October 12, 2008
The Barrière Lake Algonquins’ decision to peacefully blockade Highway 117 was not easily made. We have always preferred co-operation to confrontation. We do not wish to disrupt the lives of Canadians. Unfortunately, it seems their governments otherwise ignore or dismiss us – or worse, treat us with contempt.
During a protest at federal Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon’s campaign launch last month, his assistant insinuated that I was an alcoholic. After the ensuing media scandal forced Cannon to hold a meeting we had been requesting for two years, he vilified our community’s majority as “dissidents” in an op-ed in regional newspapers.
The government has now tried to add “criminals” to the charge. To avoid negotiations, the government had Monday’s peaceful blockade 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” techniques to remove people clipped into lockbox barrels.
But Canada and Quebec have never been overly concerned with the rule of law in their dealings with Barrière Lake. Our relationship has been defined by breached agreements and illegal interference in our internal affairs.
In 1991, Barrière Lake signed a historic Trilateral agreement with Canada and Quebec to benefit from the resource extraction on our land and 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 Customary Chief and Council with a minority faction who let the agreement fall aside.
We are one of the few First Nations in the country who have always ruled ourselves according to custom, outside the electoral provisions of the Indian Act: elders nominate eligible leaders who are then approved, by consensus if possible, in assemblies. Participation is open only to those who live in the community, speak our language, and have knowledge of and connection to the land. But in 1996, the Department of Indian Affairs encouraged this faction, located mainly off-reserve, to collect signatures for a petition; Indian Affairs then imposed this group on us, claiming our leadership customs had “evolved into selection by petition.”
It was a patent lie. Former provincial Liberal cabinet minister Michel Gratton issued a devastating rebuke to the government: “This unilateral and sudden decision to dismiss and replace the existing chief and council,” he wrote in the Montreal Gazette, “goes against the grain of every democratic principle.”
We suffered grievously for a year and a half. Although we barred the minority group from our community, they colluded with the government from Maniwaki, 150 km to the south. On the reserve, we were deprived of federal transfers for employment, education, social assistance and electricity. We lived in the dark, educated our children as we could, and barely subsisted off bush food.
A resolution was finally achieved in 1997 by Quebec Superior Court Judge Réjean Paul and two federal facilitators, who restored our legitimate Chief and Council and renewed the Trilateral agreement. To prevent future interference, they helped codify our leadership customs into a Customary Governance Code that the government promised to respect. This is our aboriginal right protected by the Canadian Constitution – the highest law in the land.
Even this proved a paltry deterrent to further meddling. In 2001, the federal government pulled out of the Trilateral agreement, the implementation of which was meant to lift us out of our impoverishment – 90 per cent unemployment, as many as 18 people to a home, in a 59-acre reserve powered by a diesel generator.
This ensured that internal divisions continued to fester, and the government was soon favouring certain community members opposed to our legitimate leadership. The Department of Indian Affairs has little sympathy for leaders unwilling to forget the government’s outstanding debts. Judge Paul mediated again in 2007, concluding that the opposition to our chief and council remained “a small minority” whose leadership challenge “did not respect the Customary Governance Code.”
But when this same minority group conducted another illegitimate leadership selection in January 2008, the federal government quickly recognized them. In court, we forced the government to release an observer’s report they relied on: not surprisingly, the report stated there was no “guarantee” that the Customary Governance Code was respected during this selection.
Yet again, the government is throwing democratic principles to the wind by ignoring our customs and the wishes of our people. And Cannon has the audacity to call the overwhelming majority of our community members “dissidents”!
This time, the Department of Indian Affairs has played coy: they claim they innocently made an administrative “acknowledgment” when they recognized and started doing business with the minority faction. Reconsidering this decision would amount to an unacceptable “intervention” in our internal affairs. The leadership problems are our own. This ludicrous line of defence was accepted in August by a Prothonotary, who dismissed our Elder’s Council’s legal challenge of the leadership change (the decision is being appealed in Federal Court).
Indian Affairs even hinted that the ideal solution to our leadership dispute, one largely of the government’s making, would be to sweep away our constitutional rights to traditional governance and impose on us an electoral system. As Karl Kraus might have said, Indian Affairs is the illness for which it regards itself as the cure.
To resolve this crisis, we are prepared to participate in a new leadership selection according to our Customary Governance Code. We ask only that the federal government appoint an observer and promise to abide by the result, and that they and the province honour our agreements.
We set up the blockades last Monday morning as a last resort, to inspire in the government a changed attitude. Our good faith and patience and reasonable demands have so far been rewarded by broken promises, deceit, and deplorable interventions.
Is this all we can expect?