OTTAWA ? Canada's native population has good reason to welcome the Aug. 21 retirement statement of Prime Minister Jean Chr?tien, who said in Chicoutimi, Qu?bec he would step down in 18 months.
According to early speculation, the ruling Liberal Party might turn to former finance Minister Paul Martin when Chr?tien ends his term in February 2004. Martin, who was fired by Chr?tien earlier this year, has met with First Nations leaders and shown sympathy to their fierce opposition to the First Nations Governance Act pushed by Chr?tien and his cabinet.
But beyond the policy issue, relations between Chr?tien's government and Canada's tribes have reached a nearly poisonous level, illustrated starkly by a recent incident involving the Barriere Lake Band of Algonquins and Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (DIAND) Robert Nault.
The story of the Mitchikanibkok Inik, the Algonquins of Barriere Lake, is a sad but true tale of poverty and broken promises that is becoming all too common amongst indigenous communities in Canada.
The isolated reservation is about 190 miles north of Ottawa in some of the harshest bush in North America. The band maintains a traditional lifestyle based on subsistence hunting and trapping. There is only one telephone line onto the reservation that is plagued with unemployment in excess of 90 percent.
On August 15, Grand Chief Carol McBride led a delegation from Barriere Lake consisting mostly of elders, women and children to Ottawa in a desperate attempt to speak with Nault on the band's worsening economic situation. According to a spokesperson for the tribe, Nault said he was there to unveil the First Nations Fiscal Institutions Initiative (FNFI), an infrastructure development program under the umbrella of the First Nations Governance Act, and not to address Grand Chief McBride's delegation. At this point, events allegedly took a turn for the worse.
A statement from the Barriere Lake tribal government said that the delegation crowded the Minister and demanded answers. Nault allegedly brushed pass McBride and got into his car aided by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) who feared the demonstration might become violent and pose a threat to Nault. While the Minister's car was leaving, members of the delegation believe they saw an aid lowering a window and throwing the Barriere Lake Delegation a quarter.
"How much contempt can Nault show our people," asked Hector James, a tribal leader and an eyewitness to the incident. "The Algonquin of Barriere Lake are living in Third World conditions, while the Minister and his staff mock us by throwing a quarter."
In an interview with Indian Country Today, Alistair Mullen, Nault's director of communications, attempted to cast doubt on whether the incident transpired as the Barriere Lake delegation said it did. Mullen said that the delegation made a "rush" at Nault at the FNFI announcement at the National Press Theatre, prompting the RCMP to intervene to protect the Minister's safety. He also stated that no one on the Minister's staff that was in the vehicle, including Mullen himself, had any recollection of a coin being tossed at the crowd. Mullen said it is not common practice where the safety of a Minister of the Crown is concerned to have vehicle windows lowered for any reason.
"When we see the tape if a coin was thrown from the window, we certainly will look at it," said Mullen. "We will have to agree to disagree with them on the rest of their problems." A series of pictures from the videotape have been provided to Indian Country Today, and on examination, an object is seen falling near the car, but the window seems to be closed and the aid's hand does not move.
Charlie Angus, a media spokesman for the Barriere Lake band, said compared to the other indignities suffered by the Algonquins at the hands of Ottawa, this incident is minor. He said the Minister had not yet responded, but should apologize to the Algonquin for the incident. Angus added that the Prime Minister's ego and legacy were behind the adversarial approach taken by Nault towards Native people.
"He has a phenomenally long memory," said Angus of Jean Chr?tien, who formerly held Nault's position in the first Trudeau administration and authored a controversial White Paper denounced and defeated by the First Nations. "This was supposed to be the bookend of his career so he could finish what he started, but he was defeated once before."
In the past 20 years the relations between Barriere Lake and Ottawa have been tested on several occasions. In 1988, Chief Jean-Maurice Matchewan led a series of non-violent protests, including an encampment on Parliament Hill, over the impact the logging industry was having on regional wildlife. The protesters were arrested. In 1989, another series of barricades was erected to increase international awareness of poverty on the reservation and the results of clear-cutting the forests. The Surete du Quebec (SQ), the provincial police, stormed the barricades in riot gear and arrested the protesters once again.
The UN helped to reach a compromise with a prototype Trilateral Agreement between Barriere Lake, Quebec and Ottawa. The plan recognized the role of Barriere Lake in making decisions on land use and development, identified sensitive religious and wildlife areas and addressed the concerns of the logging industry and tourism. But it has been plagued with what tribal government responses called "politically motivated delays."
The historical record appears to support this position. The agreement was signed in 1991, but Quebec and Ottawa refused to provide any funding until 1993. In the interim, Quebec walked away from the agreement and had to be forced back into participation by a judicial mediator. Later in 1993, negotiators for Quebec again stepped away from implementing the agreement because of a dispute over the size of buffer zones around bodies of water to protect wildlife and had to be ordered by the Premier to resume the province's participation.
In 1994, information provided by the band government indicates that Quebec and Ottawa switched their tactics to personal attacks on tribal leaders. Chief Matchewan was once again arrested for fiscal mismanagement based on the testimony of two dissident tribal members. The terms of his bail forbade him from returning to the reservation. Band administrator Michael Thursky was also arrested by the SQ for allegedly detaining two officers at the tribal offices. Dissident allegations of rampant sexual abuse on the reservation were also made prompting a task force to investigate the matter.
The dissidents filed suit to have the tribal government removed and succeeded in doing so on Jan. 23, 1996. Angus said the federal government arbitrarily removed the band council and appointed the dissidents, while using the controversy as a reason to abrogate its participation in the agreement. Barricades went up again and Ottawa used them as justification to cut all funding and power to the reservation.
"People lived totally off the bush with no heat or power for two years," said Angus. "The kids were not going to school and things got so bad that people were eating dog."
International outrage led to the restoration of the deposed Algonquin government, but has not prevented the federal government from walking away from the agreement again since 1998, said Angus, preventing it from becoming a model for other tribes in Canada.