Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Montreal Gazette Op-Ed

Barrière Lake Indians set up blockage as last resort
It was the only way to get governments to listen to us, Algonquins say

Published: Thursday, October 09

The Barrière Lake Algonquins' decision to peacefully blockade Highway 117 was not easily made. We have always preferred co-operation to confrontation. We do not wish to disrupt the lives of Canadians. Unfortunately, it seems their governments otherwise ignore or dismiss us - or worse, treat us with contempt.

During a protest at federal Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon's campaign launch last month, his assistant insinuated that I was drinking. After the media scandal forced Cannon to hold a meeting we had been requesting for two years, he vilified our community's majority as "dissidents" in an op-ed in regional papers.

The government has now tried to add "criminals" to the charge. To avoid negotiations, the government allowed Monday's peaceful blockade to be dismantled by the Sûreté du Québec, which without provocation shot tear gas canisters into a crowd of youth and elders and used severe "pain compliance" to remove people clipped into lockbox barrels.

But the governments of Canada and Quebec have never been overly concerned with the rule of law in their dealings with Barrière Lake:

In 1991, Barrière Lake signed a historic trilateral agreement with Canada and Quebec to sustainably develop our traditional territories - a United Nations report called the plan an environmental "trailblazer." Yet in 1996, the federal government tried to hijack the agreement by replacing our legitimate chief and council with a minority faction who let the agreement fall aside.

We have always ruled ourselves according to custom, outside the electoral provisions of the Indian Act: Elders nominate eligible leaders who are then approved, by consensus if possible, in assemblies. Participation is open only to those who live in the community, speak our language, and have knowledge of and connection to the land. But in 1996, the Department of Indian Affairs encouraged this faction, located mainly off-reserve, to collect signatures for a petition; Indian Affairs then imposed this group on us, claiming our leadership customs had evolved into "selection by petition."

The was not the truth. In The Gazette, former provincial Liberal cabinet minister Michel Gratton issued a devastating rebuke: "This unilateral and sudden decision to dismiss and replace the existing chief and council goes against the grain of every democratic principle."

We suffered grievously for a year and a half. Although we barred the minority group from our community, they colluded with the government from Maniwaki. On the reserve, we were deprived of federal transfers for employment, education, social assistance, and electricity. We lived in the dark, educated our children as we could, and barely subsisted off bush food.

A resolution was finally achieved in 1997 by Quebec Superior Court Judge Réjean Paul and two federal facilitators, who restored our legitimate chief and council and renewed the trilateral agreement. To prevent future interference, they helped codify our leadership customs into a Customary Governance Code that the government promised to respect. This is our aboriginal right protected by the Canadian Constitution - the highest law in the land.

Even this proved little deterrent to further meddling. In 2001, the federal government pulled out of the trilateral agreement and started favouring certain community members opposed to our legitimate leadership. Paul mediated again in 2007, concluding that the opposition to our chief and council was "a small minority" whose leadership challenge "did not respect the Customary Governance Code."

But when this same minority group conducted another supposed leadership selection in January 2008, the federal government quickly recognized them. In court, we forced the government to release an observer's report they relied on: not surprisingly, the report stated there was no "guarantee" that the Customary Governance Code was respected during this selection.

Yet again, the government is throwing democratic principles to the wind by ignoring our customs and the wishes of our people. And Cannon has the audacity to call the overwhelming majority of our community members "dissidents"!

To resolve the crisis, we are prepared to participate in a new leadership selection according to our Customary Governance Code. We ask only that the federal government appoint an observer and promise to recognize the result, and that they and the province honour our agreements.

We set up the blockades Monday morning as a last resort, to inspire in the government a changed attitude. Our good faith and patience and reasonable demands have so far been rewarded by broken promises, deceit, and deplorable interventions. Is this all we can expect?

Norman Matchewan is youth spokesperson for the Algonquins in Barrière Lake, which is 130 kilometres north of Maniwaki.