Barriere Lake back in Ottawa to continue decades-long struggle

The NDP Monday backed calls to Indian Affairs Minister John Duncan to set up a fact-finding mission to a small Quebec Algonquin community caught in a leadership vacuum since the imposition of an Indian Act band council earlier this year.

(Barriere Lake spokesman Tony Wawatie speaks to reporters in Ottawa Monday. Arthur Manuel, an internationally known First Nations land rights activist from B.C., listens on)

APTN National News
–The NDP Monday backed calls to Indian Affairs Minister John Duncan to set up a fact-finding mission to a small Quebec Algonquin community caught in a leadership vacuum since the imposition of an Indian Act band council earlier this year.

Timmins-James Bay NDP MP Charlie Angus said it was time for Indian Affairs to initiate a fact-finding mission to the community, a proposal Assembly of First Nations national Chief Shawn Atleo put to Duncan directly.

“Nowhere is the failure of the Indian Act more blatant than in the sad history of Barriere Lake,” said Angus, during a morning press conference to kick off a day of rallies in Ottawa.

Barriere Lake, which sits about 300 kilometres north of Ottawa, is currently officially run by a third-party manager out of Quebec City and a four-person band council elected by 10 mail-in votes this summer during the imposed Indian Act band election.

The man elected chief, Casey Ratt, refused to accept the position saying he only recognized the community’s traditional way of selecting leaders.

“Here we have an assimilation policy trying to erase our identity,” said Tony Wawatie, a community spokesperson.

Atleo said it was time for the Conservatives to respect the community and allow the Algonquins to settle their own affairs.

“I have offered a proposal to the Minister of Indian Affairs for a joint fact-finding process with the AFN and the minister to work with the community to clarify the issues,” said Atleo, in a statement issued Monday. “We call on the federal government to respect and honour the rights of the Algonquins of Barriere Lake to control their own affairs and resolve any governance issues through their own internal processes.”

Barriere Lake has also received support from Giller-prize winning author Joseph Boyden who castigated the government over the community’s treatment.

“Hundreds of generations before us protected the land with our customary governance code. We refuse to be the last,” wrote Boyden, in column published in the Globe and Mail.

Barriere Lake has been gripped by a leadership crisis for years partly as a result of a failed deal with Ottawa and Quebec City which would have given the community co-management over thousands of square kilometres of their traditional territory.

The federal and provincial governments never honoured the deal, which was followed by several others including a $20-million agreement to expand the land base, build houses and a school.

But in 2001, Indian Affairs walked away from it all. The federal government said the money was never promised.

The community has been forced to either abandon the agreements or continue to fight for them against long odds. This has led to a continuous tension between factions within Barriere Lake, with one side saying it’s time to give up and focus on operating the community. 

After another leadership crisis erupted in 2009, former Indian Affairs minister Chuck Strahl invoked rarely used Indian Act powers to impose a band council on the Algonquins.

The community repeatedly boycotted and blocked the vote this past year on the reserve forcing Indian Affairs to hold the election 45 kilometres outside Barriere Lake.

That vote was scuttled as well, but the department decided the 10 mail-in ballots were enough to create a band council.

Barriere Lake is one of the poorest First Nations communities in the country, but the Algonquin language is spoken prominently and there is still a heavy dependence on hunting, fishing and trapping.

The community has used a traditional leadership process called blazing where elders select candidates for chief and council with approval from the community. 

An Indian Affairs minister has used section 74 of the Indian Act to impose a band council twice since 2002, and its most infamous use came in 1924, when Canadian authorities imposed an elected band council on the Ontario Iroquois community of Six Nations.

Barriere Lake has a population of about 650 people and sits on the shores of the Cabonga reservoir in a 24 hectare reserve negotiated by a priest and the Quebec government in 1961.

The community, however, claims 17,000 square kilometres of traditional territory that includes part of La Vérendrye Wildlife Refuge and the headwaters of the Ottawa River.

The forests there are thick with spruce, pine, white birch and balsam fir. Profits from forestry, hydro developments and tourism in the area range in the $100-million-a-year mark, but Barriere Lake receives none of it.

The Algonquin here are connected only to treaties signed in the 1700s with the British Crown to shift their alliance from the French.

In the 1980s, they began agitating for their land rights. 

The community launched a series of logging blockades and protests that in 1990 culminated with the shutdown of Highway 117 during the Oka crisis.

The blockade brought the federal and Quebec governments to the table and all three sides signed a trilateral agreement in 1991 on the co-management and sustainable development of the area.

And on Monday, the Algonquins against took to the streets of Ottawa to demand the deal be respected.