a referendum in the next few years, Indigenous voices will be once again sidelined.
A future sovereigntist government might prefer to ignore the hypocrisy of denying First Nations’ right to self-determination in promoting their own. First Nations rightfully may think otherwise.

To see a parallel piece on separatism, from a historical perspective, see Monolithic? I don’t think so.