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MONTREAL–A secret document obtained by The Dominion reveals Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) decided to replace the leadership of Barriere Lake First Nation, which officials considered "dogmatized," with a chief and council offering “improved collaboration."
The memo sent to Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl recommends recognizing leadership claimant Casey Ratt in place of Chief Benjamin Nottaway, but predicts such a move will lead to community violence, erection of barricades, legal challenges and "media pressure" based on the "perception of a council sponsored by INAC.”
Strahl signed off on the memo on March 3, 2008. In an April letter to the Ottawa Citizen he maintains that INAC was following the wishes of the community and was not "backing one group over another."
Ratt's ascent to power in the northern Quebec Algonquin community of 450 has been fiercely contested by Nottaway's supporters, who allege INAC ousted an assertive leadership and empowered a group that violated customary leadership protocols.
The Barriere Lake Algonquins select their leadership not by ballot, but by a strict Customary Governance Code that involves the nomination of candidates by elders and their approval in community assemblies. As Strahl states in his public letter, INAC's "role is to simply acknowledge the outcome and register the results."
But the Elder's Council in Barriere Lake quickly launched a judicial review of Strahl's move, arguing INAC went beyond their legal bounds in deciding who should be in power. In April, INAC motioned to dismiss the Elder's case, maintaining INAC did not make a “decision” reviewable by the courts.
The February 18 memo demonstrates that decisions were in fact made. Instead of carefully assessing whether a leadership selection conducted by Ratt's supporters in late January 2008 accorded with the Customary Governance Code, it focuses on the benefits and drawbacks of three possible INAC responses: recognizing Ratt, maintaining relations with Nottaway, or withdrawing recognition for Nottaway and mediating or imposing an electoral system on the community.
According to the memo, keeping ties with Nottaway would entail "continuity of tensed [sic] relations between INAC and the Band Council, considering its claims." For nearly two decades, Nottaway's supporters have been locked in a battle with INAC and Quebec over the implementation of a landmark Trilateral agreement that would give the First Nation say over resource use on 10,000 square kilometres of their traditional territory.
Despite Nottaway's council's "claim to its legitimacy," the memo expresses preference for a band council headed by Casey Ratt, detailing "positive impacts" that include “improved collaboration of the new council with INAC,” a “new council less dogmatized," and a "new environment more favourable to the development of the community" and a "healing process."
A 2006 attempt by Ratt’s supporters to select a chief and council was dismissed after mediation in 2007 by Quebec Superior Court Judge Réjean Paul, who called the group a “small minority” whose selection process “did not follow the Customary Governance Code." Over that year INAC withdrew recognition from Nottaway's customary predecessor, Chief Jean-Maurice Matchewan, until Judge Paul issued the report affirming his legitimacy.
The secret memo acknowledges Judge Paul’s "approach" and admits INAC "does not have all the information" regarding Ratt's recent selection, but states an independent observer "partly related the process' compliance with custom requirements."
When INAC cited this local court worker's report in a March 10 letter notifying Nottaway he was no longer Chief, officials refused to release it to the community. The Elder Council's lawyers obtained it through court months later and discovered that the observer had in fact stated he "couldn’t guarantee” Ratt had followed the Customary Governance Code.
The memo also dismisses taking advantage of the "shaky situation" in the community to impose an Indian Act election system, because its "major impacts" would require further analysis. Inside observers say such a move, which would unilaterally discard the community's customary selection by a Minister's order, could risk being deemed unconstitutional.
Strahl has come under fire recently after documents leaked to the Globe & Mail revealed that INAC secretly plans to revive the Liberals' First Nations Governance Act, which includes challenging "flawed" or "outdated" customary selections of First Nation leaders.
The memo mentions the possibility of “barricades” and suggests informing the Quebec police to "ensure the supervision of the community in the days following the announcement of the new Council." Community members tried to bar Ratt from returning to the reserve in March, dragging trees along the reserve's access road. Ratt required escort by police, who arrested a dozen people and maintained a heavy presence in the community for two weeks, preventing Nottaway's council from accessing any administrative buildings.
While these earlier incidents received little attention, Barriere Lake acquired a higher profile after Nottaway's supporters blockaded a major Quebec highway in October and November 2008, rallying to the demand that INAC implement the Trilateral Agreement and appoint an observer to witness and respect the outcome of a new leadership selection. Nottaway was arrested and jailed for two months in the winter for his participation, arousing condemnation of the Conservative government from Green Party leader Elizabeth May, the NDP, and major unions.
Ratt issued a press release after the blockades stating the former council "focused too much of their attention on the trilateral agreement" and that it was time the "First Nation moves forward." INAC pulled out of the agreement in 2001.
The secret memo was released by the Ministry of Justice on March 13, almost a year after a request filed by lawyers for the Elder's Council was initially denied because INAC maintained they had not made a “decision” about leadership.
Withholding the document, INAC won a dismissal of the Elder's Council judicial review in August but then lost an appeal before a federal court in January. The Judge concluded that a reviewable "decision" had been made and emphasized that the legal status of the Ratt Council remained uncertain, despite recognition from Strahl. After another request for documents, a privacy commissioner green-lighted the memo's release. The court case over leadership will proceed this summer.
Martin Lukacs is a writer and activist, and a member of the Barriere Lake solidarity collective in Montreal.
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.