Go to main menu Go to main content Go to footer

Voices ᐋ ᐄᔮᔨᐧᒫᓂᐧᐃᒡ

Never Without Consent

BY Will Nicholls Nov 12, 2023

In 1998, the Grand Council of the Crees published a book titled Never Without Consent: James Bay Crees Stand Against Forcible Inclusion into an Independent Quebec. This book looked the referendum on October 24, 1995, asking whether the Crees would join an independent Quebec if the province voted yes in the provincial referendum to be held a week later. 

Over 77% of Crees voted and 96.3% of them gave a resounding no to the idea of allowing Quebec to take them and their territory out of Canada if there was a yes vote. Helicopters traveled to bush camps to ensure that any Cree who wanted to vote in the Cree referendum would be able to do so.

Premier Jacques Parizeau blamed his narrow loss in the referendum on the rich and people of a different ethnic background. Even up to the Quebec referendum the separatists continued to refuse to recognize that the Cree had the same right to self-determination that they claimed for themselves. 

This wasn’t the first time that Quebec has not accorded the Cree the same rights as they enjoy. When fighting the Great Whale hydro-electric project they accused the Cree of waging “judicial guerrilla warfare.” Using the courts, peaceful protests and trying to get public opinion on your side is not acceptable, it seems, if you are Indigenous. When the Cree addressed the European Parliament in 1994 about their objections to the separatist movement in Quebec, noted separatist David Cliché called it “an act of treason.” 

Quebec had a questionable right to separation. It was ruled illegal by the courts, but the referendum was allowed so people could express themselves. But then Quebec denied self-determination for Indigenous Peoples even while claiming it for the francophone majority.

But when it came to threats of outright warfare, the separatist movement was at the forefront. Security Minister Jacques Brassard said an independent Quebec would resort to force to defend its territory and enforce its laws. Brassard added that this would be needed “particularly against Aboriginal peoples and other dissident groups.” 

Bloc Québécois MP Marc Jacob sent a request to francophone members of the Canadian Armed Forces asking them to transfer their alliance to the proposed new state of Quebec. Université Laval professor Albert Legault said the military installations in Montreal and Valcartier would allow Quebec to equip itself with the means to respond to Aboriginal crises. That would be a reaction to the idea of “effective control” of Eeyou Istchee that international law requires for statehood.

It might also be the reason why the Cree were asked to acknowledge “effective control” over the territory in the Paix des Braves agreement. However, effective control isn’t something that lasts forever. Also, international law doesn’t grant recognition to a state when it violates the right of self-determination, which takes precedence over the concept of “effective control.”

During that time, Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come said any attempt by the PQ to remove Eeyou Istchee from Canada would amount to “kidnapping” and would be resisted. “This would be hijacking of a whole people and their lands. This we will not allow the separatists to do.”

Not all separatists were on board with the government’s attitude like law professor Daniel Turp (a former Bloc MP and PQ MNA). He said in a paper that the government should recognize that it is “not the Aboriginal people who occupy our territory, but rather we who are attempting to occupy THEIRS.”

Never Without Consent documents both the Cree and Quebec referendums, the hopes, the dreams, the rhetoric of the Quebec and Cree politicians and their supporters, and the legal challenges. It is a piece of history that is still applicable to this day. Twenty-five years later, Never Without Consent is worth reading to understand a part of history that continues to affect our lives.

LATEST ᒫᐦᒡ ᑎᐹᒋᒧᐧᐃᓐ

Will Nicholls is a Cree from Mistissini. He started his career off in radio and is still one of the youngest radio DJ’s in Canadian history, having a regular show on CFS Moosonee at the age of 12. Will was one of the founding members of the Nation, and has been its only Editor-in-Chief.