Is Quebec Crying Wolfe?
Peter Clarke and Maria Tippett
After Napoleon won the battle of Waterloo, the former British colonies went to France. In due course, Australia was opened up by French settlement, with a British cultural residue which remained long after the new nation’s independence. Only in New South Wales did a British community survive in appreciable numbers. Sydney, to be sure, became impressively bilingual, with the French élite long occupying the smart area of the city; but the bulk of the Anglophone population remained monoglot and showed a stubborn resistance to assimilation. Cultural links with Britain were one way of maintaining a sense of identity, which easily spilled over into politically sensitive assertions of independence. Hence the enormous fuss when a visiting British leader publicly endorsed the separatist slogan, ‘Free New South Wales’.
Vol. 17 No. 3 · 9 February 1995
Peter Clarke and Maria Tippett (LRB, 22 December 1994) reflected accurately what may be the dominant strain of discussion about separation in Montreal and, in so doing, made glaringly obvious the deficiencies of that debate. The provincial government of Quebec has incrementally acquired control, courtesy first of the Imperial then of the Federal powers, over land belonging to the Inuit, Micmaq, Malecite, Montagnais, Huron, Abenaki, Atikamekw, Algonquin, Cree, Naskapi and Mohawk peoples, which makes nonsense of any claims to territorial integrity for a Francophone province. There are many parts of Quebec – for example, the vast territory south of Hudson’s Bay – where First Nations are in a majority. For these individuals the Anglo/Franco debate is meaningless, and the idea of ‘two founding nations’ an insult, which their own generic name for themselves is designed to correct.
These people are not optional extras in the drama of separation. They are part of the real-politik of Quebec. As proof of this the successful opposition to the Great Whale hydroelectric project may be cited. Spearheaded by the Grand Council of the Crees and their ambassador at the UN, Ted Moses, international opinion was stirred to the point where powerful environmental groups in the United States persuaded State governments to boycott power from this source. At this point the immense social and environmental dislocation which would have ensued was no longer economically, let alone ethically, tolerable for the provincial government. Similarly, national and international concern was raised by the shaming spectacle of the Canadian Army ranged against Canadian citizens during the Oka crisis in 1991, which was itself largely prompted by the high-handed and racist attitudes of the Sûreté de Québec.
Small wonder, then, that first Nations in Quebec view the prospect of separation with grave misgivings. Speaking recently in Washington, at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come said: ‘Quebec may well have legitimate claims [to independence], but it may make no valid claims to the Cree people or the Cree territory that would deny the Cree peoples’ rights to choose how we would be governed.’ It is evident that the Cree have a fully articulated position based on the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement of 1975, the first comprehensive land claim to have been settled in Canada. It is worth noting that the separatist Quebec premier, Jacques Parizeau, has reserved the First Nations portfolio for himself. Lise Bisonnette, the editor of Le Devoir, ‘the influential Montreal daily’, is mistaken in supposing Quebec separatism to be a problem only for the rest of Canada. It is a problem for Quebec itself.
Charlotte and Ian Townsend-Gault
Bowen Island, British Columbia