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First Nations warn they will oppose a bid for sovereignty

By Christopher Curtis, THE GAZETTE

MONTREAL — If a re-elected Parti Québécois government decides to make another push for sovereignty, they willl face strong opposition from the province’s First Nations.

In the event of a successful vote for Quebec to secede, aboriginal leaders across the province say they simply won’t recognize the newly formed country’s authority over them. Which raises a rather complicated question: what if the province’s 100,000 aboriginals refuse to belong to a sovereign Quebec?

During the 1995 referendum, as just under half of Quebecers voted to break away from Canada, the province’s First Nations almost unanimously opposed separation.

In fact, the Cree, Innu and Inuit held their own referendums at the time, with over 95 per cent of voters agreeing to keep their territories within Canada should Quebec become an independent country.

Now that sovereignty has been thrust to the centre of this year’s election, First Nations leaders are once again warning the Parti Québécois to expect significant opposition to the party’s bid for nationhood.

“We absolutely will not recognize the authority of a Quebec nation,” Kahnawake Mohawk Chief Mike Delisle said in an interview with The Gazette Wednesday. “We don’t normally weigh in on provincial or federal politics, but the prospect of a referendum is disturbing to us. It undermines our historic claims to nationhood.”

Delisle’s comments came the day after Mike Mitchell, grand chief of the Akwesasne Mohawks, said he’d consider holding a referendum within the Mohawk reserve in the event of another vote on Quebec sovereignty. Akwesasne’s territory lies in Quebec, but stretches into Ontario and upstate New York as well.

“Quebec can decide what it wants in terms of its culture, its identity and its development,” Ghislain Picard, chief of the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador, said in a statement released Tuesday. “But it cannot claim sovereignty over a territory which is still, fundamentally, First Nation.”

Legal scholars disagree on whether First Nations would have the right to break away from Quebec should the province ever form a nation.

In 1991, the National Assembly’s committee on sovereignty enlisted the help of five international law experts from the United States and Europe. The experts concluded that, under the Canadian Constitution and international law, aboriginal people would retain rights as an ethnic minority, but no right to secession. They also argued that the James Bay Cree and Inuit surrendered much of their land to Quebec in the 1975 James Bay Agreement — a land claim settlement in which the federal and provincial government granted the aboriginal people certain territorial rights and millions in cash for use of their territory.

The experts’ opinion has been widely disputed within the legal community. York University law professor Patrick J. Monahan argues that if aboriginals don’t have the right to secede, then neither does Quebec. Given that First Nations have their own culture, language, traditional territory and historic land claims, it’s difficult to prevent them from making the same case for sovereignty as Quebec itself has made, according to Monahan.

“Possibly, the only way to assert Quebec’s authority over First Nations territory would be to impose it and God only knows what that means,” said Sébastien Grammond, a University of Ottawa professor specializing in aboriginal legal issues. “Governments have generally tried to avoid any kind of armed conflicts (with First Nations) because they know that public opinion here and abroad does not view it favourably, and would side with the indigenous peoples. And there’s the looming possibility of the international community weighing in.”

Grammond insists that’s an entirely hypothetical scenario, one he’s uncomfortable speculating about. But he said that, in a sovereign Quebec, the newly formed government could inherit the billions in treaty agreements, disputed land claims and fiduciary obligations that linger between Ottawa and the province’s First Nations.

The Aboriginal Affairs Minister funds most social services, education, and health care programs and half of policing costs on the province’s 37 aboriginal communities. Most of these reserves, especially in Quebec’s north, are impoverished and face a housing crisis that is forcing aboriginals to abandon their ancestral homes and move into the city. About 73 per cent of Quebec’s aboriginal people no longer live on reserves, according to 2011 census data.

Most of the aboriginal land claims within Quebec remain unresolved and cover a swath of land that occupies roughly two thirds of the province. And with much of the province’s massive hydroelectric dams and mining resting on land within Cree, Innu and Inuit territory, it gives the First Nations major leverage in any negotiations with Quebec.

“Currently, (aboriginals) have a lot of clout in Quebec,” Grammond said. “That influence is enshrined in the treaties and documents signed between the First Nations, Canada, Quebec and some going all the way to Queen of England. ... There’s a fear that an independent Quebec could develop a constitution that waters down that clout and chips away at certain obligations the state has towards First Nations.”

As a testament to the tension within certain communities, Delisle says some Mohawks are considering voting in a provincial election for the first time in their lives. He isn’t encouraging the practice, as the Mohawk nation has a policy of not participating in outside politics. The South Shore reserve sits in the Marguerite-D’Youville riding, currently held by Liberal MNA Pierre Moreau.

“People are concerned and I’m hearing they’re willing to act on it,” Delisle said. “Our relationship with Canada is complicated and difficult enough without the threat of the Parti-Québécois-led government leading this region down a path of institutionalized intolerance that we will see with the proposed Quebec Charter of Values.”

The PQ’s electoral platform doesn’t elaborate on the aboriginal question except to say that it will pursue the dialogue with First Nations. Traditionally, the party’s stance has been to maintain whatever fudiciary obligations Ottawa has with the province’s First Nations.

There’s no real legal precedent for how the responsibilities between governments and First Nations would be transferred. During the patriation of the Canadian Constitution in 1982, the National Indian Brotherhood was, after a series of legal battles, granted access to constitutional negotiations.

“That sets a legal precedent,” Grammond said. “First Nations would almost certainly have to be included in any negotiations over the secession of Quebec. Who knows where that would lead, but they’d definitely have a place at the negotiating table.”

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