Friday, July 18, 2008

Ottawa Citizen: Barriere Lake (July 15, 2008)

Boyce Richardson, Citizen Special
July 15, 2008

I first came in contact with the Algonquins of Barrière Lake soon after the Brundtland Report on the global environment was published by the United Nations in 1987.

That report had been endorsed by prime minister Brian Mulroney, and it recommended that indigenous people should have "a decisive voice" in all development decisions about their traditional lands.

There was no doubt that the greater part of the so-called La Vérendrye Wildlife Reserve, north of Maniwaki, formed the traditional lands of this impoverished community.

Or that they had never signed any instrument of surrender covering these lands.

Or that these lands were being remorselessly clear-cut from under them, without taking into account their interests.

Their approach to the prime minister that he "put up or shut up" in relation to their traditional lands got them nowhere. The clear-cutting continued, and the community decided to block access of the loggers to the forest, so far as they could with their limited means.

What I saw when I arrived there with a National Film Board crew was an impressive challenge mounted by one of the poorest communities in Canada, to the combined might of industry and government.

The outcome was an agreement - known as the Trilateral Agreement - with the federal and Quebec governments, to make a detailed survey of the lands in question that would establish the areas of central interest to the continuation of Algonquin life, and work out a cutting plan that would take into account everyone's interest.

To say that the governments have been reluctant to implement this agreement would be an understatement.

First the Quebec, then the federal government withdrew and then, under pressure from outside mediators such as Clifford Lincoln, the respected federal MP and former Quebec environment minister, and judge Réjean Paul, they rejoined, and then quit again, while, ironically enough, the logging companies became the ones who were willing to collaborate.

I always knew there was dissension among the people in Barrière Lake.

Opposition was centred around the family of a wonderful old lady, Lena Nottaway, who had established a large camp for her family north of the reserve. Her family were traditionalists, adhering to the old ways.

There were volatile people on both sides of this argument, but their relationships were not improved when the Indian Affairs department decided in 1996 to depose the leadership elected under traditional procedures, and recognized an alternative band council from members who were by this time living in Maniwaki.

Of course, this extremely provocative act didn't succeed, but who could have been surprised by it when it was totally in line with the federal department's traditional "divide and rule" tactics that they have been using for two centuries? Recently, the feds have tried to repeat their dreadful manoeuvre.

My later reading convinced me that since Europeans first arrived among them, the Barrière Lake people have known nothing but hardship, promises and betrayals.

They are used to this kind of manipulation.

The decision to rob Barrière Lake of its traditional hunting grounds; the decision to jam the people into the 59 acres of Rapid Lake; the handing over to outside hunters of the animals they depended on; the many failed programs, programmed to fail, as far as I could judge; the manifest bad faith of the federal government in its negotiations over the Trilateral Agreement: all of these were inexcusable. So the later decision to intervene in the governance of Barrière Lake seems to be simply a continuation of the neglect, misunderstanding and arrogance that the feds have always shown toward this community.

I knew, liked, and admired people on both sides of the community argument. I have found them to be a down-to-earth people with a real attachment to the land, which has continued even against the extraordinary interference and provocations of these governments.

I have found many of them to be repositories of the ancient bush wisdom of aboriginal hunter/gatherers.

Through every possible discouragement they have clung to their language and way of life.

But -- is this the best that these people can expect in the way of governance? Is this the best they can hope for in the way of financial and moral support from the federal government, which is constitutionally responsible for their care?

Barrière Lake suffers from being remote from the cities; it is difficult for its people to get a real hearing in the cities. And the fact that they are poor, in addition, puts them into the category of voiceless people occupying the bottom rung of Canadian society.

And yet, the people of Barrière Lake are battling on in their effort to get the governments involved to fulfill the many promises that have been made to them over recent decades. They deserve the active support of everyone who cares about how Canada is governed.

Boyce Richardson is an Ottawa writer and filmmaker. His 1990 film, Blockade, Algonquins Defend the Forest, will be screened along with a panel discussion as part of an event at Arts Court tomorrow evening.