WHAPMAGOOSTUI, Quebec — This is the northern frontier of the Cree Indian nation in Quebec; no roads lead here.
Today, most people arrive on the Canadian Airlines and Air Inuit flights that land on the adjacent airstrip six days a week, as long as the weather holds.
But for centuries, the main transportation route into this sandy wedge of land on the eastern shore of Hudson Bay was the Great Whale River. The river flows in a wide, sapphire arc behind the village, at the foot of some low bluffs, before emptying into the bay.
Canoe up river a couple miles to the lower rapids, and the buffs flatten out and the forest crowds to the water’s edge, providing brushy cover for small mammals and birds. Beyond the rapids, the wilderness thickens and there is bigger game.
In this distant backcountry, perhaps a third of Whapmagoostui’s 500 or so residents will spend much of the winter, trapping and hunting in a modern-day variation of the life the Cree have lived in the region for 5,000 years.
That the river still flows here unhindered is testament to the persistence and political acumen of the Cree of Quebec and their 38-year-old grand chief, Matthew Coon Come.
In 1989, Hydro Quebec, the provincially owned power company, announced plans to dam the Great Whale to provide electricity for the cities of southern Quebec and the northeastern United States. Thousands of acres of Cree hunting ground would have been flooded.
But Coon Come and the Cree waged an international environmental campaign against the dam and fought Quebec to a standstill. In November, Jacques Parizeau, Quebec’s newly elected premier, halted work on the $9.75 billion project.
The Cree hold on this land, however, is far from secure. The Great Whale controversy was merely a prelude to a far more significant confrontation with implications for all of North America: Coon Come and other native leaders in Quebec are moving to the center of Canada’s most volatile national dilemma — the struggle over Quebec independence.
Coon Come has emerged as a formidable opponent of Parizeau’s plan to separate Quebec from the rest of Canada.
These two men provide a study in contrasts.
Coon Come is relaxed and informal. As a youth, he augmented class work at Montreal’s prestigious McGill University with two years living off the land in the wilderness of northern Quebec.
Parizeau, 64, is an urbane former economics professor, polished and precise, with political instincts tempered by 30 years in the public arena and a single-minded determination to make Quebec a nation.
Each man has come to embody a vision for the future — visions that overlap and conflict. Parizeau seeks security for a French-speaking society unique to North America. Coon Come wants self-determination for a culture with some of the continent’s deepest roots and longest-standing claims of sovereignty.
How — or if — Parizeau, Coon Come and other native leaders resolve their differences could set a precedent for the rest of Canada’s Indians — or First Nations, as they are known here. And it could profoundly affect the potential breakup of Canada, the United States’ largest trading partner.
Parizeau was elected premier Sept. 12 on a platform of independence for Quebec. On Dec. 6, he initiated a series of steps leading toward a provincewide referendum on sovereignty, which could come as early as the spring. If he wins that referendum, Parizeau proposes to declare independence one year later.
He would prefer to strike a bargain with Quebec’s native people for their support in his separatist adventure. But in the end, he is determined to take them along whether they want to come or not.
Most, it seems, do not.
Bound to their land by tradition and bound to Canada by treaty, many of Quebec’s estimated 55,000 Indians and 7,500 Inuit (formerly known as Eskimos) regard the provincial government with indifference, if not hostility. In Whapmagoostui, for instance, only 10 voters bothered to cast ballots in the September election that brought Parizeau to power.
Coon Come suggests that for the Cree, Quebec’s preoccupation with secession is a vast irrelevance, one they should not be forced to share in.
“Everyone knows about the high unemployment and suicide rates in native communities, including Cree communities, and that’s what we ought to be dealing with, not talking about this theoretical idea of sovereignty,” he says. “If they want to go out in the boat, let them go. But we have the right to decide for ourselves whether to jump in the canoe with them or stay on the shore.”
Coon Come is sitting in the coffee shop of a Washington hotel where in a couple of hours he will deliver an emotional broadside against Quebec sovereignty to an audience of U.S. and Canadian academics, diplomats and journalists. Hovering in the lobby are at least four agents of Parizeau’s government, preparing to publicly challenge Coon Come’s speech and buttonhole U.S. opinion makers with their side of the story.
Coon Come, his black hair fringed slightly with gray, delivers speeches with an earnestness inflamed by indignation. Arguing that Quebec proposes that the province’s Indians “simply be handed from our country to a foreign country against our will and without our consent,” he calls bluntly for U.S. assistance in preserving the “fundamental human rights” of native people.
“My people are extremely wary of exchanging our place in a federal system, with all of the inherent checks and balances that we have been able to use to advance our status, for a precarious relationship with a unitary state,” he said in his Washington address.
Most tellingly, Coon Come turns the Quebec separatists’ own arguments against them.
If Quebeckers need to leave Canada to preserve their culture, he asks, cannot the Indians leave Quebec for the same reason, taking their vast land claims with them?
Parizeau replies that he is flexible on many issues but that Quebec’s borders are non-negotiable.
“We have recognized … that they (the First Nations) are distinct nations, (but) the (former) government that held power for nine years has not gone very far to define what a distinct nation is,” he said in a recent interview. “We’re having a go at it with them again. How do you comport yourself as a distinct nation? What kind of resources do you have? What kind of spending power do you have? We’re in the midst of that kind of discussion … (and) I’m a very patient, persistent man.
“But one thing I insist upon: We’re adamant on the integrity of the Quebec territory.”
Some First Nations leaders sense in Parizeau a willingness to compromise that could win Indians unprecedented control over land and social services.
“For once, we find ourselves in an advantageous position … because we can force the issue, the issue of self-government and self-determination. Quebec has its own aspirations, and so do we,” said Ghislain Picard, a Montagnais chief who heads the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec, an alliance of Indian groups in the province.
Nonetheless, there remains widespread skepticism that many native groups in the end will line up behind Quebec independence, because it would mean forfeiting treaty rights they are guaranteed in Canada.