Across some of North America’s most isolated wilderness, chiefs of the Inuit and the Cree Indians are summoning their people to polling booths this week to send a one-word message: “No.”
There is no doubt about the outcome of either referendum. Each native people in the rugged north of Quebec is defiantly determined to tell the province’s French-speaking separatists that they want no part of a breakaway from Canada.
The future of Quebec, and of the Canadian federation, will be at stake Oct. 30 when all 5 million voters in the province have a chance to decide whether they want independence.
Opinion polls say separatists and federalists are virtually even, but the Inuit and Cree leaders are not waiting for the province-wide referendum. The Crees, interrupting their pre-winter hunting season, are holding their own vote Tuesday, and the Inuits follow on Thursday.
“We have the right to determine our future for ourselves,” the Crees’ grand chief, Matthew Coon Come, said in an interview. “We’re the original occupants of this land. We’ve been here a lot longer than the Europeans.”
Land claimed by the two native peoples covers more than half of Quebec - an area as large as France populated by 12,000 Crees, 8,000 Inuits and a scattering of white settlers.
Distributing ballots has been a challenge. Coon Come said three helicopters will be used to take mobile polling stations to Crees living at remote bush camps for the hunting season.
There is no sentimental patriotism involved in their opposition to secession. But they view the federal government as a known quantity, willing at minimum to listen and negotiate, and they do not want to take any chances with the unknowns of a sovereign Quebec.
“Unless the Cree give their consent in our own referendum, our territory and our people will stay in Canada if Quebeckers choose to secede,” said Coon Come.
“If Quebec has a right to determine its own political future, then certainly so do the Crees,” he said. “God forbid that they try to achieve their objective by denying to other people that same right.”
The legal weight of the Cree and Inuit referendums is uncertain, because Quebec’s provincial government considers them unofficial. But native leaders are angered by separatist assertions that the voting will be meaningless.
“Their dismissiveness does not diminish our determination,” said Zebedee Nungak, a leader of the Inuit, formerly known as Eskimos. “They will be forced to recognize the Inuit as a people.”
The Crees are masters of political public relations, honing their skills in a long and ultimately successful battle to block a mammoth hydroelectric project planned for Cree territory.
Their campaign against Quebec separatism has included full-page ads in Montreal newspapers and a 500-page book documenting their case.
The ads quote law professor Daniel Turp as saying native peoples have as much right as French-speaking Quebeckers to self-determination.
Turp, now an adviser to the separatists, has disavowed those words. He now backs the separatists’ view that Quebec is indivisible.
The Quebec government’s coordinator of Indian affairs, David Cliche, says Indians and Inuit in an independent Quebec would fare at least as well as they do now and possibly better pending the outcome of promised autonomy talks.
“Our intentions are clear: Quebec will replace Canada for all commitments to aboriginal nations,” he told the provincial legislature last month. “We Quebeckers extend our hand in friendship and hope to define with them a new alliance based on self-respect, mutual understanding and confidence.”
But Cliche says any arrangement with the Crees and Inuits must respect Quebec’s “territorial integrity.” The issue of borders is so sensitive that even Quebec federalists campaigning against sovereignty insist native peoples would have no right to secede from the province if it became independent.
The federal government hopes the separatists lose the Oct. 30 referendum and has not spelled out what, if anything, it might do on behalf of the Crees and Inuits in the event of a separatist victory.
Coon Come has indicated he would lobby overseas and at the United Nations, if necessary, to prevent his people from being forced into a sovereign Quebec.
In all, there are an estimated 80,000 native people in Quebec, barely 1 percent of the population. Of the 11 main groups, only the Inuits and the Crees organized counter-referendums.
The Mohawks, who occupy reserves in northern New York State as well as Quebec, do not consider themselves Canadian citizens and are staying out of the referendum campaign.
“It’s a fight between brothers, and we’re just sitting and watching,” said Ken Deer, editor of a Mohawk weekly newspaper.