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Perception of relations between indigenous peoples and Quebec

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YVES BOISVERT

Journalist and radio host from Quebec, he is also a columnist on legal and political affairs.

What comes to mind when I think of the relationship between Quebecers and Indigenous peoples is our ignorance. Ignorance in the sense of not knowing. But to ignore in the sense of not recognizing the existence of the other. To ignore each other.

 

I know, we shouldn't generalize. There's no such thing as "Indigenous peoples" as a homogeneous group. Nor should we speak of "Quebecers" as if they were a monolithic block. For a long time, you could spend your entire life in and around Montreal without ever coming into contact with a First Nations person. If you've lived in Sept-Îles, Oka or Roberval, you're in constant contact.

 

But even where people have lived side by side for hundreds of years, how deeply have these worlds intermingled? The "white" world, as we used to say, and the "Indian" world, even in close proximity, have never really interpenetrated. Like two liquids touching in a bottle, but never mixing, no matter how hard you shake.

 

My parents grew up in La Sarre, Abitibi, in the 1920s and 1930s. Their parents were so-called "settlers" who founded the village in 1917. The story back home was of a handful of families who arrived by train in the middle of the woods, with a priest to clear the land. There was never any mention of "Indians" in the stories of the old days, except to say that in summer, families would arrive by the Sarre River, out of the woods, to set up their tents, and would set up camp just as mysteriously in the fall. As children, my uncles knew how to say "kwe kwe" and would imitate Algonquin words for laughs.

Richard Desjardins's beautiful film, "Le peuple invisible", tells just that story. So close, so far.

 

Like many Quebecers, I've often found the anthropological fascination of the French tourist in search of the American Indian both laughable and irritating.

But at least this vaguely folkloric interest was a manifestation of genuine curiosity. Curiosity we generally lacked. I suspect that our annoyance at these amazed French people was tinged with a guilty conscience. What did we really want to know? Mostly nothing.

It was only recently, reading the work of young historians, that I realized the extent to which our official history courses reflected this indifference. The character of the Indian was a sort of extra, or as we say at the Union des artistes, a "mute third role". Once the war and peace of the 17th-century settlement years had passed, the Indigenous disappeared completely from the Quebec national narrative.

To compensate for the good-bad Indian vision, and to counteract historical erasure, contemporary educators have worked hard to teach our children about the organization of Indigenous societies pre-Jacques Cartier. But what happens to First Nations afterwards?

The implication is that everyone is becoming Québécois. Folklorization comes from us too.

When I was studying law at the Université de Montréal in the 1980s, there were no courses on Indigenous law. It was barely a subject in the chapter on fundamental rights.

I started working at La Presse in 1988. I witnessed the Oka Crisis and its judicial and political aftermath. But also, at the same time, the new jurisprudence of the Supreme Court.

That same summer, the Supreme Court handed down two historic decisions, Sioui and Sparrow, that would redefine the framework of relations between First Nations and Canada. There was much hatred, fear and racism. There still is, of course.

But in the chaos of this strange conflict, a new era was ushered in.

I remember interviewing Jacques Parizeau on the question of Indigenous sovereignty. This brilliant man, whose ideas were usually so clear, seemed a little unsettled intellectually by the unexpected shock of Indigenous national assertions. It wasn't on the agenda.

If Indigenous peoples are nations, do they have a right to self-determination? Can the Cree, the Inuit, the Innu, etc., secede like Quebecers? Are we all Québécois or not? What is a nation?

Concepts blurred.

It was a question that had been largely swept under the carpet in the sovereignist movement, but which suddenly became a major issue. A new perspective, or rather a new objection, was being raised.

These and subsequent court rulings may not have resulted in many dispute settlements. But the awareness of this legal existence has had a great and lasting symbolic impact. 

At the same time, Rouyn judge Jean-Charles Coutu was telling the government: "It doesn't make sense for us to travel to the Far North once a month to dispense justice, like the Chinese arriving in Trois-Rivières to enforce their laws. Thirty years later, the same justice arrives in the same planes from the same Nunavik villages.

What gives me hope for change is the emotion that swept across the country after the realization of what the residential schools were, in concrete terms. They have been officially known, studied and recounted since the commission chaired by Murray Sinclair. But suddenly, two years ago, the discovery of unmarked graves shook the whole country - at least the people of good will.

Suddenly, colonialism and violence were connected. The image of these children torn from their parents, anonymously dead, disappeared, gave reality to what we were supposed to "know". The heart was touched, not just the intellect. Suddenly, we were a little less ignorant. We were a little less ignorant of ourselves.

I'm convinced that we've made progress, even if there's so much to repair, so much to learn. I can already see that the new generation is moving Quebec and the First Nations forward a little more, and a little better, towards what I still believe is possible, that word that has become a little tricky: reconciliation.

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