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Protesters denounce feds for imposing elections at Barriere Lake

by David Koch

Protesters gather outside Parliament on Monday
Protesters gather outside Parliament on Monday

Protesters converged on Parliament Hill on Monday to condemn the Conservative government for imposing elections on the aboriginal community of Barriere Lake.

This summer, Chuck Strahl -  then Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) - invoked section 74 of the Indian Act, forcing elections on the small and poverty-stricken Algonquin reserve. 

But the government has encountered resistance from residents of Barriere Lake and their supporters, who are demanding that the government recognize a customary chief and council selected by community elders.

Forced elections are contributing to cultural assimilation, said Tony Wawatie, a spokesperson for the Barriere Lake Algonquins who rallied in Ottawa Monday.

"We are here today because we don't recognize the council that was imposed on us," he said at a press conference.

"We have a responsibility for our children, so they can protect what has been passed down from our ancestors."

"That's what this fight is about, surviving the assimilation process."

NDP MP Charlie Angus told reporters that the Barriere Lake community boycotted the government-imposed election that took place this summer, returning only ten votes. He added that members of the government-recognized council do not reside on the Barriere Lake reserve.

Angus condemned INAC for what he called the arbitrary abolishment of Barriere Lake's traditional government.

"This decision has only further undermined the already toxic relationship between the Department of Indian Affairs and the people of Barriere Lake," he said.

But the government-approved council denounced the protest on Monday, saying in a press release that the government applied section 74 to address problems including an alleged mismanagement of funds under the customary leadership.

“This situation is the product of the dysfunction and division our community has struggled with as a result of the mishandling of elements of governance ... and decision-making processes that did not have the support of a reasonable majority in the community,” councillor Chad Thusky said in the release.

But even official band councillors expressed opposition to the government's application of section 74.

While both factions denounced the federal government's heavy-handed tactics, Wawatie suggested that INAC is favouring the current council to advance strategic interests against aboriginal claims to natural resources.

He said the government, in tandem with the current council, is reneging on a 1991 trilateral agreement that was meant to establish a fair system for co-managing natural resources and sharing funds between Canada, the Province of Quebec, and Barriere Lake.

"(The federal government) is using the puppet council to undermine our agreement that has been hanging in the air for so long," Wawatie said.

He added that the trilateral agreement includes a plan for reducing the soaring rates poverty and unemployment endured by people on the reserve.

Youth from the Barriere Lake community also denounced the government's application of section 74 on Monday.

19-year-old Barriere Lake resident Tillis Kipyes told the crowd that the traditional governance structure protects the Algonquin culture and natural resources.

"Section 74 not only erases and disconnects us from keeping our customs, traditions, culture alive, it also makes us lose our resources," Kipyes said.

INAC has defended their use of section 74 as a necessary step towards stability on the reserve.

Camil Simard, a spokesperson from INAC's Quebec regional office, said in an interview on Friday that the government-imposed elections were needed to create stability and move towards better socio-economic conditions on the reserve.

He said that once the Barriere Lake Algonquins had achieved internal consensus on changes to their customary code, the government would cease to apply the law.

"We are fully aware that some people don't like it," he said.

At the rally on Monday, protesters expressed their disapproval with the law outside of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office.

They brought along a poster containing excerpts from the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, which guarantees the right to self-government. Canada signed the non-binding agreement last month after initially refusing in 2007.

"It's our Christmas present to Harper," said aboriginal activist Clayton Thomas-Müller, who led the demonstration.

No one from Harper's office accepted the offering.

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