Tuesday, March 11, 2008

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 www.barrierelakesolidarity.blogspot.com, email barrierelakesolidarity@gmail.com, 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 barrierelakesolidarity@gmail.com