Ottawa-appointed officials rang up over million dollar tax debt handling Barriere Lake’s finances: Chief

Barriere Lake wants meeting with Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett

Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
Ottawa-appointed third-party managers handling the finances of a Quebec Algonquin First Nation have run up over a million dollars in tax debt, according to the chief of the community.

Algonquins of Barriere Lake Chief Casey Ratt said the massive tax bills are owed to Revenue Canada, Revenue Quebec and the province’s workers compensation agency.

Ratt said he has no idea how the bill got so big or the details of the debt.

“To date our council is still unaware of the exact amount of these payables,” said Ratt in a Nov. 16 letter to Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett, obtained by APTN National News. “We are not aware if these amounts have been paid nor do we have knowledge of a debt repayment plan and schedule.”

Barriere Lake wants Bennett to arrange a mediation process so the isolated Algonguin community of about 400 on-reserve residents can settle these outstanding issues and begin work to again take over the management of the band’s finances.

Barriere Lake, which sits about 300 kilometres north of Ottawa, has been under third-party management since 2006. It’s currently involved in a $30 million court case before the Ontario Superior Court of Justice it launched against Ottawa and previous third-party managers Atmacinta Hartel Financial Management and BDO Canada. Barriere Lake alleges Hartel cut about 15 bad cheques while managing the band’s finances, according to the court filing.

The third-party managers, appointed by Ottawa to run the financial affairs of indebted bands, have collected about $6 million worth of fees from the federal government for managing Barriere Lake’s finances, the community alleges.

Ratt said if the Justin Trudeau Liberal government is serious about reconciliation, it would start working with Barriere Lake to help it emerge from its third-party management quagmire.

“There is no exit strategy to bring back our administration or for capacity building to take over our administration at some point,” said Ratt, in an interview. “They say, ‘We know what is best for you.’”

Ratt said he was only recently informed by the new third-party manager Lemieux Nolet of the tax bill which hit about a million dollars in 2008-2009 and has likely grown since that time.

The federal Indigenous Affairs department said Bennett is “currently getting fully acquainted with the file” and “will take the time to respond to Chief Ratt first.”

The department said in a statement that the Trudeau government “is committed to a renewed, respectful and inclusive nation-to-nation process to advance progress on issues First Nations have prioritized, including housing a new fiscal relationship with First Nations such as Barriere Lake.”

While the minister mulls the response to Barriere Lake, Ratt fears the community will slide further into debt while continuing to operate in crisis mode.

The latest issue involves the third-party manager’s decision to force dialysis patients to attend medical appointments in car pools with other patients.

“The traveling and waiting times alone do not permit car-pooling,” wrote Tony Wawati, the band’s interim director general in a letter sent Nov. 22 to Health Canada’s Quebec regional office.

Wawati said the third-party management firm’s official handling the Health Canada file was kicked out of the community two weeks ago because they wouldn’t work with the community’s health coordinator.

“(The official) was doing what (they) wanted in the community,” said Wawati. “(The official) was basically there giving orders and it wasn’t working.”

Ratt said Barriere Lake’s relationship with Quebec is miles ahead of its relationship with Ottawa at the moment. The community is currently in negotiations with Quebec over co-management of its traditional territory, a possible revenue sharing agreement and expanding the reserve’s land base.

After several years of struggling with internal leadership tensions, which resulted in former Indian Affairs minister Chuck Strahl using rarely used powers in 2010 to impose an Indian Act band council on the community, Barriere Lake has now entered into a period of relative political stability.

The Algonquins of the community have never surrendered their rights to the territory which has been under constant pressure from logging. Barriere Lake is only connected to treaties signed in the 1700s with the British Crown to shift their alliance away from the French.

The community sits on the shores of the Cabonga reservoir on a 24 hectare plot of land that was negotiated by a priest and the Quebec government in 1961. Barriere Lake claims 17,000 square kilometres of territory that includes part of the La Verendrye Wildlife Refuge and the headwaters of the Ottawa River.

Their forests are thick with spruce, pine, white birch and balsam fir and teeming with wildlife. While the profits from hydro development, logging and tourism in their traditional territory ranges in the $100 million-a-year mark, the community remains one of the poorest in the country.

Barriere Lake has been agitating for land rights since the 1980s and blocked Hwy 117 during the 1990 Oka crisis. That blockade led to the eventual negotiation of a tri-lateral agreement with Ottawa and Quebec. Ottawa eventually walked-away from the agreement under former Liberal Indian Affairs minister Robert Nault, who was re-elected as an MP in the Oct. 19 federal election.

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