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A Strong Leadership

The Algonquins of Barriere Lake defend their land – and their inherent right to self-government

by Andy Crosby

Dec. 13 demonstration in Ottawa delivers UN Declaration to PM Harper's Office (photo by Pax)
Dec. 13 demonstration in Ottawa delivers UN Declaration to PM Harper's Office (photo by Pax)
Norman Matchewan attempts to deliver UN Declaration to PM Office during Dec. 13 demo. It is not accepted (photo by Pax)
Norman Matchewan attempts to deliver UN Declaration to PM Office during Dec. 13 demo. It is not accepted (photo by Pax)
No coup d'etat on Algonquin land (outside PM Office, Dec. 13) (photo by Pax)
No coup d'etat on Algonquin land (outside PM Office, Dec. 13) (photo by Pax)
Dec. 13 demonstration heads to INAC Minister John Duncan's Office to deliver Resolution rejecting Section 74 signed by the majority of the community (photo by Pax)
Dec. 13 demonstration heads to INAC Minister John Duncan's Office to deliver Resolution rejecting Section 74 signed by the majority of the community (photo by Pax)

This article originally appeared in the Leveller.

“The Canadian government is trying to forcibly assimilate our customs so they can sever our connection to the land, which is at the heart of our governance system. They don’t want to deal with a strong leadership, selected by community members who live on the land that demands that the federal and Quebec governments implement the outstanding agreements regarding the exploitation of our lands and resources.” – Tony Wawatie, community spokesperson, Algonquins of Barriere Lake.

The struggle to maintain their traditional government is the latest chapter in the long resistance of the Algonquins of Barriere Lake (ABL) to colonialism.

The legitimacy of the Mitchikanibikok Anishnabe Onakinakewin or Customary Governance Code was affirmed by a federal court last year, but the federal government’s Department of Indian and Northern Affairs (INAC) has acted under a section of the controversial Indian Act to install its own leadership on Barriere Lake.

Norman Matchewan, spokesperson for the small First Nation community located 300 kilometres north of Ottawa in the province of Quebec, told the Leveller, “Section 74 [of the Indian Act] is erasing our identity. Our identity and our language have always been connected to our customs and our land.”

Under the INAC’s authority, a chief and four councillors (three of whom live outside the community) were acclaimed. Casey Ratt, the nominated chief, refused the position, saying that the imposed system of governance “will cause serious harm to the social fabric of our community.”

Undeterred by Ratt’s rejection, INAC maintained that “the remaining members of the Council still have the authority to govern.”

Nation-to-Nation: The Constitutional Context
The history of native-settler relations goes back to 1613, when the Two-Row Wampum Treaty was first signed. The treaty showed two parallel paths representing sovereign nations – originally Dutch colonists and the indigenous Haudenosaunee – separate but equal.

Following the English victory over the French in 1760, the Three Figure Wampum Belt Treaty, which stipulated native involvement in any questions related to the land, was signed by the French, English, and the Algonquin nations.

The Royal Proclamation of 1763 and the 1764 Treaty of Niagara together ensured Algonquin land could not be sold before being ceded to the Crown. Algonquin territory remains unceded.

Although the Quebec Act (1774) and British North America Act (1867) incorporated the Algonquins into both the province of Quebec and the Dominion of Canada, the early treaties were affirmed in Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution in 1982 and enshrined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

In May 2010, the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples issued a report affirming that First Nations have the right to maintain control over their internal affairs and be free to pursue their vision of customary government.

Towards the Trilateral Agreement
Despite the legal and constitutional powers recognized under historical agreements, the community’s territory and sovereignty have been systemically encroached upon by settlers and the state.

In the late 1980s the heart of their traditional territory, which had been incorporated into the La Vérendrye Wildlife Reserve, was designated for clear-cutting. CAAF (Contrat d’approvisionnement et d’aménatement forestier) agreements between the provincial government and lumber companies gave these companies the right to manage the forests.

Matchewan explained to the Leveller, “Logging companies started spraying pesticides in our territory, making the animals and the people sick. The community was able to slow them down by taking a strong stand and blocking the logging roads.”

Algonquin resistance, supplemented by international momentum surrounding sustainable development, political manoeuvres in Quebec, and fear emanating from the events at Oka, led in 1991 to a co-management plan between the ABL, Canada, and Quebec called the Trilateral Agreement.

The Trilateral Agreement covers governance over the land, wildlife, and resources of 10,000 square kilometres, almost a quarter of Algonquin traditional territory. It guarantees the ABL an authority over their territory that reflects their constitutional rights, and provides a means for the impoverished community to benefit from the sale of resources extracted from their land.

Praised by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and the United Nations as “trailblazing,” the agreement is seen as a landmark collaborative conservation strategy between natives and settlers, and an alternative to the inequitable Comprehensive Land Claims process, which effectively extinguishes Aboriginal title to the land.

Dishonouring the Agreement
Implementation of the Trilateral Agreement has, unfortunately, been plagued with difficulties, and the federal government backed out of it one month before the first phase was to be implemented in 2001. Quebec continues to prioritize the CAAF model in forest management, and Canada continues to interfere in the political leadership of the ABL.

INAC rescinded recognition of the ABL’s Customary Chief and Council in 1996, 2006, and 2008,  opting instead to either appoint or recognize a small faction within the community not selected in accordance with the customary system.

The federal government’s actions have encouraged the province to abandon its part of the co-management agreement. “Quebec is now using the leadership confusion created by the federal government’s interference in our internal affairs as an excuse not to implement the agreement and to let forestry companies have their way on our land,” said Matchewan.

The ABL have responded with direct action, notably blockades of Highway 117 in October and November 2008. They demanded that Canada and Quebec honour the signed agreements and respect their traditional territory. This prompted a violent response from the Quebec Provincial Police (SQ), who attacked the peaceful crowd, drawing criticism from international human rights groups. Over 40 members of the community were arrested and charged.

“The federal government says that they want to improve our living conditions and yet they do not want to honour the agreement they signed, the Trilateral Agreement, which gives us a say in what goes on in our territory and a share in the revenue that they are extracting. The Quebec government makes over $100 million per year off our territory and nothing goes back into the community,” Matchewan told the Leveller.

Fighting Section 74
The ABL continue to reject the imposition of Section 74 of the Indian Act.

On Dec. 13, the ABL took their grievances to Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

Marylynn Poucachiche, community spokesperson, announced, “Today we are here protesting and condemning the government [and demanding that it] take back the imposition of Section 74 on our community and join a fact-finding mission with AFN [Assembly of First Nations], Barriere Lake, and Indian Affairs.”

Chanting “Tyranny no more. Take back Section 74,” the demonstrators proceeded to the office of John Duncan, the INAC minister, presenting a resolution signed by the majority of the community rejecting Section 74.

Pei-Ju Wang, a member of the Indigenous Peoples Solidarity Movement in Ottawa (IPSMO), attended the rally. “It is important for people in the local community to be aware of the issues and the history surrounding this land. Supporters of the Algonquins of Barriere Lake have done important work helping to draw attention to an issue that may typically not get much media coverage.”

When asked about the best way to support the ABL, Wawatie said, “The best way that we can be supported is to continue pressing the Canadian government to respect the agreements that they have signed with our First Nation so that we can rebuild our community. Respect the agreements, respect the wishes of the youth, and start applying international law such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”

A Permanent Impasse
Now in 2011, the situation remains precarious and the future uncertain. The ABL has rejected Section 74 and demanded recognition and respect for their community leadership selection process and governing code, and has joined the Assembly of First Nations in calling on INAC to undertake a fact-finding mission.

The Canadian government says that Section 74 will remain in force until the community agrees to change its customary code.

“Unfortunately, the [ABL governance] code has fuelled that situation because different factions were able to use the code for their own good, for their own political objectives,” said Camil Simard, an INAC spokesperson. “Once there is progress made in the discussions and once the people are able to participate in the ratification of modifications to the code, the minister will be prepared to repeal Section 74.”

Wawatie said the ABL, like any community in Canada, have disagreements. “[But] we still agree that we want to preserve our traditional government and our way of life, how we choose our leaders.”

Meanwhile, the Section 74 controversy has distracted attention from the underlying issues surrounding signed agreements and the management of the territory.

“This secret collusion between Quebec, logging companies, and the Indian Act band council has exposed the real agenda of the Canadian government: to undemocratically impose a handful of collaborators on us so the province and industry can get away with the clear-cutting of our land,” said Wawatie in a press release.

“Now that they [the government] have recognized this puppet INAC Council, logging will continue,” Wawaite told the Leveller. “We’ve been known as a very peaceful First Nation, but we can only take so much.”

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