Monday, August 18, 2008

Barrière Lake: Is anybody home?

Barrière Lake: Is anybody home?
Sara Falconer

For several months, a group of Algonquins from Barrière Lake have been trying to reach Canada's government. Last week, they showed up at the Ottawa home of deputy minister of Indian Affairs Michael Wernick. Is anyone going to open the door?

On Aug. 8, about 30 representatives from the Barrière Lake reserve, three hours north of Ottawa, marched to Werner's house to request a meeting with him. The deputy minister was not present when the Algonquins arrived, but reportedly commented that he was "disappointed" by their tactics. The Department of Indian and Northern Affairs declined to comment further, saying that Wernick was on holidays when the demonstration took place.

"Deputy minister Wernick shouldn't feel disappointed," youth spokesperson Norman Matchewan said in a release. "He should feel ashamed that he allows this behaviour of Indian Affairs to continue."

"At his office or at his house, what matters is getting our message to him," says Marylynn Poucachiche, another Barrière Lake spokesperson.

"We want to tell him that they should send in observers to oversee the leadership reselection in our community, and to respect the outcome of it."

The group is asking that the Government of Canada revoke its March 10 decision to recognize as chief and council members what they call a "minority faction" not selected according to Barrière Lake's customs. The community is one of the few left in the country that has preserved its traditional form of governance and language.

So far, their message

has received little response. In June, six demonstrators were arrested at the Gatineau office of Conservative MP Lawrence Cannon, also asking for an audience with him. Almost 100 members of the small reserve of 450 attended several days of subsequent protests.

The underlying issue, they argue, is the government's reluctance to honour an agreement to protect their land and resources. In 1991, following years of protest to prevent clear-cutting, the Canadian, Quebec and Barrière Lake Algonquin governments signed the landmark Trilateral Agreement.

"These officials don't want to meet with us because of that agreement," Poucachiche says. "We've been trying to get the government back to the table to complete the negotiations." The agreement, based on principles of sustainable development, would also provide for resource revenue sharing.

The extremely impoverished community has an employment rate of 80 to 90 per cent. Despite the fact that vast energy resources are extracted from their land, the residents are one of the last communities in Quebec still using diesel generators.

"I guess it's too much of a hassle, or it's going to create a precedent for other First Nations," she says. "We're only asking for about $1.5-million of the hundreds of millions these companies extract."

Hence the Canadian government's support of Chief Casey Ratt's "illegitimate" council, she adds. "This other group hasn't mentioned anything about the Trilateral Agreement."