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‘This looks like tyranny’

ALGONQUIN TERRITORY, Canada – What if the federal government imposes a chief and council on an indigenous community, but no one – including the imposed chief – agrees to abide by the decision?

That’s what’s happening to the Algonquins of Barriere Lake.

The Canadian government’s Department of Indian and Northern Affairs has announced that a new chief and council have been elected by acclamation according to a section of Canada’s Indian Act of 1876. The decision was based on six to 10 mail-in nomination ballots received by a federal government electoral officer.

The federal government’s announcement in mid-August came only weeks after members of the Algonquin community staged a non-violent protest July 22 when members used their cars and trucks to block access to their territory and successfully stopped a federal elections officer from entering to hold a nominating meeting for a new chief and council.

Casey Ratt, the acclaimed chief, said he will not take the position because he refuses to break ranks with the community’s broad opposition to the Indian Act band elections that INAC has been trying to impose on the Algonquin band, community spokespersons Tony Wawatie and Marylynn Poucachiche said in a statement Aug. 17.

“The Canadian and Quebec governments are shamefully treating our community like criminals for peacefully protecting our inherent right to govern ourselves according to our customs,” Wawatie said. “The Canadian government is attempting to unconstitutionally abolish our traditional leadership selection. They claim imposing this regime is a democratic move, but the overwhelming majority of our community members are opposed and want instead to maintain our own system

of government.”

After the July blockade, INAC rescheduled the nomination poll for Aug. 12, but band members promised to protest and boycott the nomination poll again despite threats that the Quebec Provincial Police would guard the polling states and arrest anyone who tried to interfere with the polling.

"This is the three-figure wampum belt that depicts the relationship the algonquins entered into with the French and British governments over 200 years ago," Algonquin Shiri Pasternak said.

In May, the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples issued a report affirming that First Nations have the right to maintain control over their internal affairs and be free to pursue their vision of customary government.

Also in May, almost 200 community members out of a total population of around 450 people, including children, signed a resolution rejecting the federal government’s regime and supporting the band’s traditional leadership selection process.

“Does the Minister of Indian Affairs really think that the consent of a handful of people can let them get away with eradicating our system of government?” Wawatie said. “The government has lectured us about democracy. But how can this be democratic if it goes against the will of our entire community? This looks more like tyranny.”

The community was divided at one time and a small division represented by the six to 10 ballots still exists, Poucachiche said.

“But we’ve been in a reconciliation process for a long time and the community is unanimous in opposing the (Indian Act election regime). The Canadian government is still insisting that the community is divided, but we’re not,” Poucachiche said.

The First Nations in Canada use a number of methods to select their leaders. Many First Nations are not subject to the electoral provisions of the Indian Act, a Victorian-era document that exerted social controls on and colonized the land’s Indians nine years after Canada became a nation in 1867.

According to the federal government, First Nations select their leaders as follows:

  • 252 Indian bands (or 41 percent) hold elections in accordance with the election provisions of the Indian Act.
  • 334 bands (or 54 percent) conduct “custom elections” under custom codes developed by the band.

  • 29 First Nations (or 5 percent) select leaders pursuant to the provisions of their self-government agreements.

  • Approximately 10 – 15 bands follow other leadership selection mechanisms, such as the hereditary or clan system.

The Barriere Lake Algonquin Band fits into the last category with members maintaining that their inherent right to customary self-government is protected by the Canadian constitution and enshrined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The Algonquin band’s struggle to maintain its right to determine the method of selecting its leadership has garnered strong support from the Assembly of First Nations, which passed a resolution at its Annual General Assembly in July in support of the Algonquin band.

On Aug. 12, the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs wrote a letter of support for the Algonquins to John Duncan, the minister of INAC, saying the chiefs are “shocked, alarmed, and deeply angered” at the federal government’s intervention in the band’s internal affairs and called for the immediate withdrawal of the action.

AFN National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo also wrote to Duncan the next day demanding that he rescind the Indian Act band elections and respect the community’s reconciliation process.

“Trying to force the community into the Indian Act election system, when they seem to be overwhelmingly opposed, will only increase tensions and the risk of confrontation with your Ministry,” Atleo wrote.

Poucachiche said the imposition of Indian Act elections “is an attack not only on our traditional system of government, but on our culture, language and way of life, which are all connected to our traditional system of government. We will not accept it.”

She said the band will continue to escalate its actions, including prohibiting any resource extraction on its land until the band’s “basic and legitimate rights are respected.”

There will be more “on-the-ground” political actions, Poucachiche said.

“The community is going to take it to another level.”