Friday, March 28, 2008

Order came from the top

B.C. chiefs enter fray at Barrière Lake

Quebec Indian Affairs office accused of meddling in First Nations

Jorge Barrera, The Ottawa Citizen

Published: Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A major British Columbia First Nations organization says Indian Affairs is backing one group over another in a bitter leadership dispute that has engulfed the northern Quebec First Nations community of Barrière Lake.

The Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs has called on Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl to rein in his department's Quebec office and quell the strife that has led to at least 10 arrests and several violent clashes this month in the Algonquin community of 650 people that sits about 300 kilometres north of Ottawa.

"I am urgently appealing for your immediate personal intervention to order cease and desist of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada's efforts to unseat the rightful customary leadership of (Barrière Lake)," said the March 20 letter, signed by Grand Chief Stewart Phillip. "It is certainly not the role of the department ... to arbitrarily decide the outcome of customary leadership selection processes, which the Quebec regional office ... has done in this case."

The letter also backs the leadership of ousted acting chief Benjamin Nottaway.

The letter did not sit well with Barrière Lake Chief Casey Ratt, who said Grand Chief Phillip should stay out of the affair.

"I don't think any chief has the right to come into a community and decide who is going to be chief or not," said Chief Ratt.

Indian Affairs "acknowledged" Chief Ratt's leadership in a March 10 letter that said the department would no longer deal with the previous leadership. The letter arrived after a chaotic week on the reserve that was triggered when the previous leadership tried to ban Chief Ratt, his father and two other men from the community.

Mr. Strahl's office referred queries to Pierre Nepton, Indian Affairs' associate regional director for Quebec. Mr. Nepton said the final decision to acknowledge Chief Ratt's leadership came from Ottawa. The department was simply following the wishes of the community, said Mr. Nepton.

The situation on the reserve remains tense.

The Sûreté du Québec said it has resumed normal policing duties on the reserve.

Chief Ratt's opponents continue to reach out for support. They have sent a messenger to one of three Longhouses in the Mohawk community of Kahnawake, which sits near Montreal.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Coup's Aftermath

Reserve in turmoil

Jorge Barrera writes that tradition and the future of the community are at the heart of leadership clashes in Barrière Lake, Que.


A young girl wearing ice skates glides along the ice-covered road that goes past a small house where Barrière Lake Chief Casey Ratt's mother lives.

The girl spins around and for a moment watches a crowd of about two dozen men, women and children gather in front of the house. Some are waving signs, others are pumping their fists in the air, shouting, "out, out, out."

Three young girls play on a road in the Barriere Lake reserve.

Three young girls play on a road in the Barriere Lake reserve.

Jorge Barrera, The Ottawa Citizen
Former acting chief Benjamin Nottaway, who was replaced by Chief Ratt, is in the middle of it, smiling as he stands with his hands in pockets. A 27-year-old with a thick torso and large hands who always seems impervious to the cold, Mr.Nottaway maintains that he is still in charge.

"We are sending them a message that they are not welcome here," says Mr. Nottaway.

A Sûreté du Québec police cruiser turns onto the road and slowly moves through the crowd of demonstrators. Some of the children and youths run alongside the car, flashing their signs - "the SQ is here to protect government puppets," and, "the SQ pepper-sprayed me" - at the driver's window.

The cruiser parks, two officers get out and walk over to the demonstrators. They urge them not to block the road. The officers, who speak English with French accents, are surrounded. Some in the crowd start taunting, "talk in English, we don't understand," and "you guys pepper-spray kids."

The officers hold on to their composure.

"We are not taking any sides," says one. "You have a right to manifest," he adds, using the French term for protest.

An Algonquin community of about 650 people living 300 kilometres north of Ottawa, on the shores of the Cabonga reservoir, Barrière Lake's 24 hectares were negotiated by a priest and the Quebec government in 1961.

The community, however, claims 17,000 square kilometres of traditional territory that includes part of La Vérendrye Wildlife Refuge and the headwaters of the Ottawa River. The forests here are thick with spruce, pine, white birch and balsam fir. The people, many who speak Algonquin as their first language, hunt moose, snare rabbits and fish for walleye in the waters of the reservoir.

Profits from forestry, hydro developments and tourism in the area range in the $100-million-a-year mark, but Barrière Lake receives none of it.

The Algonquin here are connected only to treaties signed in the 1700s with the British to shift their alliance from the French. In the 1980s, they began agitating for their land rights.

"Quebec regional planners treated them like they didn't exist," wrote NDP MP Charlie Angus in 2001.

The community launched a series of logging blockades and protests that in 1990 culminated with the shutdown of Highway 117 during the Oka crisis. The move brought the federal and Quebec governments to the table, where they signed a trilateral agreement in 1991 on the co-management and sustainable development of the area.

Several other agreements followed, including a $20-million deal to expand the land base, build houses and a school. But in 2001, Indian Affairs walked away from it all. The ministry says the money was never promised, the process was taking too long and, at $5 million, costing too much.

These agreements are at the root of Chief Ratt's problems with the former leadership, whom he believes devoted too much effort trying to revive them at the expanse of local infrastructure issues. Mr. Nottaway and his supporters counter that without taking control of their traditional territory, they would never be able to spur the local economic development needed to fund improvements on the reserve.

It was during the years between the signing and collapse of the agreements that dissension emerged in the community, eventually leading last week to a protest on a snow-covered road in front of Chief Ratt's mother's house.

The Sûreté du Québec arrested 10 people, all supporters of the previous leadership, as a result of the clashes. Kyle Nottaway, 14, was pepper-sprayed by the police during the confrontations.

This section of the road is a microcosm of the complexity and intimate nature of the bitter leadership feud.

On one side of the Ratt house lives Marylynn Pouchachiche, 30, whose husband Clyde Nottaway, Benjamin's brother, was arrested with three other men after they were caught chopping down trees to block the return of Chief Ratt and his supporters after they left on March 7 for safety reasons.

On the other side lives elder Harry Wawati, 73, a former chief and cornerstone of the leadership that was officially replaced on March 10 after Indian Affairs acknowledged Chief Ratt as the community's legitimate leader.

Across the street lives one of the Ratts' main supporters, Hector Jerome, 52. He moved in with his daughter after his house was repeatedly vandalized.

The demonstrators hurl invective at Jerome's and Ratt's houses in turn.

"They are fighting for the money, not our traditional ways" says Emmanuel Mathias, 23, pointing to the Ratt house.

Inside, Severe Ratt, 52, and his son, Chief Ratt, 35, pace near the window.

"Look at their supporters, it's a minority group," says Chief Ratt.

Severe Ratt is worried the leadership battle could cost his son's life. The conflict is also taking an emotional toll on the community, says his 29-year-old daughter, Christal.

"Some of my friends are the ones hitting my father," says Ms. Ratt, choking back tears. "They are your family, people who grew up together, played on hockey teams and broomball teams. It would be nice if the tension was gone."

Ms. Pouchachiche feels the same strain.

"I am so torn apart. My mother-in-law is in the hospital, my husband is in jail, my sister-in-law is in jail and she can't come back to the reserve until her court date and she has a baby that is a year-and-a-half," she said.

Hardship, strife and poverty have been a constant on this reserve. Allegations of sexual assault, spousal abuse and substance abuse are hurled time after time in interviews by community members on each side of the leadership divide, revealing just how prevalent social dysfunction is here.

The latest flareup was sparked after longtime chief Jean Maurice Matchewan was charged after police found marijuana plants and a loaded, registered .357 Magnum in his truck.

He stepped down in September and was replaced by Mr. Nottaway.

Chief Ratt and his supporters held their own traditional leadership process - blazing involves elders nominating members for approval or rejection by the community - which selected Chief Ratt and four councillors.

The clashes began when the previous leadership gave Chief Ratt, along with his father and Mr. Jerome, an ultimatum: stop lobbying Indian Affairs for official recognition or face banishment.

This is the third time a leadership crisis has enveloped the community and the second time Indian Affairs has recognized a group opposing the leadership of Mr. Matchewan and his councillors, who follow hereditary succession.

In a 2007 report, Quebec Judge Rejean Paul mediated a similar dispute in favour of Mr. Matchewan and his council. He compared the dissenters to a "guerrilla movement."

Algonquin Nation Secretariat Grand Chief Norm Young says he has "lost sleep" over the conflict and blames Indian Affairs for stirring up the situation. He says it wants the former leadership out because of the trilateral agreement.

"They want out of the agreement and the government is playing politics in the community and I don't accept that."

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A quiet "coup d'état"

Riot police ensure calm at Barrière Lake

Chief Casey Ratt returns to reserve

Jorge Barrera, The Ottawa Citizen
Published: Wednesday, March 12, 2008

BARRIERE LAKE, Que. - An uneasy calm descended on the Barrière Lake reserve yesterday as Sûreté du Québec officers equipped with riot gear ensured that the return of the Algonquin community's new chief did not spark another round of violent clashes.

Police controlled the flow of traffic into the community, letting in cars four at a time while a group of about two dozen men, women and children loyal to the previous leadership held signs supporting him and heckled supporters of Chief Casey Ratt.

"We are trying to show the people that we don't agree with Indian Affairs choosing who is in control" said Margaret Wawati, 54, who was demonstrating against Chief Ratt. "The majority of the people here are not in favour of (Ratt)."

The leadership crisis began last September, when former chief Jean Maurice Matchewan stepped down after being charged with gun- and drug-related offences. He remained on council, and Benjamin Nottaway was named acting chief.

Chief Ratt said the change was made without consultation and his supporters held their own selection process, which ended in January.

However, the Algonquin Nation Secretariat, a tribal council that counts Barrière Lake as a member, recognized Mr. Nottaway as the legitimate chief on Feb. 22.

A dispute erupted in violent clashes last week between community members after Chief Ratt was given an ultimatum to either stop lobbying for recognition as chief or face permanent banishment from the community, which is 300 kilometres north of Ottawa. Indian Affairs legitimized Chief Ratt's leadership in a letter issued Monday that said the department would now only deal with his council.

Chief Ratt and his supporters returned to Barrière Lake yesterday amid threats they would be met with barricades.

The Sûreté cleared away several logs yesterday morning that had been placed across the seven-kilometre road leading to the reserve, which sits off Highway 117. They set up a checkpoint near the highway and another at the edge of the community. Officers in riot gear sat in their cruisers.

Much of the anger among Chief Ratt's opponents was directed at Indian Affairs, which they accused of helping orchestrate "a coup d'état."

"We are going to keep on fighting the government for the decision they made," said Mr. Matchewan, the former chief.




The Algonquins of Barriere Lake are a First Nation who hunt, fish, trap, and harvest on more than 10,000 square kilometers of territory north of Ottawa in what is now called Quebec. They are among the First Nations in Canada who still speak their traditional language fluently and is proud of their Algonquin language, their culture, and their protection of the land.

The Algonquins of Barriere Lake, like many indigenous people world-over, have been long been embroiled in struggles with their colonizers (the Canadian and Quebec Governments). Since 1991 much of their disputes have hinged on a Trilateral Agreement, which both the Federal and Provincial governments have signed, but have failed to honor. 


In short, the Algonquins of Barriere Lake are struggling to survive, and preserve their customs and way of life. This involves defending the land on which they live. Since 1991, they have been trying to get the Federal and Provincial Governments to honour the Trilateral Agreement (See below for more detail).

From an outside perspective, it can seem like a very complicated struggle. The struggle has taken many twists and turns, as the ABL have had to respond to a wide array of tactics used by the Canadian Government to try to weaken them. The ABL have written letters, blockaded the highway that runs through their land, fought for their rights in court, marched in Toronto and Ottawa, participated in days of action, and so on. The details of many of these actions can be learned about on this website, as they've been documented and archived.

Currently, the ABL are working to protect their land from the development of a copper mine. The mining claim covers over 300 square kilometers, including a large part of the La Vérendrye wildlife reserve, and the headwaters of the Ottawa river. It would have a devastating impact on the community and on others downstream.


The Trilateral Agreement is a contract between the Federal Government (Canada), the Provincial Government (Quebec) and the ABL that deals with land use of 10 000 km2 of land traditionally inhabited and used by the ABL. It is an alternative to Canada’s preferred negotiation policy, called the "Comprehensive Land Claims." This negotiating process forces First Nations to extinguish their Aboriginal rights and title upon settlement, to give up communal land rights for private property ownership, and to shoulder expensive legal and land use mapping costs that eventually get docked from meager settlements.

The ABL rejected this Comprehensive land claims approach, and chose instead to sign a conservation plan called the Trilateral Agreement. In summary, the Trilateral agreement would see the ABL included in decision making about the land, and gain a financial return from any resource extraction or commerce on their land (logging, hydro-electric, tourism). It would see traditional Algonquin knowledge of the land integrated into how the territory might be used and conserved.

Both the provincial and federal governments have dragged their heels in implementing this agreement, going so far as to deny its legitimacy as a contract and orchestrating coups of the customary government in the ABL community, sowing internal foment. Instead, Canada has hired expensive consultants to help strategize on how to break their own commitments. Proof of this has been made clear by a report penned by one of these diplomats, Marc Perron, in Dec 2007, in which he outlined strategies to disrupt the community and take them off course from pursuing the Trilateral Agreement. The imposition of Section 74 is but another tactic to try to divide and weaken this community that has shown such strength in its struggle to defend the land.


BLS is a network of people from outside of Barriere Lake who are working with the community to support their struggle.


Please note that few resources have been added since 2009. For more recent content, please consult the posts on this website.


Honour Your Word (2013, 59 mins)
Blockade on the 117 (2008, 14 mins)
Barriere Lake: Blockade Round II (2008, 7 mins)
Blockade! Algonquins Defend the Forest (1990, 27 mins)
Film: Algonquins of Barriere Lake (2008, 41 mins)


Taking the Road Back: From Wampum Belt Promises to Highway Blockades (CITIZENShift, 8 January 2009)
Arthur Manuel - Canada: A Pariah State (McGill campus, 3 November 2008)


Perron Report, 2007: Top Diplomat's report to Minister laid out strategy for government subversion of Algonquin community
Letter from Acting Chief Benjamin Nottaway to Premier Charest
Laurier Riel Report, part I - Riel witnessed the alleged leadership selection, whose result was recognized by Indian Affairs on March 10, 2008
Christian Peacemakers' Report on Barriere Lake
Laurier Riel Report, part II
1991 Trilateral Agreement document
Memorandum of Mutual Intent - Global Proposal to rebuild Community, with Special Provisions attached
Trilateral Agreement - Powerpoint presentation
Discussion of the Trilateral Agreement in the 1996 Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP)
Bilateral Agreement - Quebec government and Algonquins of Barriere Lake
Bilateral Agreement - 2006 Lincoln-Ciaccia recommendations
2007 leadership report by Quebec Superior Court Rhejean Paul
Factum from court case challenging Federal government's imposition of Third Party Management and breach of previous agreements with Barriere Lake
Legal challenge of Federal Government's deposition of Barriere Lake's Customary Chief and Council
Assembly of First Nations briefing note - January 2008
Barriere Lake community newsletter - Update February 18th, 2008
Barriere Lake community newsletter - Update March 20th, 2008
Barriere Lake community newsletter - Update April 20, 2008
Sierra Club Canadian Forestry Report Card, the province of Quebec
Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996)
History of Man-Made Impacts on Barriere Lake Community, Fish and Wildlife
Assembly of First Nations Quebec and Labrador: Police Inquiry Resolution (1989)
Dominion: Coup d'etat in Indian Country (April 10, 2008)
Article from 1990s regarding Barriere Lake. Writen by Charlie Angus, published in Forestry Life: Canada's Quarterly Forestry Magazine
A Coup in Context

Selected Press Coverage

Starve or submit: How one First Nation remains in servitude to a private accounting firm (Ricochet, April 7th, 2016)
First Nation says outside manager’s pay prevents spending on crucial issues (Globe and Mail, March 2017)  Aboriginal Affairs Cuts off Funds to Barriere Lake Algonquin Families (The Leveller, January 28th, 2015)
Lutte prolongée à Lac Barrière (Journal Ensemble: Oct 2, 2013) First Nations pay Jean Charest a visit (OTL Blog: Jan. 12, 2009)
Green leader takes up land rights case of Que. First Nation (Canwest News Service: Jan 7th, 2009)
Blockade leader says he's a 'political prisoner' (Globe and Mail: Dec 15th, 2008)
Last Resort: Natives stand up (The Real News Network: Dec 16th, 2008)
Algonquin Chief Denied Bail in Canada (Pacifica Radio: Nov 21st, 2008)
Des barricades sur la 117 (La Presse: Nov 20, 2008)
Road blocked:
Four arrested at highway blockade by Barriere Lake Algonquins (The Montreal Gazette: Nov 19, 2008)

News report from Nov 19th blockade of highway 117 (Aboriginal People's Television Network: Nov 19th, 2008)
Radio interviews from the November 19th, 2008 blockade of highway 117 (CKDU News Collective: Nov 19th, 2008)
Full radio report on the November 19th blockade of highway 117 (CKDU News Collective)
Les autochtones craignent pour leur identité culturelle et leur gouvernance (La Presse Canadienne: Nov 19th, 2008

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

DIA deposes customary council, again

Rivals promise to bar new chief at Barrière Lake

Indian Affairs Recognizes New Leader, Council Members

Jorge Barrera, The Ottawa Citizen

Published: Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Indian Affairs Yesterday Recognized a New Chief and Council as the Legitimate Leadership of a Troubled Algonquin Band, Triggering Warnings of More Strife on Quebec's Barrière Lake Reserve.

The long-running internal conflict at Barrière Lake exploded last week with clashes and arrests, and the band's previous leadership vowed it would never accept the department's decision.

Barrière Lake reserve, about 300 kilometres north of Ottawa, remains on edge with supporters of the previous leadership planning to block today's scheduled return of new Chief Casey Ratt and his councillors. Chief Ratt and his supporters left the community for the weekend after a series of clashes last week forced the Sûreté du Québec to intervene in large numbers and arrest six people on both sides.

Chief Ratt said he and his supporters planned to re-enter Barrière Lake today at about 2 p.m. He said the leadership struggle had split families and friends, but he hoped Indian Affairs' recognition would help everyone move on.

"Hopefully, this does not get out of hand. I am trying to look at both sides and I don't want anyone arrested or hurt," he said. "We don't know what their attitude will be towards us. I know it will not be with open arms."

In a letter faxed to Chief Ratt yesterday, André Côté, Indian Affairs' Quebec regional director general, acknowledged Chief Ratt as the new chief and urged him mend frayed relations.

"The department is fully cognizant of the difficult situation and the internal conflicts afflicting the community," Mr. Côté wrote.

Former acting chief Benjamin Nottaway said Chief Ratt would not be allowed back into Barrière Lake.

"The plan is not to let them through," he said. "The majority are ticked off. They don't like (Indian Affairs') decision at all."

Mr. Nottaway also sent a letter to Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl, warning him to "act carefully" and "reconsider" the decision to recognize Chief Ratt and his councillors. The letter also called for a judicial inquiry into the actions of Indian Affairs' Quebec office.

Four men were arrested by the Sûreté du Québec yesterday after they were caught cutting trees in preparation for a barricade near the entrance to the community.

Sgt. Gilles Mitchell said the police were also still investigating what charges could be laid against those arrested last week.

The crisis began last September, when former chief Jean Maurice Matchewan stepped down after being charged with gun- and drug-related offences. He remained on council, and Mr. Nottaway was named acting chief.

Chief Ratt said the change was made without consultation and his supporters held their own selection process, which ended in January.

The Algonquin Nation Secretariat, a tribal council that counts Barrière Lake as a member, recognized Mr. Nottaway as the legitimate chief on Feb. 22.

Public Assembly & Organizing Meeting

Call out for Solidarity with the Algonquin of Barriere Lake!
Public Assembly & Organizing Meeting

When? Tuesday, March 18th, 2007, 6pm – 8pm
Where? Native Friendship Center Montreal 2001 St. Laurent, corner of Ontario, Metro St. Laurent
Free dinner & childcare provided on site
Wheelchair accessible

Members of the Algonquin community of Barriere Lake will speak out about the federal and provincial government’s refusal to honour several resource co-management and forestry agreements, intended to protect traditional Algonquin practices and improve the community’s dire economic situation. Instead of fulfilling their obligations, the Department of Indian Affairs has been playing divide and rule in Barriere Lake, wreaking havoc in the community by undermining the traditional community leadership. Just this week, the Department of Indian Affairs once again ousted the traditional customary council, and illegally appointed an interim band council comprised of a minority community faction favourable to the Department. In Indian Country, it’s business as usual for the Department of Indian Affairs!

This public assembly is intended to encourage groups and individuals to participate in a campaign of public education and solidarity work, to pressure the government to stop meddling in the internal affairs of the community, and to follow through with previously signed agreements.

For more information, check out, email, or call 514-398-7432. For childcare call a few days in advance.


Barriere Lake lies five hours north of Montreal, in the centre of La Verendrye provincial park. Like other Algonquin communities, they never surrendered or ceded the title to their traditional territories, though this wasn't even an afterthought for the governments and logging companies that displaced and dispossessed them in the 19th and early 20th century. Today, they're squeezed onto a 59-acre reserve, too small to build new housing desperately needed for a growing population. Their community lacks essential infrastructure – a high school and community centre – and is powered only by a single diesel generator, which fails from time to time. Meanwhile, their traditional territory generates enormous wealth for the regional economy, through forestry, tourism, and hydro development – around 100 million dollars a year. The Algonquin don’t receive a cent.

For years, community members worried about the danger that logging and recreational hunting posed to the continuation of hunting and trapping on their traditional territory. Dozens of logging companies were pulverizing the forests, herbicides were being sprayed over their land, and animals were being over-hunted or were disappearing.

A long struggle

In the 1980’s, they began petitioning the government to reach a fair agreement reconciling their needs with the region's private interests. But appeals got them nowhere. The provincial government would point out that the federal government had jurisdiction over native peoples, while jurisdiction over natural resources was theirs. Despite the fact that the Algonquin had lived on the land for generations, with no settlers around, they were to have absolutely no say in determining the impact of hydro or logging on their land.

Forced to up the ante, Barriere Lake staged a series of blockades to stop the logging. The federal and provincial government reluctantly sat down to talk. During negotiations, Barriere Lake kept in mind the recommendations of the 1987 UN-sponsored Brundtlardt Commission, which had popularized sustainable development – the idea that it was morally criminal to compromise the lives of future generations for the sake of rampant economic development in the present. The Commission's recommendations had been endorsed by the federal and provincial governments, and Barriere Lake made them eat their words. They were shamed into signing a deal. The Trilateral Agreement was the result. Widely lauded as a groundbreaking model for sustainable development and government-native relations, it was in sync with Barrier Lake’s long-standing vision for managing their territory and didn’t compromise their rights or extinguish their Aboriginal title.

The agreement was supposed to ensure the continuation of the Algonquin way of life, give Barrier Lake a say in resource management decisions on their territory, and promote sustainable development through an Integrated Resource Management Plan covering 10,000 square kilometers of Barriere Lake’s territory – allowing logging to continue so long as it was harmonized with Algonquin uses of the land. The plan was to be implemented in one section of their territory, and would then expand to the others.

But the federal and provincial government have resisted complying with the agreement from the get-go. In 1993, after the government failed to follow through with the funding arrangements, a Quebec Superior Court Judge, Rhejean Paul, was brought in to mediate. “It is David and not Goliath who is attempting to sustain the agreement,” he wrote in his report, pointing his finger at the government. “For this agreement to function, funding is essential. If one wants it to die, one only has to shut the funding tap.”

The Government Agenda

By 1993, the federal and provincial government restarted the funding for the Trilateral agreement. But the Department of Indian Affairs (DIA) soon reverted to form, turning to a familiar colonial tactic – divide and rule. A minority faction in the community was emerging, more eager to get jobs and a piece of the logging action then they were about reconciling logging with traditional Algonquin uses of the land. The desperate socio-economic conditions only sharpened divisions in the community.

The faction, with support from off-reserve status members with little connection to the community, petitioned the DIA to be recognized as the official leadership, working with a legal firm that demanded the Traditional Customary Council hand over documents concerning the Trilateral Agreement. Later, it turned out the law firm also happened to represent Domtar, the logging company that would lose out if the Trilateral Agreeement were implemented. In 1996, DIA made their move: they ousted the traditional chief Jean Maurice Matchewan and his council, and appointed in their place an Interim Band Council made up of the minority faction. Naturally enough, DIA describes their actions differently: on the DIA website, they say they “act[ed] upon the choice of the community.”

But the community wasn’t about to be bullied at the whim of a bunch of Indian Affairs bureaucrats. A majority of community members refused to let the DIA-supported band council into the community, blockading the road. In response, the DIA cut off all funding transfers for programs, services and social assistance, throwing the community into shock. It was the middle of the winter, but the community even turned away trucks carrying diesel for their generators. They lived in these drastic circumstances – without power, heat, water, or medical services – for more than a year.

Michael Gratton, a former provincial Liberal cabinet minister, denounced the government actions in a Montreal Gazette op-ed. “This unilateral decision to replace the Chief and council,” he wrote at the time, “is the imposition and diktat of raw power by the department against a small community without the resources or ability to defend itself.”

Again forced to take drastic measures, and at great risk, the community blockaded logging to pressure the government. It hit government and industry in the only place where it seems to count: the pocketbook. By 1997, local paper mills were threatened with shutdown. The federal government was realizing that their interim band council lacked legitimacy, so they reconsidered their decision to depose the traditional council. Another round of Judge Rhejean Paul’s mediation started. He concluded that the DIA’s appointment of the minority faction was indeed illegal according to DIA’s own rules. The traditional council was reinstated, with Jean Maurice Matchewan being replaced by elder Harry Wawatie as part of the deal.

Judge Rhejean Paul worked with the community to codify its traditional governance system into a Governance Code. The traditional governance system – part of Algonquin customary law, Mitchikanibikok Anishinabe Onakinakewin – includes a process called “trailblazing,” whereby traditional elders nominate an eligible candidate for Chief, who is then confirmed by consensus by community members. The Governance Code, coming at the cost of intense misery for the community, was a bittersweet achievement. It should at least have prevented future government meddling in the community. Unfortunately, there are some old habits the Department of Indian Affairs has troubling kicking.

For the time being, the federal government reaffirmed their commitment to the Trilateral Agreement by signing a Memorandum of Mutual Intent (MMI), agreeing to keep funding the development of the Integrated Resource Management Plan. The MMI committed the federal government to work in good faith on urgent issues like housing and infrastructure, and obliged them to restore to Barriere Lake the federal transfers and monies they had lost while DIA refused to recognize the traditional customary council – close to $2.4 million.

Colonial deja-vu

In 1998, Barriere Lake also signed a Bilateral Agreement with Quebec, providing a framework for the province to negotiate its side of the Trilateral Agreement. This would potentially include the expansion of the reserve, connecting it to the hydro grid, and providing for co-management and revenue-sharing of natural resources – all changes that might dramatically improve the deplorable social and economic conditions in the community.

But in 2001, just a month after the community approved the Integrated Resource Management Plan for the first section of traditional territory, the Indian Affair’s Minister Robert Nault walked away from the table. He claimed the Trilateral agreement had cost too much and had taken too much time to finish. This decision was made despite the fact that previous Indian Affairs ministers had pledged support until the completion of the Trilateral Agreement. Nor did his decision take into account the year and half the DIA spent trying to starve Barriere Lake into submission, during which time the Trilateral process ground to a halt. But Nault patronizingly brushed off Barriere Lake's arguments. The community has been trying to get the federal government back to the table ever since, while completing the Integrated Resource Management Plan for forestry and wildlife on their own (being forced to spend money from their Housing and Capital funds) and with the province’s help.

Logging was again suspended for a year after the federal government dismissed the agreement. This time, the province came back to negotiations when Domtar threatened to close its Mill in Grand Remous, which employs hundreds of people. Since then, Quebec’s negotiator John Ciaccia and Barriere Lake’s negotiator Clifford Lincoln, an ex-Quebec cabinet minister and federal Liberal MP, have made good progress. By July 2006, they had come to terms on a series of recommendations, on the basis of the 1991 Trilateral Agreement and the 1998 Bilateral agreement. They included: implementing the management plans for forestry and wildlife, calling for the participation of the Algonquin in the management of renewable resources, $1.5 million a year in revenue sharing and access to resources, an expansion of the reserve land base to create room for new housing, and hooking up the community to the Hydro-Grid. But without a federal commitment to the Trilateral agreement, and coordination with the province to resolve the tangle of separate jurisdictions and obligations, any deal will die in the cradle.

In summer of 2006, Jean Maurice Matchewan was re-elected as chief of the Customary Council. Despite the fact that the community had followed the Governance Code codified in 1997, DIA reverted to old tricks: they simply refused to recognize him. Community members were fearful they’d have to relive the disastrous mid 1990’s, with the government entertaining the idea of appointing members of the minority faction as leaders. The faction did in fact organize fraudulent elections in 2006, and after declaring themselves the new band council sought recognition from the DIA.

In May of 2007, Quebec Judge Rejean Paul made his third formal intervention. In his report to the government, he confirmed that the selection of the traditional leadership had followed the recognized Governance Code and that the off-reserve “guerrillas” had no rights to leadership. 10 months after Matchewan’s election, he was finally recognized by the DIA. But around the time of his initial election, the community was also placed under Third Party Management (TPM), whereby external, non-native private consultants make funding decisions for the community. TPM was legislated by the Chrétien government, but it’s something out of the nineteenth century, smacking of paternalism and direct colonial management.

In the end, the fact that the traditional council was finally recognized by DIA was rendered meaningless – the imposition of the Third Party Manager has left the community and its leadership without any say in how programs and services funding or hiring decisions are made. And the Third Party Manager has mainly hired people from the minority faction, making it obvious he’s taking direction from the DIA. And worse, the $2.4 million that should have been restored for the 1996-97 gap in federal transfers was slipped out of Barriere Lake's Compulsory Agreement, the funding arrangement which is re-negotiated every year by the Department of Indian Affairs and native band councils across the country. The $2.4 million had been updated yearly, but in the 2007-08 Contribution Agreement, signed by TPM and the Department of Indian Affairs, the number had simply disappeared.

Barriere Lake has since challenged the government’s decision to switch them from financial co-management to TPM in federal court. According to their special representative Clifford Lincoln, the community had third party management imposed on them unfairly. DIA gave them no time to select another financial co-manager, which is standard procedure. And while the community’s deficit status was DIA’s justification for putting the community in TPM, it’s pretty obvious that if the federal government ponied up the $2.4 million they owe, Barriere Lake’s financial accounts could probably be settled.

The Trilateral vs. Comprehensive Claims

Why exactly has this small Algonquin community gotten the Department of Indian Affairs is such anxious knots? It might be that Barriere Lake won’t play by their rules – and there are few Canadian institutions more resistant to change than the DIA. Barriere Lake has to date refused to enter the federal government’s Comprehensive Claims process, which is meant to deal with native communities who have never surrendered or ceded title to their traditional territories. Whatever the name might indicate, Comprehensive Claims have little do with justice or respect for indigenous self-determination.

Supreme Court Cases in the 1970’s forced the Canadian government to change its policy of arbitrarily taking native people’s lands without first making formal treaties, something Canada stopped doing in the 1920’s. But Comprehensive Claims represent little improvement on the former practice: they amount to the negotiated and legalized dispossession of native lands and rights, irrevocably sealing an unequal political relationship. “First Nations” who still have title are required to give up inherent rights to their territory in exchange for limited rights to small parcels of land, money, and some other benefits. The process doesn't recognize their right to ownership of their land or even to subsurface rights, and jurisdiction over how their land and resources are managed gives way to conflicting provincial and federal jurisdiction. And that’s only the short of it.

Absurdly, the onus is on the community to demonstrate the validity of its “claim” to their land, even when they have lived there for thousands of years. With little financial means, they're forced to take out federal loans to begin an onerous research and litigation process. And if a community enters the process and begins negotiations, which can last more than a decade, resource exploitation continues unabated, and is even encouraged by the government. Seemingly benign but with a menacing bite, the Comprehensive Claims are colonialism Canadian-style!

In Quebec, the government has already managed to sign a Comprehensive Land Claim with the James Bay Cree, and the Innu and the Attikamekw are on their way. But Barriere Lake has wanted nothing to do with Comprehensive Claims. They have played a strong role in urging other Algonquin communities to think twice about them. This may be the source of DIA’s fear and consternation. In their view, the Trilateral agreement likely recognizes – or at very least, doesn’t nullify – a far greater degree of aboriginal rights and interests than is allowed for by the Comprehensive Claims. Barriere Lake could set a very bad example indeed! In fact, native communities and organizations across the country and internationally have sought out Barriere Lake, seeing Barriere Lake’s Integrated Resource Management Plan as a potential model for them.

All this makes it easier to understand the DIA’s determination to change the customary council system to an elective system, and appoint the minority faction as leaders: it would give them a golden opportunity to cut a deal for programs and services and finally scrap the Trilateral agreement. Or, they’ll simply stall. As Barriere Lake’s misery increases and their patience wears thin, they may very well have to give up on the Trilateral Agreement. Their own entry into the Comprehensive Claims process will then be inevitable.

Still waiting for some justice

On June 28, 2007, the day before the National Aboriginal Day of Action called by the Assembly of First Nations, Barriere Lake hauled out their tents and headed for Parliament Hill. The Hill, that august repository of peace, order, and good governance, happens to sit on un-ceded Algonquin territory, and over the last twenty years has been the site of fairly regular excursions by the community. Rather than deal with Barriere Lake's overnight camp-out – the Department of Indian Affairs knows a potentially embarrassing situation when they see one – the DIA quickly promised to send a special representative to deal with outstanding issues. With some skepticism, the community agreed to suspend the court case challenging third-party management and move to negotiations with the DIA in October 2007, and then to alternative dispute resolution. But it quickly turned out the appointed special representative had a very fuzzy mandate, and would not discuss the Trilateral Agreement.

Meanwhile, frustration had been building since the third party manager took over running the community’s affairs. The mishandling of the school was the last straw. Apparently, the third party manager had spent most of the education budget to hire 33 teachers – when only 70 students attend the school! Apparently, some of the teachers didn’t let the kids speak Algonquin. At the end of November, parents in the community finally closed the school down. They later re-opened it and ran it on a voluntary basis, with classes were conducted in Algonquin. But the federal funding of the school was cut-off when they closed it down. Whereas the kids got fed breakfast and lunch before, now they went hungry. A tentative agreement to restart the school still hasn’t been signed, and when it is, community members are demanding that the Algonquin language and culture is incorporated into the curriculum, with input from their Education Council, which the provincial curriculum doesn’t allow.

It’s been a year and a half since the Ciaccia-Lincoln Joint Recommendations were sent to the Quebec government, and Barriere Lake is still waiting for an official response. Rumours are the Quebec government agrees with six of the seven recommendations – but refuses to revenue sharing $1.5 million, a miserly sum compared to the many millions taken from Barriere Lake's traditional territory. For Barriere Lake, the amount was already a big compromise, and they won’t accept anything less. In October 2007, the Traditional Council sent a message to the logging companies operating in the Trilateral Agreement Territory, informing them that no new forestry operations will be allowed to start unless the community receives a satisfactory response from the Quebec government.

The federal court case over third-party management is resuming in March, 2008, but the provincial and federal side of all the previous agreements remain outstanding. And as if the situation couldn’t be worse, on March 10, 2008, the Regional Director of Indian Affairs decided to oust the Customary Council and recognize the minority faction as the Interim Band Council. The community is once again preparing for the worst.

For more information, email

Peuple Invisible

McGill University (Montreal)
Wednesday March 12, 2008
Screening begins 19h30
Venue: Arts 145
853 Sherbrooke Street West
(McGill metro)

Canada/2007/91 min

Once so vast, the land of the Quebec Algonquin has shrunk dramatically. This hard-hitting documentary provides a sympathetic glimpse of a nation of 9,000 people who suffer in silence as the rest of us look the other way.

Research, Script & Direction
Richard Desjardins
Robert Monderie

Cinema politica

official site

The Algonquin of Barriere Lake

Canada/2008/41 min

directed by Peter Vicaire & others

Details the struggle of Barriere Lake to hold the provincial and federal
governments to a 1991 resource co-management agreement, widely
lauded as a model for protecting indigenous land uses. But the federal
government has done everything in their power to scuttle the agreement.