Sign Up

Can Canada Get Any Smaller?

How might Native American groups keep Quebec from pushing for independence?

March 12, 2001

How might Native American groups keep Quebec from pushing for independence?

Just like Canada’s French-speaking minority in Quebec, these Native American groups describe themselves as separate nations within Quebec. That has been made clear in their formal statements warning the provincial government that their own land and sovereignty should not be taken for granted in Quebec’s future attempts to secede from Canada.

In February 1998, the Cree filed suit in Canada’s Supreme Court, asking to remain part of Canada if Quebec’s secession movement is ever successful. Since the Cree claim much of the northern two-thirds of the province, including the crucial area containing much of the country’s hydroelectric wealth, this could be a major obstacle in the province’s path to independence.

The logic of their case seems hard to refute. If Quebec has the right to secede from Canada, how can the Cree and Mohawk (and other aboriginal groups) not have the same right to secede from Quebec?

In a landmark ruling in August 1998, Canada’s Supreme Court decided that Quebec could not unilaterally secede from Canada without negotiations “to address the interests of … linguistic and cultural minorities, including aboriginal peoples, who look to the Constitution of Canada for the protection of their rights.”

The provincial government of Quebec then sought to allay this problem by offering a combination of self-government for its eleven aboriginal groups, including the right to raise and spend their own taxes, along with the right to be represented in the Quebec assembly and $125 million for “community projects.”

Quebec even offered to share some of the bounty from the energy resources of the James Bay, Churchill Falls and Great Whale. But there was a catch: Quebec’s “territorial integrity, and the sovereignty of the Quebec national assembly over that territory,” would remain intact. The Cree and Mohawk, Naskapi and Inuit and others were not born yesterday. In other words, no deal.

But if Quebec cannot secede without somehow getting the approval of its native minority groups, then Canadians as a whole may find a union with the United States (should they ever choose such a radical path) equally blocked by Cree and Mohawk objections.

The Native Americans of Canada are, with reason, not much impressed with the United States’s shoddy record in the treatment of their cousins south of the border. For their part, their treatment from the Canadian federal government has not been much better (a 1999 UN human rights called Canada’s treatment of its aborignial people the country’s most pressing human rights issue).

But they are proud of the special legal status they attained in Canada’s 1982 Constitution — and broadened in the groundbreaking Delgamuukw decision in 1998 by the Supreme Court.

That decision ruled that Canada’s aboriginal groups, if they could prove a prior claim to land, indeed had “title” to that land. The Court also held that such lands are held communally — and that right of ownership could be transferred only to the Crown. Even then, such transfers could legally occur only through solemn treaties, as between sovereigns.

With such power, Canada’s aboriginal inhabitants appear to have something very close to a veto over any plans for a U.S.-Canadian union, putting them in a strong bargaining position. The price of union would almost certainly require their long-suffering cousins in the lower 48 to gain legal protections like those in Canada. But this time, nobody is likely to be bought off with a handful of trinkets.