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Barriere Lake rallies for traditional governance and treaty rights

OTTAWA, Ontario – A small Algonquin First Nation community says it will continue its struggle for sovereignty and self-determination against the Canadian federal government’s efforts to control its land, resources and internal affairs.

On Dec. 13, more than 100 people from the Algonquins of Barriere Lake demonstrated on Parliament Hill to demand an end to the unwanted council that members say was imposed on them by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, the ministry that oversees indigenous issues. The rural Algonquin community is located in the province of Quebec around three hours north of Ottawa, Ontario, the country’s capitol.

The ABL citizens were joined by hundreds of their supporters, a broad network that includes members of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, Canadian Union of Public Employees, Public Service Alliance of Canada, the Council of Canadians, KAIROS, the New Democratic Party and Green Party, Christian Peacemaker Teams and others.

At issue is the Canadian government-imposed “election” held in August under Section 74 of Canada’s 1876 Indian Act.

Section 74 says that the minister of Indian Affairs can impose an electoral system on First Nations with customary leadership selection processes.

“Whenever he deems it advisable for the good government of a band, the minister may declare by order that after a day to be named therein the council of the band, consisting of a chief and councillors, shall be selected by elections to be held in accordance with this act.”

The Barriere Lake Algonquins are among only two dozen First Nation bands that follow a customary leadership selection process. Members say their inherent right to do so is protected not only by Canada’s Constitution, but also by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples endorsed by Canada this year. They attribute the strength of their community, language, knowledge and protection of the land to the endurance of their customary governance system and say losing it would have devastating consequences on their way of life.

The federal government-run “election” yielded fewer than a dozen ballots, but it announced nonetheless that a new chief and council were elected “by acclamation.”

An overwhelming majority of community members had boycotted the “election.” Of Barriere Lake’s total population of around 500 people, including children, almost 200 members signed a resolution rejecting the entire process.

Even Casey Ratt, the “acclaimed” chief declined to accept the position.

“I am in agreement with our elders that (the imposed council) will cause serious harm to the social fabric of our community. As you are aware, we are in the process of developing a community-based solution to the internal matters of our community with respect to our Anishnabe Onakinakewin. With the guidance of our elders, a new generation has taken a stand to resolve these issues while also opposing the process initiated by the Department of Indian Affairs. We will see to our own well-being, as Anishnabe. We will not surrender our rights nor will we allow the Department of Indian Affairs to do away with our customary selection process,” Ratt wrote to INAC.

The INAC council consists of four members and no chief.

The community also continues to protest against the federal and provincial Quebec governments’ violation of the 1991 Trilateral Agreement, a resource-use agreement that was supposed to create a sustainable development plan for the community’s traditional 10,000 square kilometers that would include revenue sharing, resource co-management, and economic independence for Barriere Lake.

The agreement was highly-acclaimed as an innovative environmental treaty at the time of its signing, but ABL members say the federal and provincial governments have refused to implement the plan.

The members fear that imposing an unwanted council is the federal government’s strategy to sever the community’s connection to the land. By doing so, the members say the Canadian and Quebec governments hope to get away with violating the resource-use agreement and illegally clear-cutting in the Algonquins’ traditional territory.

“How can anyone trust a government that won’t honor its word?” Tony Wawatie, Barriere Lake community spokesman, said. “The Trilateral Agreement would allow us to protect our land and be economically independent. But Canada and Quebec don’t want to share the land’s wealth. So the Harper government is violating our constitutional rights by trying to forcibly abolish our traditional government, which maintains our sacred connection to the land and our ability to protect the environment.”

The demonstrators delivered a copy of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a resolution opposing the INAC council with more than 150 signatures to be delivered to INAC Minister John Duncan.

Wawatie said the imposed government is “an undemocratic, unwanted, and foreign governance regime installed in order to derail our environmental agreement. Minister Duncan and the Harper government must reverse their draconian action and respect our right to maintain our traditional government. We encourage Prime Minister Harper to start implementing the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that he signed.”

The ABL have the backing of the Assembly of First Nations in their quest for self-determination.

AFN National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo issued a statement the day of the demonstration, calling on Canada to respect Barriere Lake’s traditional governance and environmental agreements.

“The AFN fully supports the citizens of the Algonquin of Barriere Lake in their call for control of their governance and decision-making based on their traditional approach – Onakinakewin, as it is called in their language. I have offered a proposal to the Minister of Indian Affairs for a joint fact-finding process with the AFN and the minister to work with the community to clarify the issues, to help resolve any governance matters and to ensure they can take control of their own governance and decision-making processes. The community supports this proposal and we call on Canada to work with us and the Algonquin of Barriere Lake to find the path forward.”

Canadian Indian Affairs official: Indian Act council is ‘a temporary measure’ Camil Simard, the director, Negotiations, Governance and Individual Affairs, Quebec Region, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada talked to Indian Country Today about the situation at the Barriere Lake community of Algonguins. Indian Country Today: The majority of the Algonquins of Barriere Lake are opposed to what they call the ‘imposed council’ INAC has put in place. How does INAC respond to that opposition?

Camil Simard: I notice you talk about an imposed council. I think we have to clarify the language in terms of Barriere Lake. The Section 74 of the Indian Act – are you familiar with the Indian Act? – is an extraordinary measure that is taken very rarely and only under extraordinary circumstances. In the past 10 years that measure was taken only three times, twice in the province of Manitoba with two First Nations facing also major government imbroglios and with Barriere Lake. The minister did not wake up one morning and say, ‘I’m putting Barriere Lake under the Indian Act.’ Since 2006 and even further than that, it’s a community that’s divided and all the groups in the community realize that. Since 2006 there has been uncertainty regarding the leadership. There have been three customary election processes since 2006. The Department (INAC) since 2006 offered help and funding so the community could try to resolve this thing internally. In a court case that the Department was not involved in the judge said the customary code was being manipulated by different factions for their own political agenda. ICT: With all this turmoil and factional disputes, did INAC monitor an election?

CP: No, not at all. We don’t oversee customary elections. We don’t get involved in that. We acknowledge the result of the election and that’s basically it. ICT: But if you don’t get involved in a customary election, why would you do an election where fewer than 10 people. …?

CP: There’s a lot of information circulating on this. We offered the factions help. We said, ‘funding is available for you – the members of Barriere Lake – to resolve this thing internally.’ People did not avail themselves of that. In the meantime, the community is paralyzed. Where there’s uncertainty of leadership it’s difficult to make advances in social and economic development. The minister said, ‘We’re offering help, we’re asking you to resolve this thing. I’m giving you a certain amount of time to do so otherwise I’ll have to get involved.’ This was in October 2009. In April 2010 nothing had changed. Nothing was done to address the problems with the customary code. The minister decided to bring them under the regime of the Indian Act in April. ICT: But apparently the majority of the community is opposed to this council. You may not like the word imposed but that’s what they say – it’s been imposed on them. And the very fact that the ‘acclaimed’ chief Casey Ratt declined the nomination is significant. And also the council press release says they are going to form a fact-finding mission, but that’s something the community has also proposed and Assembly of First Nations National Chief Atleo supports, so what role will INAC play if the different factions go forward with a fact-finding mission?

CP: There was an independent electoral official who oversaw the elections under the Indian Act. People were prevented from going to the nominations assembly, so people didn’t submit their ballots. So people submitted their ballots to be council members and chief and the electoral officer, given all the circumstances, made a decision to acclaim the council. The decision was not taken lightly and it was not the preferred decision. You know, we’re fully aware that the community is not happy with the Indian Act. I mean, we know that, but we’ve done that and the minister has said that this is a temporary measure to provide some certainty in terms of leadership so we can move on investment, because there’s work being done now on helping renovations, extension of the reserve, electrification and all that is going on right now trying to improve the quality of living for the people. We have said to the council to try to work with the community to make the changes (in assuring transparency and accessibility) to the customary code and when that happens then we’ll repeal the Indian Act. It’s a temporary measure so the community can come together and make the necessary changes to avoid further disputes between the factions. ICT: What role does INAC play in amending the customary code?

CP: No direct role. We’ve said there’s some funding available if they need to hire a facilitator or something like that, so it’s indirect. ICT: How’s that working out?

CP: So far no one’s coming to us for help. ICT: What is INAC’s position vis-à-vis the Assembly of First Nations’ support of the people who oppose the council? Atleo wrote to you recently with a proposal for a fact-finding project.

CP: Well, we’re aware that the national chief wrote to the minister and the minister will respond accordingly. In terms of AFN, we have no position on this.