First Published: In Struggle! No. 199, April 8, 1980
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
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“Today, depression is a thing of the past for the Native people. The suicide strategy has failed.”
This remark was made during a debate on the Native peoples’ right to self-determination at the Université de Montreal on Wednesday, March 19. Approximately 150 people attended the noon-hour debate, organized as part of the Native Peoples’ Week.
The invited included Rémi Savard, anthropologist and professor at the Université de Montreal; Luc Grégoire, representing the national committee of the MEOUI (the student movement for a ’yes’ vote); and Jean-Pierre Gagné, spokesperson for IN STRUGGLE!. Gregoire indicated that he disagreed with what the PQ’s White Paper on sovereignty-association says about the Native peoples, but explained that the MEOUI had not yet developed its position on this issue. Savard and Gagne pointed out how the history we were taught at school was partial: it was no coincidence that the Native peoples were little more than background figures in that version. The authorities contrived to destabilize the life and society of the Native peoples and gain control of the lands on which they lived, lands that were rich in iron, uranium and hydroelectric resources.
Rémi Savard explained, “Today, all the Native peoples are basically demanding the same thing, although their specific demands differ: they all want to be able to have political control of their territories and natural resources in accordance with the needs of their community.”
“This demand is especially important to defend in the current context. The Native peoples are faced with a general offensive to deprive them of their resources. It is a second dispossession campaign, and the battlefield is the Far North,” added Jean-Pierre Gagné. He pointed out that one of the Native peoples’ victories has been to struggle successfully for recognition of the validity of their demand for the right to self-determination. “It was their struggle that also convinced IN STRUGGLE! to correct and further develop its political line on this question.”
A speaker from the floor interjected, “Yes, but how can you defend the Native peoples’ rightto self-determination and at the same time advocate a ’yes’ vote in the Quebec referendum, as Rémi Savard and Luc Grégoire? When the PQ negotiates with Ottawa, it will negotiate on the basis of its White Paper; and the White Paper is a flat denial of the Native peoples’ national rights. There’s a contradiction there that I don’t understand.”
The question really got the debate going.
“When I said that I would vote ’yes’ in the referendum, it’s because I consider that you can vote ’yes’ without endorsing either the White Paper or the PQ,” answered Rémi Savard. “Basically, the PQ defends the same position as the Quebec Liberal Party. It says it will negotiate with the Indians ’in the fields that concern them’. Are natural resources of concern to the Native peoples? Both parties want to preserve the status quo. I’m voting ’yes’ to expose that. When they have proven that political sovereignty is not a solution, we’ll be through with the national alibis.”
Luc Grégoire took a similar position in favour of a ’yes’ vote, but’they were both criticized by several speakers from the floor who pointed out the contradictions in their positions.
But Rémi Savard asserted that the contradiction was much more blatant for “those who recognize the right to self-determination for the Native peoples but not for Quebec.” Savard was confusing the recognition of the right to self-determination with political sovereignty as such, namely the creation of a separate State. IN STRUGGLE! recognizes, for example, that both the Native peoples and the Quebecois have the right to decide their political future for themselves, without outside interference. It also recognizes the necessity of respecting whatever decision they make, be it regional autonomy or provincial status in a Canadian framework or a sovereign State.
But the basic problem for workers of oppressed nations Native or Quebecois – in deciding what political status they want is to choose the status that will do the most to move forward their struggle against capitalism, the system that perpetuates oppression. Their choice must be guided by a class perspective. In Canada, the unity of workers of all nationalities against the State (at all levels – federal, provincial and municipal) is a powerful weapon in the struggle to get rid of this system of exploitation and the resulting national oppression.
As the spokesperson for IN STRUGGLE! stressed, although we cannot deny the sincerity of Rémi Savard in defending the rights of Native people and supporting their struggles, it is nonetheless true that his support for a ’yes’ vote in the referendum will lend credibility to the PQ’s chauvinist designs.
One of the persons in the hall spoke to say that the debate had been interesting but had perhaps focused too much on the Quebec national question. Rémi Savard replied, “It would be dangerous, to dissociate the two questions, that of Quebec and that of the Native peoples. It would be playing into the hands of the defenders of the status quo – and the PQ is one of them – who always try to isolate us from each other, to separate our hopes and aspirations.”
In his answer, he unwillingly provided yet another argument for refusing to vote ’yes’ in the upcoming referendum.