Quebec the nation could wind up being much smaller than Quebec the province

November 10, 1991|By Knight-Ridder News Service

GREAT WHALE, Quebec -- Laced with wild rivers, carpeted with silent forests and blessed with charming cities, the province of Quebec sprawls from the U.S. border to Baffin Island in the arctic. It is bigger than Alaska.

But if Quebec separates from the rest of Canada, as it has threatened to do, it could end up with only a fraction of the province's 594,860 square miles.

Critics, with an eye on the province's referendum on independence a year from now, suggest that Canada should claim as much as 66 percent of Quebec, the northern two-thirds of the province that Quebec gained after Canada was formed in 1867.

"If the Quebecois reject the transcontinental vision of Canada, they should not retain what they received based on that vision," Toronto lawyer E. James Arnett wrote recently in the Toronto Globe and Mail.

Other critics would slice different chunks out of Quebec.

Some non-French Quebecers have suggested that even in an independent Quebec, there could remain islands of Canadian soil where the province's 700,000 English speakers might live. Quebec's population is 6.7 million.

The Alliance for the Preservation of English in Canada, a conservative group based in Ontario, is demanding a "Canadian corridor" through the southern portion of an independent Quebec to connect Ontario and New Brunswick.

The 10,000 Cree Indians of northern Quebec are threatening to separate from Quebec if Quebec separates from Canada.

"Should Quebec unilaterally declare sovereignty, it is not likely that indigenous peoples will passively surrender their lands and rights to the new state," the Cree told a United Nations commission this summer.

In Great Whale, natives are battling a plan by the Quebec government to develop their local rivers for hydroelectric power.

Chief Robbie Dick said the Cree Indians consider themselves a sovereign nation after living in the region since about 3000 B.C. The French, who began arriving in the 16th century, are immigrants, Chief Dick said.

"We have as much right as any other nation" to be independent, he said. "We're not saying we own the land in the sense we can sell the land. We own the land in the sense that we have occupied it for thousands of years."

Not surprisingly, the pro-independence Parti Quebecois has stated repeatedly that a sovereign Quebec would retain its current borders under international law.

According to Mr. Arnett, the boundaries ultimately will depend on how Canada responds to a Quebec demand for independence.

If Canada decides to negotiate, he said, "the boundaries will be determined by what is considered fair and reasonable under the circumstances."

If Canada refuses to negotiate, Quebec might have to defend its borders. "Possession becomes 10 10ths of the law," Mr. Arnett said.

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