Pain Compliance as Indigenous Relations
Inside the Barriere Lake Algonquins' blockade of highway 117
by Dru Oja Jay
Posted originally in >The Dominion
I'm perched on an embankment overlooking Highway 117, an obscure but
economically important link between Montreal and northern Quebec. To
look at most maps, there's nothing here, five hours north of Montreal,
well out of the cottage towns and ski resorts of the Laurentians and
still two hours short of the cluster of resource extraction economies
around Val d'Or (in English, Valley of Gold), where mining now focuses
more on metals like copper, zinc and lead. I'm in the middle of a four
hour stretch where most travellers could be forgiven for thinking was
nothing but a few hunting lodges, logging roads and Hydro Quebec
A girl, young enough that I have to bend down to hear what she's
saying, climbs up the embankment and points at the highway.
"Look where we're colouring," she says.
I look. In the middle of the highway, a handful of kids--her age--are
gathered around a card table, drawing on sheets of paper and colouring
books with markers. Next to them, a dozen protesters hold signs,
facing away from the kids' table. The signs say things like "no more
pepper spray/arrests/batons," and "honour signed agreements."
Beyond the protesters, several trees lay across the road. A large
banner reads "Honour your word," and "protect the environment, share
the land's wealth."
Beyond the banner, a row of green-uniformed police officers spans the
highway. They are slowly advancing.
As they get closer, the protesters begin yelling at the police.
"All we want is our agreement."
"Send in a negotiator."
The girl is standing beside me. "I'm scared," she says matter-of-factly.
The police advance slowly, advancing several steps, then stopping.
The line of police divides, leaving an opening. A column of perhaps
fifty riot police emerges. They wear gas masks, oversized helmets in
the Death Star style, and body armour under baggy uniforms. Each one
carries a black baton. At times, some of them will hit their
black-gloved hand with the baton, making what, to the person behind
the mask, was probably a satisfying *smack*.
The police officer in charge issues a half-hearted warning over the
cries of increasingly angry demonstrators.
"Leave the highway, or you will be arrested."
Seeing the masked troops, some run. I notice several children fleeing,
but others stay, and more gather on the highway to protect the
blockade. Elders and youth are the most abundant. I later realize that
most of the adults cannot risk arrest because of conditions imposed on
them after previous demonstrations.
The riot police silently line up on the far side of the highway, and
begin pushing the demonstrators back. A crowd has gathered in front of
the police, holding signs and yelling at the police. A scuffle breaks
out, cops pulling protesters, protesters pulling their own away. An
elder is arrested. I run on to the highway, trying to get a closer
Behind the colouring table, there is a row of concrete-filled barrels
with PVC pipe running through them. A mix of Algonquin demonstrators
and supporters from Ottawa and Montreal have attached their arms to
these "lock boxes" with rope and carabiners in an attempt to forestall
police breaking up the blockade. Next to them are tables and
campfires, which a short time ago were used to serve bacon and eggs,
and then beaver and moose, to those gathered at the blockade. Several
people whose trips had been delayed by the blockade had joined in,
drinking tea from pots warmed by small campfires, before police
separated onlookers from blockade participants.
Seperated by a 100-metre buffer zone, the police could nonetheless be
heard cracking jokes about "caisses de bieres," an eerie allusion to
police transcripts revealed by the Ipperwash Inquiry, where police
made racist jokes about Dudley George before they shot and killed him.
It also brought to mind the slur that made headlines a week before,
when Algonquin spokesperson Norman Matchewan confronted regional
Member of Parliament and cabinet Minister Lawrence Cannon. Speaking to
Matchewan, Cannon's assistant said that negotiations could be
conducted "if you're sober." She was caught on camera, and the "gaffe"
was eventually reported coast to coast as one more example of a
dangerous misstep by Harper's otherwise disciplined election campaign.
The onlookers were unable to see the sign advertising a ban on alcohol
and drugs from the blockade, but that was a fraction of the gap
between the Algonquins' understanding of the situation and those of
the Quebeckers. It's a gap that is too often filled with racist
assumptions before it can inspire curiosity.
I hear a loud *pop*. People scream, run away. Acrid white smoke
billows from a canister launched by police, and I feel a familiar
hollow sting in my throat and sinuses. My eyes burn, and well up, but
I'm relatively unaffected. Elders, youth and kids around me are
coughing and choking, tears streaming down faces. Another canister is
launched. More running and tears. The police, apparently aware of
existing negative connotations, will later deny that they used tear
gas, preferring the term "chemical irritant".
A single CBC radio reporter maneuvres around tear gas and riot police,
holding her microphone, looking stunned. The television cameras left
an hour or so ago.
Immune to the effects of the gas, riot police rush to push people off
the highway. The people in lock-boxes are still there, caught, for the
moment, in the tear gas. One demonstrator stays behind to wipe their
faces with water to lessen the effects. He will be tackled by three
riot cops and arrested later.
Police move to shield the remaining blockaders from view, forming a
human wall around the lock-boxes. Peering between riot police standing
with batons at the ready, we can see an official (he's wearing a
different uniform) giving orders. We see those locked in kicking or
flailing in agony. We will later learn that police used "pain
compliance" methods. We will hear from those who were locked in that
the police pinched and pushed at pressure points, causing severe pain.
We will hear that police told those locked in that by remaining, they
were causing more pain to their comrades. We will hear that police
used a crowbar to attempt to pry one blockader's arm loose. We will
hear about sexual harassment. We will argue about whether or not
"torture" is too strong a word to describe what the police did. We
will decide that causing someone pain in order to convince them to do
something they do not want to do does in fact qualify as torture, but
that the media will not take us seriously if we use that word. An
elder will say that "pain compliance" is a good description of the
government's policies towards the Algonquins of Barriere Lake.
Barriere Lake is where we're headed now, though not voluntarily. Ever
few minutes, the assembled riot police rush forward, pushing the fifty
or so demonstrators further up the access road that leads to Rapid
Lake, the fifty-nine acre reserve that is, for the federal and
provincial governments, the only officially recognized territory of
the 500-member community of Barriere Lake, named for its traditional
summer settlement at a nearby lake. The reserve was created in 1961.
Though they have lived here for thousands of years, the rest of the
territory has been treated as *terra nullius*, empty land, and
exploited accordingly. Hydro Quebec has built dams without consulting
the community, in at least one case submerging a burial ground. Later,
they improved their behaviour by notifying the community ahead of
planned dam construction. The community was forced to move another
burial ground to a nearby island.
Logging companies were allowed to clear the land with impunity, and
with no benefit to the community. For years, community members
peacefully blockaded logging roads, risking violence from loggers and
violence from police.
Despite the presence of several Hydro Quebec dams, the community is
still powered by a diesel generator. According to one estimate, $100
million in revenue is extracted from the Barriere Lake Algonquins'
traditional territory every year. Of that $100 million, the community
receives nothing, and employment opportunities are scarce.
Many of those at the blockade had been sent to residential schools as
children. There, they were abused physically and sexually, and
punished for speaking their mother tongue. The psychological legacy of
this trauma has been compounded by the enforced austerity of the
reserve, where unemployment, deep poverty and inadequate housing is
the norm. Families sleep as many as 15 to a house, and many houses
have fallen into disrepair.
Against this seemingly desperate backdrop, the community's resilience
is impressive. Elders say that their connection to the land, which
they see as intimately tied to their language, is alive and well.
Community members hunt for food, rely on traditional knowledge to
gather medicine and food, and are well acquainted with the land they
still live on, despite the 59-acre boundary.
Their resilience extends to political dealings. After years of
peaceful blockades of logging roads, the community signed the
Trilateral Agreement with Canada and Quebec, a landmark
resource-sharing agreement that was praised by the UN. One academic
observer wrote that the agreement "constitutes a category of its own
and is unmatched in its vision as well as in the problems its
proponents have had to overcome."
"This Agreement was designed to address a situation, where a small
aboriginal community, the Algonquins of Barriere Lake in La Verendrye
Park, pursuing an essentially land-based way of life, saw themselves
confronted with aggressive resource exploitation in their traditional
Cognizant that government policy does not recognize and accommodate
aboriginal title to the land (at least, not in the current political
climate), they came up with an innovative approach of curbing the
logging, recreational hunting and damming that had taken place on
their traditional territory while giving the community a say in where
and when outside uses of the land would happen. The community spent
considerable time and resources mapping out all of its traditional use
areas, detailing their uses of the indigenous plant and animal life.
The report advocates policies that "sustain and expand the
environmental resource base," while enabling their traditional way of
life to continue.
The first phase of the agreement was signed in 1991. Since then, the
Federal and Provincial governments have done much to try to back out
of it. Twice, they have played politics with divisions within the
community, imposing minority faction Band governments against the
customary leadership selection rules that Indian Affairs is supposed
The last time they did that was in March. Under a Third Party Manager
imposed by Indian Affairs in 2006, new staff were placed in schools,
who punished children for speaking Algonquin. Peaceful blockades
attempting to keep the imposed band chief off the reserve were met
with pepper spray and arrests. Members of the last legitimately
appointed chief and council and their supporters have faced systematic
Since March, the Algonquins of Barriere Lake have demonstrated several
times, always demanding the same things: that the government observe a
leadership reselection process and acknowledge the result, and that
the government uphold its obligations under the Trilateral Agreement.
They have been to Ottawa several times. In one case, Algonquins and
several supporters (I was among them) staged a sit-in in Lawrence
Rather than promise to meet the demands or negotiate with the
protesters, Cannon ordered police to remove us. Six were arrested.
Media coverage has been anemic. Officials have taken the cynical but
effective tack of framing it as a complicated situation, with many
competing interests and personalities. The truth of this is allowed to
overshadow, if not block out completely, what is straightforward about
the agreement, the community, and their desire to be able to continue
their way of life and govern themselves with dignity. Pressed with
multiple deadlines, journalists do the equivalent of throwing their
hands in the air and call it a "dispute" over "leadership". Racist
assumptions do the heavy lifting, and the message becomes "Indians
fighting over money."
A kid is in the back of a truck that's moving away from the advancing
line of riot police. He's got a faux-gold-encrusted cap on that reads
"millionaire." He sings the chorus of War's 1975 single.
"Why can't we be friends, why can't weee be friends."
The police are pushing us further up the access road that leads to the
reserve. The Algonquins begin to react as if to an insult.
"What, are you going to walk with us all the way to Rapid Lake?"
"Are you going to trap us on that fifty-nine acres?"
"We'll keep coming back, we'll keep fighting."
The last protesters, isolated from hearing the yells of demonstrators,
and made to feel excruciating pain with blankets over their heads,
"clip out" from the lock-boxes, but we can no longer see them. The
police have pushed us a few hundred metres back. Alonquins fall trees
in the road and build fires to block their advance. The riot police
step around the fires and keep coming.
It is past dark, five kilometres away from the highway, at the
reserve. A former chief walks by.
"I guess we've got their answer, eh?"
He smiles as he says it.
Community members have gathered around a campfire. An elder addresses
the non-native supporters.
"We're glad you came," she said.
"Now you see what they do to us."
Kids on the reserve are playing police-themed versions of childhood
games. "I arrested you."
It's the next morning. The community is preparing a feast for the
afternoon. Moose meat, fried bannock, fish caught between shifts at
the blockade. An elder sits in his kitchen, fielding calls from the
media. The media coverage of the blockade and subsequent attack will
be minimal, and limited to local outlets.
"We're going to keep fighting."
His tone makes it clear that there was never any doubt.