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."