Red squares for Indigenous solidarity: Montreal protests logging of Algonquin land

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Photo: David Champagne

Last week in Montreal, clanging cookware and red squares became symbols of solidarity with an Indigenous community defending its land rights. On Wednesday, July 18, about 200 people demonstrated at the Montreal headquarters of Resolute Forest Products, the logging company currently locked in a stand-off with Algonquin protestors near Poigan Bay, Quebec.

Banging pots and pans, the crowd denounced Resolute for continuing to log in the territory of the Algonquins of Barriere Lake despite staunch opposition from the people living there.

Members of this Indigenous community, located a four-hour drive north of Montreal, have maintained a protest camp near the logging site for more than two weeks. Gabriel Wawatie, an elder whose family harvesting grounds fall within the area being cut, wrote in a letter to Quebec Premier Jean Charest on July 4: "As one of the main harvesters, I was not properly consulted nor provided a written consent to this logging."

Other Algonquins at the protest camp have decried a lack of community consultation and warned that the area being logged includes moose habitat and sacred grounds.

"They're not only destroying the forest," said community member Severe Ratt in a July 13 interview with CUTV. "They're also destroying our way of life."

Wednesday's protest in Montreal included speeches from members of Indigenous solidarity groups, the Algonquins of Barriere Lake (via cellphone from the logging site), and Quebec's leading student coalition (Coalition large de l'Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante, or CLASSE).

Protesters tried to enter the building of Resolute Forest Products to deliver a letter from the Barriere Lake community, but were blocked by security guards.

Following the action, the Indigenous Peoples Solidarity Movement Ottawa observed in a Facebook post: "The often invisible but essential organizing by native solidarity activists over years in Montreal has laid groundwork to bring Indigenous rights into Quebec's mass movement, drawing new connections between the struggle for decolonization and broader social justice."

The influence is flowing the other way, too, as some of the Algonquin community have taken up the red square symbol and are wearing it at the logging protest camp.

For Resolute Forest Products (formerly known as Abitibi Bowater), the timing of the protest campaign is not good. Just last month, in a joint press release with the World Wildlife Fund, it proclaimed its distinction as the company logging the largest acreage of forest certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). FSC certification is meant to denote sustainable forest management, including respect for Aboriginal rights.

On Wednesday, Resolute responded to the controversy with a press release stating that its "right to harvest in the area has been approved by the QMNRW [Quebec Ministry of Natural Resources and Wildlife], following appropriate consultation with the Barriere Lake Band Council."

I was unable to reach anyone at the company or the band council office to clarify the nature of this consultation.

What the release failed to mention is that the band council in question consists of four people declared to be councillors by the federal government in a highly contentious, undemocratic process that was denounced by the majority of community members and by the Assembly of First Nations.

In 2010, the federal Department of Indian and Northern Affairs announced it would no longer recognize the First Nation's traditional governance and leadership selection system. It would instead impose the election-based band council system.

The move was so reviled by the community that nearly every member boycotted the process. Only 10 people submitted nominations. Two hundred members -- a majority of eligible voters -- signed a petition stating their opposition to the election and their desire to maintain the traditional system.

Undeterred, the federal government simply declared the five people who had been nominated to be the new band council. The man named as chief resigned in protest.

The four band councillors remain, to this day, the official leadership of the community in the eyes of the federal government. Three of them do not live on the reserve that's home to the majority of the people they are supposed to represent. It seems that consultation over resource extraction is happening only with them, with most of the community left in the dark.

"It was very hard to find out what's happening because we have no communication, especially with the council that is there right now," said Severe Ratt.

As a signatory to the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement, Resolute has committed to "proactively addressing the interests of forest dependent communities in a respectful manner" and endorses the idea that "successful forest conservation... require[s] effective involvement of Aboriginal peoples and their governments."

The logging operation also falls within a zone certified by the Canadian Standards Association, under a standard that states: "Aboriginal forest users and communities... require unique consideration in the public participation process."

Can Resolute believe these standards have been upheld in any meaningful sense in the case of Barriere Lake? When the family that harvests from the forest say they were never consulted, and along with sixty other community members are so upset by the logging they drop their regular activities to maintain a two-week protest camp, claims of "appropriate consultation," "effective involvement" and "unique consideration" of forest users ring hollow.

As of Saturday, in the woods near Poigan Bay, dozens of Algonquins remained encamped by the logging machinery sent to level the forest that provides them with food, medicine, spiritual sustenance and cultural memory.

The government and the logging company cannot sweep these people under the rug by simply repeating the party line that the band council speaks for the community, the band council has been consulted and that is that.

They are determined to stay and be heard, and their links with broader movements for social justice across the province are growing. They will not go quietly.

Update: On Monday, reports came through solidarity activists that the Ministry of Natural Resources and Wildlife met with representatives of the Algonquin logging protest encampment. They discussed the possibility of changing cutting plans to preserve areas of particular concern to the community. Expecting that logging will be on hold as discussions continue with the ministry this week, the majority of protestors left the camp on Sunday, with a few remaining to keep an eye on the situation.

For more information and up-to-date media coverage, see the websites of Indigenous Peoples Solidarity Movement Ottawa and Barriere Lake Solidarity.

Lori Theresa Waller is a freelance writer and editor based in Ottawa. She has written for Briarpatch Magazine, The Dominion and The Ottawa Citizen.

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