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Marylynn Pouchachiche 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. The group was protesting the return of Casey Ratt, recognized by the Canadian government as the new Chief of Barriere Lake, despite their already having a Chief and Council in place.
The regime change has left the community of 450, located three hours north of Ottawa, in a political crisis. Pouchachie and others allege that the government is trying to can a co-management agreement Barriere Lake signed with Canada and Quebec nearly twenty years ago – and which has yet to be implemented. Under the agreement, Barriere Lake would gain a decisive say in the management of their traditional territories, benefit from the forestry industry, and preserve their traditional way of life.
Pierre Nepton, the Associate Director of the Regional Office of Indian Affairs, emphasized that the government did not intervene.
Unlike most other reservations, which are mandated under the Indian Act to select leadership through elections, Barriere Lake’s leadership is selected through customary laws. In January, Pouchachie says a small faction of community members organized a separate leadership selection process and then sought recognition from the government.
“We were satisfied by their leadership process, and we recognized the [new] council,” said Nepton. “I want to emphasize that the decision was made by the community.”
But ousted Customary Chief Benjamin Nottaway, who maintains the majority of the community does not support the new Chief, believes Nepton has other motivations for recognizing the new leadership.
"We think the two groups [department of Indian Affairs and the small faction] 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 the land decades earlier.
In the 1980s, unrestrained clear-cut logging and the depletion of game stock within Quebec's La Vérendrye Provincial Park – a park that covers part of the Algonquin’s traditional territories - threatened the harvesting lines where Barriere Lake community members continue to hunt and trap.
Their initial protests were ignored, but after blockading logging roads under the leadership of their Customary Chief Jean-Maurice Matchewan, Canada and Quebec signed the Trilateral Agreement in 1991.
The Trilaterial Agreement is a forestry co-management and sustainable development plan for 10,000 square kilometres of the Algonquin’s traditional territories, praised by the United Nations as a "trailblazer" and recommended by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples as a model for resolving resource conflicts.
Just before the Trilateral's implementation in 2001, however, Indian Affairs Minister Robert Nault pulled out. Nault said the process had dragged on for too long and cost too much.
The regional economy draws $100 million annually through logging, hydro-electricity, and tourism from the surrounding land, but the Algonquin, who live in mouldy, overcrowded housing without electricity from the hydro-grid, have yet to receive a cent.
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 new chief Casey Ratt, who has already started negotiating an infrastructure plan with Indian Affairs officials. "They [the protesters] were trying to shut down everything, so they could play the victim card."
Michel Thusky, a community elder, says minor infrastructure deals only offer quick fixes and won't ensure long-term development suited to the community’s 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 establish long-term measures to 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 that other native communities in Quebec and across Canada might like to follow.
Background to a coup
During the Trilateral Agreement's first phase, which provided research funding and interim measures to harmonize logging with Algonquin land uses, Quebec and Ottawa dragged their heels. "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."
In 1996, after resuming funding, the Department of Indian Affairs changed tactics. 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 Councillors 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."
This Indian Affairs-supported leadership was rejected by the community, and forced to rule as a "government-in-exile" from Maniwaki, a town 150 kilometres to the south. Through 1996, the group received 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 [Quebec Provincial Police] to deal with, so we managed to keep the government-supported band council away."
After mediation in 1997 restored the Customary Chief and Council, and Indian Affairs agreed to restore the withheld funding, the community codified their traditional laws into a 'Customary Governance Code.' Superior Court Judge Paul concluded that their customs had not changed, and 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 its old tricks. In 2006, Jean Maurice Matchewan was re-elected Customary Chief, but a 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 issues could be cleared up 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.
Superior Court 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 says 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 said. "And they can then keep exploiting our land and renegotiate the outstanding issues on their terms."
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.