Canada and Quebec are waging a war of attrition on a small band of 500 Algonquin Indians a few hours north of Ottawa. Today, this war has reached a critical juncture: its outcome will be a judgment on whether Canada is able to share the land with First Nations while respecting their right to maintain their cultures and determine their own destinies, or whether Canada can only offer resilient Aboriginal cultures a menu of assimilation, dependency, and cultural death.
The community of the Algonquins of Barriere Lake stands out as one of the few road-accessible First Nations in Canada that has largely retained its language, its traditional economy and knowledge, and its customary form of government. Children still speak Algonquin. People still hunt, fish, and gather traditional foods and medicines. Traditional artifacts, even birch bark canoes, continue to be made. The community is one of only 26 First Nations in Canada (out of more than 630) that fully govern themselves by their customs. The Algonquins of Barriere Lake have survived as an Aboriginal culture because of a determination to hold on to their identity, and to preserve their relationship to their traditional lands, which provide them life and sustenance.
This stubbornness has made them very inconvenient for Canada and Quebec, who see the Algonquins of Barriere Lake as obstructing unfettered access to profit-generating resources on Algonquin land. For decades, Canada and Quebec have engaged in a drawn-out political, economic, bureaucratic and legal strategy to force the Algonquins of Barriere Lake into submission. In 1991, after years of blockades and political struggle, the Algonquins of Barriere Lake reached an agreement with the governments of Canada and Quebec that would allow for revenue sharing, sustainable resource co-management, and economic independence for Barriere Lake. But Canada has not honoured this agreement. Because Barriere Lake did not surrender Aboriginal title to its lands in this agreement, Canada sees the agreement as a threat to its Indian policy, which has always been about one thing: getting control of all Indian lands and extinguishing Aboriginal title everywhere. Canada and Quebec do not want to share land or revenues with First Nations.
Canada stopped paying the monies it owes Barriere Lake under this "Trilateral Agreement" in 2001, and has kept the community in a state of impoverishment. Quebec stopped paying implementation monies in 2007, and has never paid the royalties it owes under the agreement. Recently, the Canadian government used the band's deteriorating fiscal position, caused in part by non-payment of monies from Canada and Quebec, as a pretext to impose "third-party management", under which the band is administered by a private firm of white accountants in Quebec City who know nothing of Algonquin culture, who do not spend time in the community, and who are paid handsomely out of the band's meagre budget. (This firm was not selected through a transparent process and there is no public accountability for its actions.)
Canada has worked to undermine the community at every turn, criminalizing community members for defending their rights, subjecting them to police brutality, and keeping the community mired in court processes.
In its most recent gambit, the Department of Indian Affairs has used an archaic section of the Indian Act, last forcibly used in 1924 against the people of Six Nations when they were campaigning internationally to get their sovereignty and rights recognized. Under Section 74 of the Indian Act, Indian Affairs has imposed on the Algonquins of Barriere Lake a system of government more convenient to Canada -- one that gives people living off-territory the power to choose the community leadership, and run for office, even though they have the least stakes in maintenance of the community's land base and culture. By contrast, under Barriere Lake's customary governance code, participation in leadership selections is open only to those band members who live in the traditional territory and have knowledge of and connection to the land.
Canada claims that it must impose the Indian Act government on the Algonquins of Barriere Lake because their traditional system doesn't work and because the community is divided. But what community, Native or not, is not divided? This does not give Indian Affairs the right to meddle in First Nations' government. As community spokesperson Marylynn Poucachiche says, "in fact it's the government's interference in our internal affairs that has destabilized our governance." And, contrary to the ministry's claims, all major factions of the community are united in opposition to the imposition of Ottawa's system. Even Indian Affairs admits that only "between six and ten" community members, out of several hundred, participated in the Indian Affairs band council selection process. Even though most community members boycotted the process, Indian Affairs claims this council is "more democratic" than the traditional government. Casey Ratt, who was acclaimed as chief -- no vote was ever held -- refused the position. The Ottawa-imposed council is still operating without a chief and holding its meetings off-territory, signing logging permits and making other decisions that affect the community, without a mandate.
Canada and the Algonquins of Barriere Lake agree on one thing: the customary government of Barriere Lake is one of the sources of the community's strength in resisting assimilation. As Poucachiche says, "the real reason they are imposing band elections is to sever our connection to the land, which is maintained by our traditional political system. They don't want to deal with a strong leadership and a community that demands the government's honour its signed agreements regarding the exploitation of our lands and resources." That's why the white government has decided the customary Algonquin government must go.
Today, the people of Barriere Lake travelled en masse to Ottawa to protest the Canadian government's attack on their community and lands. Algonquin youth are leading the fight to uphold their traditions. The community has promised it will not allow the Indian Act system to be imposed by the white government. The Algonquins of Barriere Lake have never consented, by treaty or any other agreement, to be subject to the Indian Act. Barriere Lake's inherent right to customary self-government is protected by Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution, and is enshrined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. A May 2010 report by the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples affirmed that First Nations have the right to maintain control over their internal affairs and to be free to pursue their vision of customary government. The Assembly of First Nations has passed a unanimous resolution condemning the government and demanding that the Minister of Indian Affairs rescind the band elections, imposed through section 74 of the Indian Act.
The Harper government has made a great show of verbal apologies to Aboriginal Peoples for the atrocities Canada committed in the past. Many noble sentiments have been expressed about refounding the relationship between Canada and Aboriginal Peoples on a basis of respect. Last month, the Harper government gave a qualified endorsement of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Yet at Barriere Lake, Canada and Quebec are doing exactly what they have been doing for more than 150 years: ruthlessly pursuing a policy of assimilation and cultural genocide, in order to secure access to profitable resources without sharing the benefits with the Indigenous people they belong to. Meanwhile, the Algonquins are upholding the lands for all of us, native and non-native.
Barriere Lake is a signpost for the future of Canada-Indigenous relations. It is time for the people of Quebec and Canada to give meaning to all the noble words and promises, and to fulfill the guarantees our Constitution has made to Aboriginal Peoples. It is time for us to tell our governments: stop the cultural genocide of Aboriginal Peoples. Honour your word. And respect the rights of Indigenous Peoples, once and for all.
Corvin Russell is a member of Barriere Lake Solidarity.
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