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Algonquins Demand Justice in Ottawa

July 24, 2008

Algonquins Demand Justice in Ottawa

Barriere Lake Girl.jpg

The past month has been a hotbed of indigenous social justice activity in Ottawa. The Algonquin community of Barriere Lake has organized and carried out several actions alongside local organizers and ally groups.

On June 26th, 2008 a dozen Algonquins and supporters occupied the office of MP Lawrence Cannon, Stephen Harper’s Quebec Lieutenant. Cannon is the also the Minister of Transportation and MP Responsible for the Pontiac Region in Quebec, in which Barriere Lake is located.

“We came here today to demand a meeting with the minister,” said Acting Chief Benjamin Nottoway in front of the MP’s office in Buckingham, QC. His demand of the minister was “to call for a leadership reselection in our community. We hope to get a response by today, or we will stay here as long as it takes.”

The aboriginal activists and allies unfortunately could not stay, as by five in the evening they were forced to leave the office. Six were arrested, detained, and released later in the night, greeted by a crowd of cheering supporters.

The chief’s promise to continue putting pressure on the minister was not in vain as on July 16th almost a hundred members of the reserve of 450 came to Ottawa for a three-day protest and camp-out.

We’re here to demand the minister live up to the promise that he made to us,” said former chief Jean-Morice Matchewan. “They never kept one promise that they made to us,” he continued.

The former chief led the community in protest all through the late 1980s and early 1990s as the reserve prevented clear-cutting on its land and forced the government to sign a monumental agreement in 1991. Last September Matchewan was forced to step down due to charges laid against him as police found a weapon in his vehicle during hunting season. Current Acting Chief Nottoway alleges this was a set up for a Securite Quebec-backed coup d’etat which took place on the reserve last March.

One of the last reserves in Canada to follow a traditional form of governance, the Algonquins of Barriere Lake are also one of the last to maintain their traditional language. In March the government imposed the band council system on the reserve and appointed Casey Ratt as the chief. Nottoway says Ratt doesn’t actually live on the reserve. “He has an apartment in Val D’or… but he’s never had a house in our community.”

Matchewan called for the government to “review its decision to impose the Chief and Counsel. No government is allowed to overthrow another government. That’s why we’re here, to straighten out this mess that they’ve created.”

“The minority faction represents about 20% of the community,” explained Maggie Shreiner, “whereas 80% of the community supports the traditional leadership of Barriere Lake. It’s been very divisive in the community.”

A member of the Montreal-based Barriere Lake Solidarity Collective, Shreiner assisted in the organizing of MP Cannon’s office occupation and the coordination of the later three-day camp-out alongside Ottawa activists.

In spite of the government imposition, aboriginal leaders continue to recognize the traditional governance of the reserve. A July 16th press release explained, “the Algonquin Nation Secretariat (ANS), 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.”

Assembling first outside the Ministry of Transportation where the MP’s Ottawa-based office is located, the Algonquins later protested outside the building of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) in Gatineau.

“They haven’t done anything much[sic] in our community,” said Nottoway of INAC. “They just want to break the agreement they signed in 1991.”

Another demand the Algonquins have presented to the government was allowing their children to speak Algonquin in school. Government-hired teachers currently prevent the children from doing so. Marylynn Poucachiche, Youth Representative to the Traditional Tribunal, called this “a throwback to residential schools.”

“We’re probably going to go ahead with the leadership reselection” Nottoway said, suggesting the Algonquins will do so with or without the government’s overseeing. “If the government doesn’t give a positive response” he promised the Algonquins will be back by the beginning of August. “We’re not going to give up, we never give up. We don’t even know what give up is.”

Originally published on the Canadian Dimension Weblog.


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