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Activist Communique: The Algonquins of Barriere Lake demand Canada respect their right to traditional government

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Braving yesterday's frigid temperatures in Ottawa, over 200 people marched through the streets - from Parliament Hill to the PMO's office to the Office of the Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs - to support the Algonquins of Barriere Lake. You can view some amazing pictures of the action here. (Migwetch to Mike Barber).

The group, a mix of residents of Barriere Lake and its supporters, demand:

--Canada and Quebec must honor the Trilateral Agreement they signed with Barriere Lake in 1991

--Canada must respect Barriere Lake's traditional government

--Canada must reverse the forcible assimilation by rolling back section 74 of the Indian Act. A full list of community demands can be found here.

Put more simply, the community asks: "What if a foreign regime was destroying your system of government, so it could then steal your resources and prevent you from environmentally protecting your homeland? This is what the Harper Government and federal bureaucrats are doing to the First Nation of Barriere Lake."

Using section 74 of the Indian Act, the Federal government has interfered with the self-government of the Barriere Lake community (the reserve is actually called Rapid Lake) in supporting its approved band council, displacing the traditional governing structure of the community. The current band council was acclaimed in August 2010 and they claim they represent Barriere Lake despite some living 150km away.

The Canadian government defends the use of section 74 by stating that it implements this section of the, "Indian Act in order to ensure an election is held in accordance with the election provisions of the Indian Act and the Indian Band Election Regulations and not under the Band customary code."

Supporters describe the governing of Barriere Lake through section 74 in these terms: "The band council electoral system the Harper government has imposed destroys the sacred governance bond the community has with the land. By breaking Barriere Lake's connection to the land, the Canadian and Quebec governments hope to get away with violating trailblazing environmental agreements and with illegally clear-cutting in Barriere Lake's traditional territory."

It should be noted there that the Federal government's intervention into Barriere Lake reserve's affairs not only violates the Canadian Constitution which enshrines the right of Indigenous self governance but also violates the newly signed UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Whether the Federal government cares about these rights is subject to understanding the paternal stance it has taken in acting as though the people of Barriere Lake are unfit to govern themselves.

In its attempt to assimilate the traditional way of community governance, the behaviour of the Canadian government has rightly been denounced as an attempt at cultural genocide.

"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."

Barriere Lake community members came to Ottawa Monday to prove that it is not just a small minority of community members who oppose the actions of the Federal government, but the majority of the community.

In July, 2010, a group of Algonquins barricaded the lone road into their reserve, 271 kilometres north of Ottawa, and turned away a federal electoral officer trying to enter their community with Quebec provincial police tried to impose band elections.

In regards to that August 2010 election, only a handful of ballots were cast for candidates who represented an Indian Act Chief and Council. Those nominated were acclaimed to their positions while almost 200 community members had already signed a resolution rejecting the whole election process; representing a majority vote tally of eligible voters.

The resistance movement is led by youth to defend their traditional ways without the colonial interference of the Federal government and its Indian Act and are supported by the community of roughly 500.

You can read a detailed history of the National of Barriere Lake here because it is quite complex. Intervention into its governing structure dates back ten years.

And let me point out that while it is true that something has to be done to settle the issue of who has the right to govern who (Third Party Managers) - even looking back to 2006 when a team of consultants from the Quebec City consulting firm Lemieux Nolet were installed to manage (I won't use the word govern) the remote community - using the Indian Act as a tool of assimilation to force order and good governance onto Indigenous people is not the solution.

Residents fear that with the Federal government effectively in control of the community and its resources, this opens the door to racist environmental exploitation of their forests and land. Actions to prevent this outcome include attempting to get the Federal and Provincial government to honour the 1991 Trilateral Agreement.

"The Trilateral Agreement is a contract between the Federal Government (Canada), the Provincial Government (Quebec) and the Algonquins of Barriere Lake (ABL) that deals with land use of 10 000 km2 of land traditionally inhabited and used by the ABL. It is an alternative to Canada's preferred negotiation policy, called the "Comprehensive Land Claims." This negotiating process forces First Nations to extinguish their Aboriginal rights and title upon settlement, to give up communal land rights for private property ownership, and to shoulder expensive legal and land use mapping costs that eventually get docked from meagre settlements.

The ABL rejected this Comprehensive land claims approach, and chose instead to sign a conservation plan called the Trilateral Agreement. In summary, the Trilateral agreement would see the ABL included in decision making about the land, and gain a financial return from any resource extraction or commerce on their land (logging, hydro-electric, tourism). It would see traditional Algonquin knowledge of the land integrated into how the territory might be used and conserved."

The National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Shawn Atleo, has already warned the government to reconsider its actions: "Trying to force the community into the Indian Act election system, when they seem to be overwhelming opposed, will only increase tensions and the risk of confrontation with your ministry," he said.

Unfortunately, the actions of the Federal government in regards to Barriere Lake is nothing new in the history of Canada, and its actions reflect not only the government's paternal stance concerning First Nations people but also a fundamental lack of understanding of First National traditions (which are neither homogenous nor infantile).  

Corvin Russel, of Barriere Lake Solidarity, writes, "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."

So let me pose the question again: "What if a foreign regime was destroying your system of government, so it could then steal your resources and prevent you from environmentally protecting your homeland?"

What would your community do?


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