First Nations in Quebec may hold their own independence votes in the event the Parti Québecois wins the April 7 elections and holds another referendum.
Although the Liberals appeared to be in the lead in the final weeks of the campaign, the poll is being watched closely by aboriginal groups concerned about their rights should the province separate from Canada.
Similar concerns arose the last time Quebec sovereignty surfaced with the 1995 referendum – and Innu and Cree communities held their own votes.
That may be set to expand, predicts Ghislain Picard, regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador (AFNQL).
“Some nations decided the best way to go to make our point is to hold our own referendums,” the Picard, who is Innu, told Windspeaker. “That’s certainly one option now.
“This time, this is one of the considerations that maybe more nations will have, if we were to come to that situation again.”
Aboriginal issues have taken a backseat this election, but after the AFNQL spoke out several Mohawk community leaders said they might go the next step should Quebec hold a referendum – and separate from both Canada and Quebec outright.
But with a March 25 Léger online poll placing Liberals at 40 per cent, trailed by the PQ’s 33 per cent – and a new sovereignty referendum remaining unpopular amongst voters – Premier Pauline Marois said the issue has become a red herring.
“It brings back debates and discussions we had in the past on the sovereignty of Quebec,” Picard added. “It was true then, it’s even more true now with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: our peoples have the right to self-determination. That right is not superseded by the rights of others.
“First Nations in this province have the same attributes that Quebec claims as a nation or people with their own identity and language. But we have even more than that because we also have the land. We have not only aboriginal rights, but also aboriginal title to the lands... Nobody but ourselves can decide on our fate or our future.”
Much of the election has also hinged on the PQ’s Charter of Values, which would prohibit some religious clothing and symbols amongst public servants and has been decried as anti-immigrant.
Ghislain said First Nations have refused to consent to the Charter being imposed on them, and presenting their position in hearings on the controversial law.
Quebec-based Russ Diabo, policy advisor to Algonquin Nation and editor of First Nations Strategic Bulletin, told Windspeaker that legally there is little base for Quebec to separate when it comes to aboriginal title and rights.
“For a long time they’ve been pushing nationalist rhetoric, but they’re still subject to the Constitution Act,” Diabo said. “Section 35 still applies to Quebec, even though the Quebec government feels they didn’t sign it.
“There is a lot of racism in Quebec, even in the Quebec government, towards Aboriginal peoples. They base their whole original settlement on terra nullius – that the whole territory was empty except for savages. They’re a tough jurisdiction to deal with from the beginning to now.”
But with successive PQ and Liberal governments alike failing to consult and accommodate First Nations, larger questions swirl around recognition of aboriginal rights in a province rich in natural resources, such as hydroelectricity, forestry and mining.
“Regardless of who wins the election, there’s still these unresolved issues,” said Diabo. “There’s only one modern treaty in Quebec – that’s the James Bay agreement – the rest of Quebec has not been dealt with and is still subject to aboriginal title.
“There’s been obstruction from Quebec to accommodating Aboriginal peoples... They would have a hard time leaving if it’s not their land.”
Although neither leading party responded to AFNQL’s concerns, in past sovereigntists have argued that Indigenous peoples would fare better under an independent Quebec than under Canada. The PQ has in past assured First Nations leaders their rights would be enshrined in a Quebec national constitution.
“For many years, there’s been arguments in this province that, for some reason, First Nations people are better off in this province then they are in the rest of the country,” said Picard. “But based on what we have been able to achieve as First Nations, it’s really up to us to determine what better outcome we can come to.
“Obviously First Nations people in this province have done a lot to remain strong in language, in land occupation, and their own traditions. All of that reality cannot be pushed aside.”
Independence is not the only issue arising from First Nations this election. In northern Quebec, Cree have called on the government to finally implement a James Bay region conservation plan that would see 13,000 square kilometres of Boreal Forest preserved and co-managed by Quebec and the Cree Nation.
More than 30 Indigenous communities exist within Quebec, with nearly 100,000 people – just over one per cent of the population – identified as either Inuit or First Nations.