August 11, 2008
The Coup in Context
A look behind the removal of Barriere Lake's traditional government
The Algonquin community of Barriere Lake lies 5 hours to the northwest of Montreal. Travelling on Highway 115, the distance between towns widens as cottage country winds down and logging roads intersect the highway. In the midst of a prime cutting zone sits the Barriere Lake Reserve, created in 1961 without consultation with the community's customary chief and council.
The community's traditional territory extends over 17,000 square kilometres, but the nomadic community of just under 500 was forced to settle on a 59-acre reserve. Today, the housing crisis has reached tragic proportions; most live in moldy, run-down homes and up to 18 people live in a single bungalow. For two years, the Quebec government has been sitting on recommendations to extend the reservation's boundaries.
Millions of dollars in resource revenue are generated by the numerous hydroelectric dams on Barriere Lake Algonquin territory, but so far the indigenous community has not received a share and have yet to be connected to the grid. The Algonquins have refused to pay for hydroelectricity as it is both unaffordable and offensive considering the flooding caused by the dams, while Hydro Quebec insists that once connected, the community should foot the bill.
Hydroelectricity is not the only resource harvested from the traditional territory. Large trucks, some belonging to the American multinational Domtar, are stacked high with freshly shaved trees, which are then delivered to local paper mills. Above, a shot of an early Domtar logging site conveys the magnitude of the industry's practices at the time.
A small fishing and boating resort sits at the edge of the reserve. When logging and tourism are added to the equation, it is estimated that annual revenues derived from the community's traditional territory exceed $100 million. Of these revenues, Barriere Lake receives nothing.
Over twenty years ago, the unrestrained clear-cutting practices and sport hunting became too much for the community to witness quietly. Years of protests, and later the blockading of logging roads, finally led to negotiations with the Canadian and Quebec governments. The ultimate outcome of those negotiations was the Trilateral Agreement in 1991. Here, film footage shows one of many confrontations between the Sûreté du Québec and blockading community members.
Community spokesperson and Elder, Michel Thusky, explains maps created during the first phase of the Trilateral Agreement, which emphasized conservation and sustainable development. Promises outlined in the agreement included revenue sharing, as well as the co-management of resources. The purpose of the agreement was to protect the Algonquin way of life in spite of non-native land development practices like logging and hydroelectric dams.
Just before the planned implementation of the Trilateral agreement in 2001, Indian Affairs Minister Robert Nault pulled out, leaving the community to pay for remaining research on traditional land use. To date, the province has ignored a 2006 recommendation which would have involved providing the community with a share of the revenue.
Above, a community member presents the Three-Figure Wampum Belt. According to Algonquin custom, contemporary relations with the federal and provincial governments are based on the historic agreements recorded by Wampum, recognizing the Algonquin Nation and stipulating their involvement in any questions regarding their traditional territory. Repeated interventions by Indian Affairs to replace or manipulate the Algonquins' customary government, say elders, violate the mutual recognition contained in the agreement.
In 2006, Indian Affairs appointed a Third Party Manager for a second time, removing control of the budget from the customary government. The community's school was shut down after parents discovered that the teachers hired by the Third Party were forbidding their children to speak Algonquin -- a grim throwback to residential schools.
In March 2008, Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl deposed the acting chief, Benjamin Nottaway, and empowered a minority faction -- composed mostly of people living off-reserve -- as the new leadership. This was the third time that Indian Affairs had meddled in the internal governance of Barriere Lake. The Tribal Council representing the Algonquin First Nations of Barriere Lake, Wolf Lake, and Timiskaming, continues to recognize and work with deposed Chief Nottaway and his Council.
Quebec Lieutenant and Cabinet Minister Lawrence Cannon is the MP for Barriere Lake's riding of Pontiac. Cannon has said that the Conservative government "is committed to honoring its lawful obligations to First Nations, recognizing that their legal rights must be respected and upheld... We strongly believe in negotiated agreements that settle contentious issues in a way that is mutually acceptable and benefits all parties." On June 26, eight members of the community and several supporters peacefully occupied Cannon's office, demanding that Canada fulfill its legal responsibilities to Barriere Lake by respecting the results of a leadership reselection. Cannon refused to meet, and ordered police to physically remove protesters who refused to leave. Six people were arrested.
“It has been about 20 years now [since the signing of the Trilateral Agreement] -- I was eight years old when we first signed the agreement. I’m 26 years old now," said Jessica Thusky, one of the community members arrested in the action. "I’ve been waiting, we’ve been waiting a pretty long time now for the government to honour its agreement to the Barriere Lake people.”
Two Algonquins, one of whom was a minor, and four supporters spent the evening in jail and now face three charges: obstruction of a police officer, trespassing, and mischief.
"We told them we would stop disobeying the law if Cannon did so as well. It's a small act of civil disobedience to draw attention to a far greater crime," said Martin Lukacs, a member of the Barriere Lake Solidarity Collective.
"The community will pursue Cannon wherever he is publicly, and we will only stop when Cannon honours his word, and ensures his Conservative government oversees a leadership re-selection, then stops meddling in our affairs for good," said Thusky. Above, he speaks to a crowd at a demonstration in Montreal, outside of Premier Jean Charest's office.
The Algonquins of Barriere Lake continue efforts to get Indian Affairs and the Canadian government to uphold the law and recognize the community's customary governance code, as well as to respect the Trilateral Agreement.
Courtney Kirkby and Maya Rolbin-Ghanie are members of the Barriere Lake Solidarity Collective