Speaking out against an unwanted Quebec mine

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Protest in Ottawa by the Algonquin people protesting the mining at Barriere, Dec. 2010. Photo: alienbeatpoet/Flickr

The Algonquin community of Barriere Lake, Quebec, have for weeks been confronting a new threat to their unceded indigenous territory.

Cartier Resources -- a Val d'Or based corporation -- has begun line-cutting in preparation for its mining exploration. According to its website, the mining company claims that their "100 per cent owned" land base of 439 sq. km boasts rich copper deposits ripe for exploitation.

The question is, owned by who?

Community members and members of the Barriere Lake Solidarity group are concerned, especially with regards to land ownership and the mining ethics, situations that apparently violate international and nation-to-nation protocols for the management of indigenous lands. This includes, for example, the yet-to-be-honoured Trilateral Agreement signed in 1991 between Barriere Lake and the Quebec and Canadian governments, the latest examples of the provincial and federal governments' long history of not honouring agreements and treaties with First Nations.

Regarding First Nation-to-First Nation solidarity, the community reports, "the workers on site, predominantly Crees from the Mistassini and Oujebougamou First Nations, agreed to leave when the Algonquins travelled to the proposed mine location and explained their opposition to the development."

The Mitchikanibikok'inik Council of Elders sent a letter on May 2 behalf of the community to MPs Nathalie Normandeau (Minister of Natural Resources and Wildlife), Geoffrey Kelley (Minister of Native Affairs) and Serge Simard (Delegate Minister for Natural Resources), stating their strong stance against resource development in the area until certain agreements -- including as the Trilateral Agreement of 1991-- are honoured. 

The commitment to resistance from the community is clear: "under these circumstances, any attempts at natural resource exploitation within the Trilateral Agreement Territory will be viewed by our First Nation as a breach of the 1991 Trilateral Agreement and the 1998 Bilateral Agreement, as well as, a violation of the government's duty to consult and to accommodate."

This is not the first time the Algonquins of Barriere Lake have stood up to defend the land from resource extraction. The impact of logging within the territory came to the world's attention since the late 1980s and early 1990s. At the time, Chief Harry Wawatie warned that "Quebec's decision to unilaterally move ahead with cutting permits in the territory of the Algonquins of Barriere Lake will plunge the region into a logging crisis." 

Traditional governance vs. the Indian Act

The Barriere Lake community states it has not been properly consulted (and represented) when it comes to the Québec government's mining interests in the area.

Currently governed by a band council implemented under a Federal Indian Act provision not employed since 1924, it has used Section 74 to remove the community's traditional governing system called the "Mitchikanibikok Anishinabe Onakinakewin." Section 74 was implemented by the Minister for Indian Affairs on April 8, 2011. The Section 74 council is currently without its chief who resigned in protest after being nominated.

Community resistance to this Indian Act-imposed council is strong. A letter by the Mitchikanibikok'inik Council of Elders, representing the will of the community, states: "We do not accept the illegitimate DIA (Department of Indian Affairs) imposed Section 74 council (Hector Jerome, Anida Decoursay, Chad Thusky, Steve Wawatie), nor, will our people be bound by any decision they purport to make on behalf of our First Nation. We will oppose and resist any and all efforts by the federal and/or Quebec governments to legitimize or use the DIA imposed Section 74 council as our First Nation's purported representatives."

It is this appointed Section 74 council that the government has been negotiating with in regards to any mineral exploration and extraction in the area; effectively bypassing the wider community in order to step out of previously signed agreements of 1991 and 1998.

The letter further states, "to avoid their obligations, the federal government has deliberately violated our leadership customs by ousting our Customary Chief and Council." The community thus does not feel it is being properly consulted regarding what happens on their territory.

Norman Matchewan, spokesperson for the Algonquins of Barriere Lake, commented, "In what amounts to a coup d'etat, they are recognizing a Chief and Council rejected by a community majority. The Quebec government is cooperating with the federal government because they are using the leadership issue as an excuse to bury the 1991 and 1998 Agreements they signed with our First Nation."

Community members currently refuse to be bullied by both the federal and provincial governments through the implementation of what they consider to be an illegitimate and colonial governing system and a backhanded way to impose the economic will of governments and corporations at the expense of the people and the land.

Resistance has been fertile with letter writing campaigns and highway blockades, made easier by the closeness of the community of 500, situated 300 km north of Ottawa. These are people who have kept to long-held traditions and speak Algonquin as their first language.

According to First Nations ally Corvin Russell, "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 Algonquin Territory is considered as unceded according to British Common Law, so it is for this reason that any relationships or negotiations with the federal or Quebec government are considered nation-to-nation since the Algonquins of Barriere Lake consider themselves to be a nation in their own right. The federal and Quebec governments need to heed this and should act as prescribed under the jurisdiction of the United Nations Declaration of Indigenous Rights (UNDRIP), which Canada signed in 2010.

Accorded under UNDRIP is the right for indigenous peoples to have control "over developments affecting them and their lands, territories and resources will enable them to maintain and strengthen their institutions, cultures and traditions, and to promote their development in accordance with their aspirations and needs." 

The government of Canada and Quebec are not fulfilling this obligation if there is such documented resistance against the Section 74 Council and any extractive industry projects. In fact, the conduct of they are behaving contrary to the spirit of the UN resolution. But they can get away with it. Unfortunately, this declaration is not binding.

While the Barriere Lake community of northern Quebec is small, and the struggle against the federal and Quebec government a David vs. Goliath battle (or a Windigo vs. community battle), the solid traditions and steadfast resistance towards colonialism and environmental degradation forms the strong heart of this community.

The Algonquins are clearly saying that it is not the federal or Quebec government that speaks for them, but the Algonquins themselves.

Krystalline Kraus writes the Activist Communique for rabble.ca.

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