Indians Say Land Is Not Quebec's for the Taking

As Quebec's new premier talks of independence, native tribes with claims to two-thirds of the land say they are not so ready to go along

JACQUES PARIZEAU, Quebec's newly elected separatist premier, wants an independent Quebec nation in a year. Standing in his way are Quebec's natives - especially the Mohawks of Kahnawake.

``I was born right over there,'' says Billy Two Rivers, a Mohawk tribal councilman, gesturing to a tiny wood-frame home. ``And I still fish over there,'' he says, of the swift waters of the St. Lawrence River that swirl a few yards beyond the little house.

About 6,000 Mohawks live on this reservation - Canada's second largest - situated strategically beside the river and the Mercier bridge, just a 25-minute drive south of Montreal. The Mohawks are among 60,000 Quebec Indians - including Crees in the north and Algonquins in the midsection - who consider land they live and hunt on to be theirs.

``Quebec may separate linguistically, spiritually, culturally - and it has done that,'' Mr. Two Rivers says. ``What we will not recognize or accept is that Quebec could separate with our land - it doesn't belong to them.''

That view runs directly counter to the argument posed by Mr. Parizeau, leader of the Parti Qucois who has said that Quebec's current borders will remain intact should the province separate. Keeping the same borders is crucial to Parizeau's plan to sell the Quebec public on separating. He has promised a referendum on the issue within the year.

Yet large swaths of northern Quebec are claimed by about 12,000 Crees, who have lived there for thousands of years. In the 1970s, huge hydroelectric dams and reservoirs were built in the north to pump power into the Quebec economy. The power plants are vital to Quebec.

The Crees insist, however, that they have the same right to secede that the French-speaking majority claim for themselves. Here, Parizeau has taken a hard line. ``If you think 20,000 Crees and Inuit [Eskimo] are going to leave Quebec and take two-thirds of its territory - no way,'' Parizeau told the Toronto-based Globe and Mail newspaper.

Native issues are almost as highly charged as the language-rights debate and that of Quebec's role within Canada. That is one reason native issues were ignored by both candidates during the election campaign. Now, they cannot be ignored.

``I have heard of [the PQ] insisting they would take the Crees and the Inuit with or without our consent - denying that we all have the same right to self-determination,'' says Matthew Coon-Come, Grand Chief of the Crees of northern Quebec. ``We have the choice to decide whether we want to go with Quebec, remain with Canada, or go on our own.''

Uphill campaign

The Crees and Mohawks, in particular, could prove troublesome to Parizeau's plan for separation. He faces an uphill campaign to win support among the 60 percent of Quebeckers who are skeptical of an independent Quebec. Convincing them may be difficult if, in addition to the economic uncertainties of Quebec nationhood, Indian land claims are factored in.

Within the next few weeks, native leaders from across Quebec will meet to plot strategy and form a united front to confront the new Quebec government, Two Rivers says.

``Everything depends on the new government,'' he says. ``If we are able to have them and Canada recognize our inherent right to self-government, great. But if not, we are going to do battle with the province over their perceived rights to this land.''

Statements that include the words ``doing battle'' are not popular with the PQ, which is seeking to reassure Quebeckers that the transition to nationhood will be painless. Legal battles are what Two Rivers is referring to, while also implying the other kind.

And violence is not unprecedented. In 1990, a land dispute between the Kanesatake Mohawks and the town of Oka, Quebec, escalated into a tense 78-day standoff between armed members of the Mohawk Warrior Society and the Canadian Army. As a gesture of support, the nearby Kahnawake Mohawks blockaded the Mercier bridge. Indians across Canada sympathetically barricaded roads and railroad lines.

Natives vs. ruling party

Under former Premier Rene Levesque, the Parti Qucois, the Mohawks of Kahnawake, and the Crees enjoyed good relations in the 1970s and early 1980s. But relations with the Liberal government of Premier Robert Bourassa soured after the 1990 clash. And the Indians say they need to be convinced that the PQ will be any different.

Parizeau, for example, told a Montreal radio talk show audience that once in power, he would quickly take care of the sore issue of the heavily armed Mohawk Warrior Society on the Kahnawake Reservation.

``I don't need to study this [the Mohawk Warrior issue] long to know that I don't like anybody in a society threatening another with a weapon,'' he said, according to the Montreal Gazette.

Two Rivers also makes it clear that the Mohawks prefer the relationship they currently have with Canada and will not rule out armed resistance if they feel their territorial or other rights are at stake. As usual, the Mohawks did not vote in Monday's election while some Crees did.

The Crees, who have achieved some success in pressuring the government to limit hydroelectric dam projects through environmental appeals to United States electricity consumers, say they are committed to peacefully working out their differences with the PQ.

That said however, the provincial utility, Hydro-Quebec, a few months ago discovered that some of the legs on power transmission line towers had been blasted away with dynamite. Nobody knows who did it, but the vulnerability of the power lines stretching into the north is clear.

Canada's role

Both Crees and Mohawks hold out the possibility of calling for the Canadian government to honor its treaties and to protect their rights if Quebec secedes. But would Canada come running?

In one of the few comments by federal officials during the campaign, federal Indian Affairs Minister Ron Irwin said Indians and Inuit, as well as the French speaking population, have the right to self-determination. His comments, however, were then muted by comments from other officials.

Two Rivers says Kahnawake will never become part of a new Quebec nation, but may reach some accommodation with the new government.

So while muscling the Mohawks on the radio might be a popular vote-getting tactic, Parizeau the strategic-thinker may decide that cutting a deal and keeping peace with the Indians is critical to winning the needed support to separate.

The Indians themselves do not find it surprising that their role - though just a fraction of this province's 7 million people - could determine whether Canada remains intact or splits apart.

``We've always been the balance, the deciding factor, of this country historically,'' Two Rivers says. ``I don't think that will change. We will weigh heavily in the balance on the future of Canada and Quebec.''

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