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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 turnouts.
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. Advancing again.
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 look.
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. Every 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 use area..."
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 to uphold.
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 police harassment.
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 Cannon's office.
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. Faced with deadlines, journalists do the equivalent of throwing their hands in the air, allowing themselves to reduce Barriere Lake's conflict with the government to 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. Algonquins 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 coverage of the blockade and subsequent attack, initially minimal, has expanded to some of the national newspapers and radio. Countless organizations are hearing about Barriere Lake for the first time.
"We're going to keep fighting."
His tone makes it clear that there was never any doubt.
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.