The Sûreté du Québec (Quebec Provincial Police) has threatened members of the First Nations Algonquins of Barriere Lake community with arrest if they interfere with a private company’s logging activities on their territory.
The police warning came during the evening of July 9 after a group of Algonquins of Barriere Lake (ABL) community elders and leaders earlier in the day wrote a letter to Vincent Laurin, an official with the Quebec Ministry of Natural Resources, opposing his decision to issue logging permits to Resolute Forest Products to clear cut an unknown quantity of trees on Algonquin territory without the ABL’s consultation and prior consent. The company began cutting timber near Poigon Bay, Quebec, on the ABL territory on July 3. Resolute Forest Products, formerly known as Abitibi Bowater, is a multinational wood products corporation with sales of more than $4.75 billion in 2011. The logging area includes sacred grounds and important moose habitat, the group said.
“We express our concern about your unilateral decision to cut within our territory without meaningful consultation with our family harvesters; [a] decision that goes against the Supreme Court ruling and against the U.N. Declaration [on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples],” the group wrote, referring to the Canadian Supreme Court ruling in Haida Nation vs. British Columbia Ministry of Forests.
In the 2004 ruling the Supreme Court found that the government has a “duty to consult with Aboriginal peoples and accommodate their interests.” This duty is grounded in the “honour of the Crown” and applies even where title to land has not been proven.
“The duty to ‘consult’ and ‘accommodate’ is part of a process of fair dealing and reconciliation that begins with the assertion of sovereignty by the Crown and continues beyond the resolution of formal claims,” according to a summary on the Grand Council of the Crees website. “The foundation of the duty in the Crown's honour and the goal of reconciliation suggest that the duty arises when the Crown has knowledge, real or constructive, of the potential existence of the Aboriginal right or title and contemplates conduct that might adversely affect it.”
Consultation and accommodation before final claims are resolved preserve the aboriginal interest and are an essential corollary to or natural consequence of the “honorable process of reconciliation” inherent in Section 35 of Canada’s Constitution, which protects aboriginal and treaty rights.
The writers said they are experiencing hardships because they have had to accommodate extended family members after the government failed to hold consultations on previous cutting operations last year.
“Many significant sites in those areas were destroyed: sacred sites, moose yards, bear dens, medicinal sites, specialty wood sites and other important sites to our community [members] for their well being,” the group wrote.
Despite the community’s suffering, the writers said they extend their cooperation, promote co-existence, respect and harmony. In order to resolve the conflict, they are seeking access to a number of documents and information including: the cut plans on ABL territory since 2007; the volume and species of wood harvested; the names of the logging companies and copies of their scale slips; and copies of agreements made by the government or forestry companies with individual ABL members.
The July 9 letter to the provincial Ministry of Natural Resources was signed by elder Gabriel Wawatie, Jeannette Wawatie, Juliette Keys, and Moise Papapie. A spokeswoman at the ministry could not comment on the ABL letter.
On July 4, a day after Resolute Forest Products began its logging operation, elder Gabriel Wawatie wrote to Quebec Prime Minister Jean Charest objecting to the lack of consultation and demanding a halt to the logging.
“As one of the main harvesters, I was not properly consulted nor provided a written consent to this logging within our territory,” Wawatie wrote. “This clearly demonstrates your ministry’s lack of respect of the highest court ruling on the duty to consult and accommodate First Nations. Therefore we are requesting that you cease logging operations in our territory.”
In a video of the police visit an officer tells 20 or 30 community members that the rules are being imposed “so we don’t have any confrontation that could compromise safety among the people and that means men, women and children.”
“What about the land?” a community member asks. “This just deals with people. I’m reading what I have,” the police officer says.
“And the security of animals?” the ABL member asks. “We don’t have anything for the animals,” the police officer says.
He tells the members that obstructing the logging machinery would constitute a “mischief infraction” and obstructing the highway would be an infraction of the Quebec Highway Safety Act. He says the logging company obtained the “legal right” to cut trees down.
“So where did they get their consent?” the ABL member asks.
“The government,” the policeman says.
“So again our rights were ignored,” the ABL member says.
“You’re the one who knows. I don’t know. I can’t tell you,” the policeman says. “I have to go by what my superiors tell me. The orders come from high up. My duty was to come and read you the letter.”
The ABL’s traditional territory is about 4,000 square miles located 300 miles north of Ottawa, Ontario, and into Quebec.
“We need our land to survive and maintain our connection with the land,” Michel Thusky told Indian country Today Media Network. Poigon Bay, where the logging is taking place, is about an hour away from where most community members live.
The community does not log the forest, Thusky said. Members go out on the land in the summer collecting birch bark for arts and crafts and plants. They also do sustenance hunting for moose and other animals. The area where the logging is taking place is a sacred site, Thusky said.
“For us a sacred site is an area that’s been used for cultural practices and has been passed from our ancestors to our elders and from our elders down to the next generation,” Thusky said. “It’s an area where the community goes to get spiritual, emotional and physical support by being out on the land and doing ceremony and doing their offerings to the Creator to overcome the struggles they are faced with. So it’s about having our dignity and respect.”
The logging conflict is just the latest controversy to hit the beleaguered ABL community, which has been assailed for years by the federal and provincial governments—and private mining and forestry companies—over land resources and self-determination. In 2010 the federal government used a section of Canada’s colonial-era Indian Act of 1876 to announce that a new chief and council had been elected by “acclamation”—even though fewer than a dozen out of a potential 200 ballots were cast and the newly “acclaimed” chief declined to accept the position. A new election is scheduled to take place in August, Thusky said.
The community has also won some victories. Last July, Cartier Resources announced the suspension of its Rivière Doré copper mining project on the Algonquin community’s traditional land in northwestern Quebec. The suspension followed several months of peaceful direct actions by community members, expressing their overwhelming opposition to Cartier’s exploratory activities and the possibility that a mine would be developed at the site.