Coup d'état in Indian Country
>by Martin Lukacs
April 8, 2008
Marylynn Pouchachie thought the video camera her mother-in-law purchased with residential school compensation money was the perfect gift for building the family album.
But when a massive Quebec police force pepper-sprayed and billy clubbed their way through her small Algonquin community, enforcing the federal government's March 10 decision to oust the traditional Chief and Council and appoint a small faction as the leadership, she took on the new documentary subject with bitter irony.
"It's just another one of the government tactics we've had to face," said Pouchachie, while showing me film of the arrests of ten people, including her husband, for protesting the new Department of Indian Affairs-recognized Chief's return to Barriere Lake, a community of 450 three hours north of Ottawa.
The regime change has left the reservation in a political crisis, amid allegations that the government is trying to scuttle an unfulfilled co-management agreement Barriere Lake signed with Canada and Quebec nearly twenty years.
Pierre Nepton, the Associate Director of the Regional Office of Indian Affairs, stressed that he merely acknowledges the identity of Barriere Lake’s leadership, which under Indian Act provisions is selected by customary laws rather than elections. Barriere Lake had an existing Chief and Council, but in January a small faction organized a separate leadership selection process and then sought recognition from the government.
“We were satisfied by their leadership process, and we recognized the council,” said Nepton. “I want to emphasize that the decision was made by the community.”
But ousted Customary Chief Benjamin Nottaway says Nepton was aware that only a small minority supported the newly recognized leadership.
"We think the two groups are collaborating," he said. "The two sides want to cut a new deal for programs and services that ignores the previous agreements we've signed."
The trailblazing agreement
In 1961, a priest and the Quebec government negotiated Barriere Lake's 59-acre reservation, which rests on badly eroded sand near a reservoir that flooded their land decades earlier.
In the 1980s, unrestrained clear-cut logging and the depletion of game stock within Quebec's La Vérendrye Provincial Park, which covers part of the Algonquin’s traditional territories, threatened the harvesting lines where community members continue to hunt and trap.
Their initial protests were ignored, but after blockading logging roads under the leadership of their young Customary Chief, Jean-Maurice Matchewan, Canada and Quebec signed the Trilateral Agreement in 1991. A forestry co-management and sustainable development plan for 10,000 square kilometres of their traditional territories, it’s been praised by the United Nations as a "trailblazer" and recommended by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples as model for resolving resource conflicts.
The regional economy draws $100 million yearly in logging, hydro-electricity, and tourism from the surrounding land, but the Algonquin, who live in moldy, overcrowded housing without electricity from the hydro-grid, don't receive a cent.
Later agreements promised new housing, a community centre and school, and expansion of the reservation, which is too small to fit new development. But just before the Trilateral's implementation in 2001, Indian Affairs Minister Robert Nault pulled out, saying the process had dragged on for too long and cost too much – despite pledges from former Ministers that they would fund it until the end.
The lack of progress on the agreement has fueled increasingly acrimonious divisions over leadership.
"I'm trying to pick up after the former council," said Casey Ratt, the new chief, who has already started negotiating an infrastructure plan with Indian Affairs officials. "They're trying to shut down everything, so they can play the victim card."
Michel Thusky, a community elder, said minor infrastructure deals only offer quick fixes and won't ensure long-term development suited to their needs.
"[The new council] is clueless, and they're being used," he said. "It's not Indian Affairs programs and services that are going to preserve and sustain our culture, language, and connection to the land."
Community members say the federal and provincial governments never liked the Trilateral agreement. If implemented, it would protect their harvest lines and areas of medicinal and spiritual importance from logging, conserve wildlife, give them a share in resource-revenue, and not require them to extinguish their Aboriginal title, precedents which native communities in Quebec and across Canada might like to follow.
During the agreement's first years, Quebec and Ottawa dragged their feet. "It is David and not Goliath who is attempting to sustain the agreement," Quebec Superior Court Judge Rheajan Paul wrote during mediation in 1993. "If one wants [the agreement] to die, one only has to shut off the funding tap."
Background to a coup
In 1996, the Department of Indian Affairs changed tack: they rescinded recognition of the Customary Chief and Council and appointed a small faction, keen on getting a piece of the logging action, as an "Interim Band Council."
Never subject to the Indian Act's electoral band council system, Barriere Lake's hereditary Chiefs and Councilors are nominated by an Elder's Council and selected in community assemblies. The community assemblies are open only to Barriere Lake adults who live on the traditional territories and maintain a connection to the land. But after the faction submitted a signed petition, Indian Affairs claimed the community's leadership customs had evolved into "selection by petition."
Barred by the community from returning to Barriere Lake, the Indian Affairs-supported leadership ruled as a "government-in-exile" in Maniwaki, 150 kilometres to the south, receiving millions from Indian Affairs while community members in Barriere Lake were deprived of funding for employment, social assistance, electricity and schooling for more than a year.
"The whole community got together, and survived on the traditional territory," said Thusky, who worries that scenario might be repeated, with a few new twists. "It was the same players then, but we didn't have the SQ [Sûreté du Québec] to deal with, so we managed to keep the government-supported band council away."
After mediation in 1997 restored the Customary Chief and Council, the community codified their customary laws into a 'Customary Governance Code' with Judge Paul, who concluded that their customs had not changed. A judicial review later revealed that Indian Affairs had instructed the small group to submit the petition.
Same old government tricks
Community members now believe Indian Affairs is up to old tricks. In 2006, Jean Maurice Matchewan was re-elected Customary Chief, but the small faction ran a parallel leadership selection, claiming to have adhered to the Customary Governance Code. Indian Affairs refused to recognize Matchewan, and then put the community under Third Party Management – which mandates that an external consultant unilaterally run the community's finances and funding – claiming it was justified by Barriere Lake's large deficit and leadership uncertainty.
The Customary Elder's Council immediately challenged the decision in federal court, arguing the deficit wouldn't exist if the money owed to Barriere Lake from the 1996 funding deprivation had been repaid as promised.
But in the yearly funding budget negotiated by the Third Party Manager and Indian Affairs in 2007, the money owed by the government was simply struck from the record.
Associate director Nepton refused to comment on the matter.
Judge Paul confirmed the legitimacy of Matchewan's Council in leadership mediation in spring 2007, calling the challengers a "small minority" who "did not respect the Customary Governance Code."
New Chief Casey Ratt insists he has majority support this time, but has refused to enter a leadership re-selection process demanded by the Elder's Council to settle the leadership division.
Indian Affairs said it plans to take the new Council off Third Party Management, something the previous leadership say was never offered to them. The new Council has also indicated it wants to quash the court case challenging the federal government for unfairly imposing Third Party Management and for breaching the Trilateral Agreement.
Meanwhile, Quebec has sat for a year-and-a-half on the recommendations for its Trilateral obligations – including implementation of the co-management regime and a $1.5 million yearly share in resource revenue. But even with Quebec's agreement, the Trilateral could only go ahead with federal co-operation.
Marylynn Pouchachie says the last weeks have taken a toll on everyone, including children, who have acted out the leadership rivalry with name-calling. "I think the government has us where they want us, fighting with each other and forgetting about the real issues," she says. "And they can then keep exploiting our land and renegotiate the outstanding issues on their terms."