Camil Simard, director of negotiations, governance and individual affairs for the Quebec Region of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, spoke with Indian Country Today about the situation at the Barriere Lake Algonquin community.
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?
CS: 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. …?
CS: 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 has 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?
CS: 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 that 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?
CS: 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?
CS: 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.
CS: 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.