On November 27, the Canadian Parliament adopted a motion recognizing the existence of the Quebec nation. Quebec’s minister of intergovernmental affairs, Benoît Pelletier, expressed the hope that this recognition be translated into changes in the Canadian Constitution. He was, however, unable to specify how and, especially, when these changes might take place, given the lack of openness and political will in the ROC (Rest of Canada) to reopen constitutional negotiations. For Mr. Harper, the adoption of this motion does not entail any legal or constitutional consequences. It is undoubtedly a bit early to say whether this superficial political move will lead to any historic gains.
In any event, this nation has no need to wait for constitutional recognition a recognition which may never come in order to have a sovereign existence. This is why the election of a Constituent Assembly mandated to facilitate a vast process of political education and participatory democracy, as well as to write a Constitution to be submitted to referendum is something that would allow people to exercise their sovereignty much more eloquently than if they were limited to a simple referendum vote.
But is this approach sufficient for success? The Quebec nation is not the only nation within the current geographic territory. There are eleven other nations with which Quebec must share its sovereignty. The process of attaining Quebec sovereignty might well be compromised, even, if the strategy does not take into account the question of First Nations.
From Mutual Recognition to Strategic Alliance
There are 72,500 Native people in Quebec, representing one per cent of the total population. Yet, their significance goes well beyond this proportion. They occupy vast territories on which non-Natives are nearly completely absent. As well, the Quebec National Assembly recognizes the existence of these eleven nations on its political territory. This would normally give them a status quite distinct from that of other ethnic minorities.
At the time of the 1995 referendum, First Nations were generally among those who voted “No.” The Cree even held their own referendum on the question. It seems that First Nations were not convinced that they would improve their situation within a sovereign Quebec. Despite being limited and open to broad interpretation, First Nations rights under the Canadian Constitution may seem preferable to the unknown of an independent Quebec.
It is not up to a Quebec government, even a sovereign one, to decide alone the political status of First Nations. Yet, it is the responsibility of the sovereignty movement to propose strategic alliances and a process of achieving sovereignty that would also allow for First Nations to exercise their sovereignty and make their voices heard.
The elements of a Common Approach (the principles of which are currently being negotiating with the Innu nation, in line with the principles suggested by the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples Report) are a good starting point: recognition of ancestral and territorial rights; governmental autonomy; financial support leading to autonomy; participation in compensation for the exploitation of natural resources; and partnership for regional development.
The Quebec sovereignty movement is itself divided along strategic lines. It is therefore quite far from achieving strategic alliances with First Nations. Only a broad, grassroots, citizen movement has any chance of forcing a change of paradigm that would allow all the nations making up the Quebec people to participate in a dynamic process leading to the achievement of sovereignty.
This article appeared in the January/February 2007 issue of Canadian Dimension (Indian Country).