by Krishna Bera, Lori Waller, Greg Macdougall, with files from IPSMO
March 2010 – Peace and Environment News paper (Ottawa)
*note: a different version of this article was published on www.linchpin.ca

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On March 18th, an Ottawa resident along with a co-defendant from the Algonquin community of Barriere Lake will go to trial in a Maniwaki court on charges of obstruction of justice, mischief, and assaulting a police officer. On March 31st, three other local residents will be sentenced after pleading guilty to mischeif and obstruction of justice. Their crime? Bringing attention to the fact that the governments of Quebec and Canada have not honoured their word.

Both cases stem from a series of peaceful highway blockades mounted in late 2008 by the Mitchikanibikok Inik (Algonquins of Barriere Lake, or ABL), a small First Nation community located 130 km north of Maniwaki, Quebec. Solidarity activists from Ontario and Quebec joined the Mitchikanibikok Inik in two successive blockades of Highway 117, which were staged to protest the provincial and federal governments’ ongoing violation of an agreement signed with ABL over a decade ago.

As Norman Matchewan, youth spokesperson for the Mitchikanibikok Inik explained in an op-ed to the Montréal Gazette: “In 1991, Barriere Lake signed a historic trilateral agreement with Canada and Quebec to sustainably develop our traditional territories – a United Nations report called the plan an environmental ‘trailblazer.’  Yet in 1996, the federal government tried to hijack the agreement by replacing our legitimate chief and council with a minority faction who let the agreement fall aside.”

The colonial pattern continued. In thirteen years of hardship and struggle since the Trilateral Agreement was signed, it and several subsequent agreements had not been implemented, and the Algonquins had not seen a dime of the $100 million extracted from their traditional territory every year by logging, hydro, and sport hunting operations. They watched as their land was damaged, in violation of the Trilateral Agreement guidelines, by unsustainable extraction practices such as clearcutting. Further, in a throwback to the genocidal strategies of the residential schools era, the federal government-run school was not providing Algonquin language education.

So in October 2008, after months of public education, letter writing, and visits to MPs prompted no response from the government, the community took the difficult decision to blockade provincial Highway 117, demanding to speak to a government representative. The blockaders were attacked within hours by police. Norman Matchewan describes the assault: “To avoid negotiations, the government allowed Monday’s peaceful blockade to be dismantled by the Sûreté du Québec, which without provocation shot tear gas canisters into a crowd of youth and elders and used severe ‘pain compliance’ to remove people clipped into lockbox barrels.”

One person was hospitalized for three days after getting shot with a tear gas canister. An Ottawa student acting in solidarity with the community characterized the government’s behaviour as a sort of warning: “Don’t fuck with us or this is what we’ll do to you”.

Unfortunately, there was still no negotiation, so the ABL erected blockades again in November 2008. This time the police response seemed deliberately planned to not look violent; although community members felt threatened when the police approached with teargas cannon launchers, most officers did not have gas masks, and no gas was fired. Instead police carried out targeted arrests of community leaders, including chief Benjamin Nottaway. Arrestees were stip-searched and intimidated with what one activist called “bureaucratic violence”;  an Ottawa student activist spent 24 hours in jail before being released, and an ABL community spokesperson spent five days in custody because “they couldn’t find a translator”. In all, over 40 people from the community have been arrested and charged since March 2008 and a few including then-chief Nottaway have served sentences in prison.

The ABL have not given up, and have no intention of surrendering aboriginal title to their land.  They continue to live on the land and apply traditional management techniques where possible, preserving their language and culture, while pursuing court cases to ensure their leadership selection process is respected.

In August 2009, a 2007 private report to the federal minister of Indian Affairs was obtained under court order. The report lays out a wide-ranging set of schemes to undermine Barriere Lake First Nation’s Customary Chief and Council and ensure that the community’s Trilateral agreement never takes on life. Couched in the language of development and progress, it demonstrates what the community has known for a long time but which the Department of Indian Affairs has always publicly denied: the federal government has refused to implement the Trilateral Agreement because it fears it would throw into question their Comprehensive Claims process, which amounts to a modern-day land grab aimed at extinguishing aboriginal title to the land. (An analysis of the report is available on the Barriere Lake Solidarity website).

In October 2009, Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl sent notice to the Algonquins of Barriere Lake that he will not recognize their legitimate leadership, but instead impose elections on the community in April 2010, by invoking section 74 of the Indian Act that would abolish the customary method they use to select their leaders. In February 2010, the ABL presented arguments in the Supreme Court of Canada defending their latest leadership selection. A court decision on that case is expected in the next several weeks.

Meanwhile, local activists and Barriere Lake community members are preparing for trial and/or sentencing on the charges stemming from the 2008 blockades. Support is needed in the form of presence in the courtroom and donations toward legal costs; if you can attend court (on March 18 and 31) or would like to donate, please email ipsmo@riseup.net

You can read more about the Mitchikanibikok Inik and their struggle on the websites of the following groups, or by coming to one of the meetings or events in your area:

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Barriere Lake First Nation’s list of demands:

  1. That the Government of Canada agree to respect the outcome of a new leadership re-selection process, with outside observers, recognize the resulting Customary Chief and Council, and cease all interference in the internal governance of Barriere Lake.
  2. That the Government of Canada agree to the immediate incorporation of an Algonquin language and culture program into the primary school curriculum.
  3. That the Government of Canada honour signed agreements with Barriere Lake, including the Trilateral, the Memorandum of Mutual Intent, and the Special Provisions, all of which it has illegally terminated.
  4. That the Government of Canada revoke Third Party Management, which was imposed unjustly on Barriere Lake.
  5. That the Province of Quebec honour signed agreements with Barriere Lake, including the 1991 Trilateral and 1998 Bilateral agreements, and adopt for implementation the Lincoln-Ciaccia joint recommendations, including $1.5 million in resource-revenue sharing.
  6. That the Government of Canada and the Province of Quebec initiate a judicial inquiry into the Quebec Regional Office of the Department of Indian Affairs’ treatment of Barriere Lake and other First Nations who may request to be included.
  7. The Government of Quebec, in consultation with First Nations, conduct a review of the recommendations of the Ontario Ipperwash Commission for guidance towards improving Quebec-First Nation relations and improving the policing procedures of the SQ when policing First Nation communities.

Groups may sign on to endorse these demands: please email barrierelakesolidarity@gmail.com