They’re Clear Cutting Our Way of Life
Algonquins Defend the Forest
One of the most dangerous First Nations in Canada is a small community of around 250 Algonquins living in rural Québec. The threat they pose is so grave that the Canadian government has repeatedly intervened in their customary governance laws to put minority community factions in power. The Mitchikanibikok Inik, or Algonquins of Barriere Lake (ABL), have not taken up arms, nor do they occupy land near major transport arteries like Highway 401 that could be disrupted to costly economic effect. The danger posed by the ABL lies with a “Trilateral Agreement,” a co-management plan signed in the early 1990s that covers governance over the land, wildlife, and resources on 10,000 square kilometers of their unsurrendered traditional territory.
To understand the nature of this “menace,” some knowledge of the current land claims process is required. Canada’s preferred land claims negotiation process forces First Nations to extinguish their Aboriginal rights and title upon settlement, to give up communal land rights for “fee simple” (private property) ownership, and to shoulder costly legal and land-use mapping costs that eventually get docked from meager settlements. The government can withdraw at any time from the bargaining process. The ABL rejected this land claims approach and they have been paying the price in their community ever since.
In 1991, Canada and Québec agreed to the Trilateral Agreement which is a landmark conservation plan. Since then, the Algonquins have been fighting to have it implemented. Implementing the Agreement would ensure that they had a decisive voice in resource management decisions on their territory, the protection of traditional Algonquin land uses, and modest revenue-sharing deals – in addition to financing extensive and sophisticated traditional land use maps. The Trilateral Agreement sets a vital precedent that the government is determined to reverse. Signed during the heady days of co-operative federalism, with the shadow of Oka cast over Indian Country, negotiating the Trilateral proved to be a mistake the government would come to sorely regret.
The Canadian federal government and the Québec provincial government have clearly decided that the Trilateral Agreement, which provides a viable alternative to their preferred land claims process, must be stopped at any cost, even if that includes tear-gassing elders and children and arresting community leaders at non-violent road blockades.
The roots of the struggle lie in the Algonquins’ traditional ways of life, nurtured and transmitted from one generation to the next. There are few hunting societies left within the Ottawa-Montréal boreal region and the Algonquins proudly maintain their cultural survival by relying upon these traditional practices. Take, for example, the ABL’s school calendar: for two weeks each fall and spring the school closes for “beaver break”; an opportunity to teach the children about trapping and to get them out onto the land. Rare among the Algonquin nation, the entire Barriere Lake community can claim Algonquin, and not French or English, as their first language.
Despite the cultural richness of the community, the poverty on the reserve is dire. An estimated $100 million is extracted from their traditional territory annually in logging, hydro, and sport fishing/hunting revenues, but the Algonquins don’t see a dime of it. Most of the community lives on social assistance, much of their housing has been condemned by Health Canada, and the diesel generator that electrifies the tiny fifty-nine-acre reserve is barely able to keep up with demand.
The recent history of the ABL’s struggle for the Trilateral Agreement provides an important lesson on the perils of the path away from colonial land claim negotiations. In this case, a viable alternative co-management model for nation to nation negotiations would mean a real transfer of power over lucrative resource extraction by powerful corporations and states to a tiny and financially impoverished indigenous community. The Trilateral Agreement represents the commitment to respectful relations between nations that the wampums signify. This relationship has never been forgotten by the ABL, as was simply and powerfully displayed on a recent blockade banner: “Honour Your Word.”
Since time immemorial, the ABL have occupied over 44,000 kms of land in what is now the Outouais region of Québec, about 300 kilometers north of Ottawa. The Barriere Lake traditional land use area reaches from the northern Gatineau River and the headwaters of the Ottawa River southwest across the present Cabonga Reservoir to the Coulonge River.
The ABL are one of ten present-day Algonquin communities in the Ottawa River watershed that straddle the Québec–Ontario border. As their name and surrounding band names suggest, Algonquin territorial organization and land management is based on watersheds and waterways serving as boundaries for family, band, and tribal territories. The ABL once traveled extensively along these watery highways, spending their winters in the bush in extended families, hunting large game like moose and deer, and trapping fur-bearing animals, particularly beaver, which were of critical socio-economic and cultural significance. Though soil conditions were poorly suited to agricultural production, the community lived relatively well by hunting, fishing, trapping, gathering plant foods and harvesting traditional medicines.
The gradual displacement and dispossession of the ABL from their traditional territory has taken place over several centuries, by means of mounting restrictions and encroachments aimed at replacing their indigenous system of land tenure and jurisdiction with the laws and regulations of settler society.
In the early history of contact, the fur trade governed relations between the Algonquin, the French, and other settlers. Permanent European settlement in the territory began in the 1830s, when logging replaced the fur trade as the main economic activity. With logging came incursions by white settlers who hunted and trapped indiscriminately, decimating wildlife populations. By the 1870s, most of the ABL’s traditional territory was leased out to timber companies. From 1870-1913 an incredible 59 percent of Québec’s revenue from timber came from the two regions that make up the ABL’s traditional territory.
While the federal government did attempt to intervene on the ABL’s behalf, provincial policy flouted federal interventions and failed to even acknowledge the presence of the Algonquin people in the region. In 1929, several ABL community members drowned when a river unexpectedly overflowed – no one had bothered to inform them that the Gatineau Paper Company, a subsidiary of Canadian International Paper (CIP), was constructing dams to form a reservoir 100 square miles wide on their territory. The community was forced to relocate their settlement. A few years later and further south, CIP constructed more dams to provide power to their mills, this time flooding an additional 150 square miles of land in the heart of the ABL’s traditional territory.
Even bigger changes were to come in 1938 with the construction of the Mont-Laurier – Senneterre highway (now highway 117), which opened the region for tourism and sport-hunting purposes. Fiercely independent, the ABL pushed deeper into the forest, banned as they were from the 10-mile corridor created on either side of the highway for tourist recreation, where hunting and trapping were forbidden to the Algonquins.
Throughout the late 1940s, the Algonquins refused to abide by restrictive laws mandating permits for hunting and trapping. They further refused to be searched for “illegal” beaver pelts by police authorities after trapping had been banned and refused to make maps of their hunting territory or to provide demographic data for government collection.
In 1950, La Vérendrye Wildlife Reserve was established on ABL territory, creating new jurisdictional conflicts. Around this period, the ABL came to rely on a mixed economy to supplement their traditional livelihood, engaging in waged labour employment that included trapping, seasonal work at fur farms in the US, cutting trees for CIP, and guiding moose hunters. Ten years after their territory was unilaterally turned into a park, Québec finally transferred some land to the federal government to establish a Reserve for the Barriere Lake Algonquins at Rapid Lake. The ABL had been petitioning for land since 1876. But the reserve introduced a new slate of problems. They were given a measly 59-acre plot of eroded and sandy land totally insufficient for a few hundred people – no core infrastructure was built, no community development plan was established, and severe wildlife scarcities ensued.
The government believed the reserve land at Rapid Lake would silence complaints and satisfy local native land claims. However, the ABL never considered the reserve as a settlement of their land claims, but simply as lands set aside from settler excursion. This understanding is embedded in the Algonquin name for the reserve, “Kitiganik,” which translates roughly to mean “place to be planted”; the Algonquin saw themselves as planted there by the government, and did not intend to stay there permanently.
The ABL had other reasons to believe that their land would be protected. The Algonquins are signatories to the Treaty of Niagara of 1764, which ensured that no native lands could be sold before being ceded to the Crown by First Nations. The ABL never ceded their land. The Royal Proclamation of 1763 issued by King George III had also ensured such provisions, which remain enshrined in Section 35 of the 1982 Canadian Constitution.
The Barriere Lake Algonquins’ three-figure wampum belt, which dates back to the 1760s, provides further evidence of an agreement between the community, the Church, and the settlers. The belt depicts an understanding whereby, under the sign of the cross, no interference would be made into the local native ways of life. Woven into hair pins and stamped onto letterheads, the wampum has endured to this day as a symbol of an agreement between nations.
In 1970, at a meeting with government officials, elder Paul Matchewan said: “The moose, the birds and the fish, things by which our people lived, are being slaughtered by licensed hunters from outside. The government derives the benefit.” Four years later, the Barriere Lake Algonquins petitioned the government for control over their traditional lands and were turned away. In 1979, the Algonquins issued a joint resolution with other Algonquin communities (Maniwaki, Lac Simon, Grand Lac Victoria, and Abitibiwinni) calling for “the area situated within the boundaries of Parc la Verendrye [to] be henceforth reserved for hunting, fishing and trapping exclusively by the Algonquin people.” Instead, the Québec government has actively promoted the park to attract sport-hunters and canoe tourists. Today, the province reaps millions of dollars annually from the permits issued for hunting, fishing, and camping within the park, while the Algonquins receive nothing from the activity taking place on their lands.
By the 1980s, more than thirty-eight logging companies had leases in the ABL’s territory. The provincial government had begun to issue twenty-five-year, non-revocable logging concessions to companies like Canadian Pacific Forestry Products (now Domtar), to clear-cut large areas of La Vérendrye Wildlife Reserve. New logging roads cut fresh pathways through the territory, along which timber was extracted and sport hunting flourished. Despite these incursions, the ABL continued to practice their traditional ways of life, but under tremendous threat – not only was the natural habitat being destroyed by logging, but pesticides and herbicides were sprayed, killing vegetation and poisoning animals.
The ABL had already begun a campaign of blockades to protect the forest when the UN Brundtland Report (1987) was released. The report suggested that indigenous people should play a significant role in managing the sustainable development of natural resources. Sections of the report were translated into Algonquin and discussed with elders and community members. The Barriere Lake Algonquins were attracted by the concept of sustainable development, which explicitly recognized the needs of future generations. The ABL, under Customary Chief Matchewan, demanded that the Canadian government act on the report’s recommendations by allowing them to implement a conservation strategy on their territory, but the government continued to ignore their concerns.
The Algonquins took matters into their own hands, occupying Parliament Hill in 1989. They faced the Crown in federal court for this protest, ready to challenge their eviction from unceded Algonquin territory until the Crown got nervous and stayed the charges. When the ABL set up blockades to stop chemical spraying, Québec finally backed down. The community persisted and moved their protest camps to block six new logging roads. Their actions culminated in a blockade of provincial highway 117, a major regional artery for resource extraction.
Norman Matchewan, youth community spokesperson for the ABL and son of former Customary Chief Jean-Maurice Matchewan, was a child at the time of the blockades, but he remembers the conflict clearly:
In 1989, I remember the blockades we had near La Domaine, a forty-minute drive down the road from Rapid Lake where our community lives. These blockades lasted for a long time. I remember my Dad being attacked by the Québec Provincial ?Police. I was told about another fight my great kokom faced while out hunting. She killed a moose and the game warden tried to take her moose, but she didn’t want to let it go. She put up a fight and was hit in the head with a rifle, leaving a big cut across her forehead.?The violence my father later faced in the 1990s and I am facing today echoes what my great kokom went through to protect our rights. This is my community’s struggle to protect our way of life and our land.
Occurring during a provincial election, the 1989 blockades began to attract politicians’ attention: all it took was a visit from a PQ candidate for the Liberal provincial Minister of Indian Affairs to swoop down in his helicopter for a quick chat. John Ciacca replaced Raymond Savoie after the election and flew over in a helicopter from Oka the morning after the 1990 highway 117 blockade to discuss an agreement.
ABL’s Trilateral Agreement
After two more years of blockades, negotiations, stalling, and debate over water bodies in the territory an agreement was finally arrived at in 1991. The Trilateral Agreement, between the ABL, Quebec, and Canada would give the Algonquins ultimate decision-making power over resource management on the land entrusted to them by their ancestors.
The United Nations hailed the agreement as “trailblazing” and the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) suggested that it represented a strong model for moving forward with First-Nations-Canadian relations:
Not infrequently, co-management regimes are embarked upon without the funds, database, collective political will and ‘vision’, that are such vital ingredients to make a regime work… In contrast, the Trilateral Agreement provides for the time, the funding and the organizational infrastructure to create a database, a plan and a ‘mindset’ among all participants, to make a future partnership in resource management work.
Technically, the Trilateral Agreement is a study and recommendation process agreement. Practically, it is an arrangement between the Canadian state and the ABL that gives Barriere Lake a decisive voice in the management of 10,000 square kilometers of their traditional territory, protects Algonquin land uses, and gives them a share in the resource-revenue from natural resource development on their land.
This arrangement would still mean little if it did not provide the ABL with the financial resources to collect, correlate, and map the community’s traditional knowledge of their land. Without detailed maps of traditional land use, having a “say” at the table over resource management would be reduced to hazarding guesses or doing lengthy consultations with elders for each individual proposal for logging or resource extraction.
The government agreed to fund these traditional land use studies. Thousands of hours of oral history and traditional knowledge were incorporated within sophisticated Geographic Information Systems (GIS) maps that include, for example, Algonquin place names, winter camps, and animal migration routes. This knowledge set the frameworks and recommended regulations for such conservation concerns as the distance tree-cutting can come to sacred areas, plant harvest sites, cemeteries, and spawning regions of the watershed. Furthermore, as opposed to most land claims agreements, the Trilateral Agreement “creates an interim management regime which freezes further deterioration of the resource base” (RCAP, 1995).
The collection, inventory, study and analysis of data about renewable resources and their uses is the first phase of the Trilateral Agreement, and the preparation of a draft Integrated Resource Management Plan (IRMP) is the second. Although the agreement set out completion of the process by 1995, because of delays in the agreed upon process caused first by Québec (1991-1993) and then by Canada (1996-1997), the 1995 target wasn’t reached. In December 1996, Indian Affairs Minister Ron Irwin sent a letter affirming that the federal government would continue funding the Trilateral Agreement process. In fact, the federal government continued funding their portion of the 1991 Trilateral Agreement process only until July 2001 when then Indian Affairs Minister Robert Nault unilaterally withdrew from all ABL agreements. Québec funded the remaining Trilateral Agreement work, including part of Canada’s portion, from 2002 until 2006-07.
Phase three of the Agreement – the formulation of recommendations regarding implementation – was to involve developing:
a draft ecosystem-based Integrated Resource Management Plan (IRMP) with a commitment to the principles of sustainable development, conservation, protection of the traditional way of life of the Algonquins, and versatile resource use, and to reconcile forestry operations and sports hunting and fishing with the environmental concerns and traditional way-of-life of the Algonquins of Barriere Lake.
Due to the pullout of the federal and provincial governments, the third phase process of the Trilateral Agreement Phase has not been completed and Canada’s fiduciary obligations under this Agreement have never been fulfilled. The real threat posed by the Trilateral Agreement is the possibility that other indigenous nations might consider it as an alternative model to negotiating the use and ownership of their unceded territory under the Comprehensive Land Claims (CLC) process. As RCAP strongly underlines:
It must be emphasized that the Barriere Lake Trilateral Agreement has many inherent characteristics that suggest its applicability under widely varying circumstances. Most importantly, it is a well thought-out and politically non-threatening approach to co-operative sustainable development.
The CLC process forces negotiating bands to extinguish their Aboriginal rights and title, convert their communal land into “fee simple” (private property), and mortgage the cost of maps and legal fees against any financial settlement they might receive. On the other hand, the Trilateral process ensured that the government would fund comprehensive land use studies while giving the community a decisive role in resource management both during and after negotiations – without putting their Aboriginal rights and title on the negotiating table.
Subsequent conduct has cast serious doubt on the sincerity of government promises to ever honour their word and implement the plan in full. Instead of signaling the end of a long and difficult fight to assert their rights, the signing of the Trilateral Agreement marked the beginning of an even more treacherous struggle for the Barriere Lake Algonquins.
Thirteen Years, Two Coup d’états
During the Trilateral Agreement’s first phase, which provided research funding and interim measures to harmonize logging with Algonquin land uses, Québec and Ottawa dragged their heels. The money needed to undertake the work was not forthcoming.
However, after resuming funding for the Interim Resource Management Plans (IRMPs) in 1996, the Department of Indian Affairs changed tactics. They rescinded recognition of the Customary Chief and Council and appointed a small faction within the community, many of whom lived outside the reserve and were keen on seizing a piece of the logging revenue, as an “Interim Band Council.”
The ABL have never accepted the Indian Act’s electoral band council system. Instead Hereditary Chiefs and Councilors are nominated by an Elder’s Council and selected in community assemblies. The community assemblies are open only to Barriere Lake adults who speak the language, live on the traditional territories, and maintain a connection to the land. After the faction submitted a signed petition, Indian Affairs claimed the community’s leadership customs had evolved into “selection by petition” and recognized the dissident faction as the legitimate government. To make matters even worse, the ABL were placed under Third Party Management, which mandates that an external consultant unilaterally run the community’s finances.
The Indian Affairs-supported leadership was rejected by the community and forced to rule as a “government-in-exile” from Maniwaki, a town 130 kilometres to the south. The majority of the community blocked the roads and refused to let this council back onto the reserve. Through 1996, the dissident group received millions of dollars from Indian Affairs while the community in Barriere Lake was deprived of basic funding for employment, social assistance, electricity and schooling for over a year. “The whole community got together, and survived on the traditional territory,” according to Elder and former band manager Michel Thusky. The Trilateral Agreement was suspended during this period and logging in the territory resumed. Despite the dire poverty of the isolated community, blockades were erected and maintained through two harsh winters in an attempt to stop the logging.
Word of the community’s struggle began to get out to church groups, media outlets, and activists in the community. Michel Gratton, a former provincial cabinet minister, admonished the Federal government in a letter to the Montreal Gazette:
This unilateral decision to replace the Chief and council… is the imposition and diktat of raw power by the department against a small community without the resources or ability to defend itself.
Mediation in 1997 finally resulted in the reinstatement of the Customary Chief and Council; Indian Affairs agreed to restore the withheld funding, move forward with the Trilateral Agreement, and build housing, and to help bring electrification to the community. To avoid any future conflict over their governance procedures, the community codified their traditional laws, Mitchikanibikok Anishnabe Onakinakewin, into a ‘Customary Governance Code.’ Superior Court Judge Paul concluded that their customs had not “evolved” into selection-by-petition, as the dissident faction and Indian Affairs had claimed, and judicial review later revealed that Indian Affairs had advised the small “guerilla” group to submit the petition. One year later, the provincial government signed a “Bilateral Agreement” and a “5 Year Global Proposal” with the community, committing to expanding the land base, to revenue sharing, and to the building of new houses, a school, and other community infrastructure.
In 2001, the federal government walked away from the negotiating table one month before the first phase of implementation of the Trilateral Agreement was to be completed. Québec agreed to keep funding the Trilateral IRMPs and in 2006, John Ciacca and Clifford Lincoln were named as special negotiators, submitting seven Joint Recommendations as mandated under the agreements, specifying (among other things) revenue sharing, reserve land expansion, hydro-grid electrification, and the establishment of a co-management committee to implement the plan. All of these recommendations have been ignored.
Community members today believe that Indian Affairs is back to its old tricks. In 2006, Jean Maurice Matchewan was re-elected Customary Chief, but a small faction ran a parallel leadership selection, claiming to have adhered to the Customary Governance Code. Indian Affairs refused to recognize Matchewan, and for a second time put the community under Third Party Management claiming it was justified by Barriere Lake’s large deficit and uncertain leadership situation.
The Customary Elder’s Council immediately challenged the decision in federal court, arguing that the deficit issues could be cleared up if the money owed to Barriere Lake from the 1996 funding deprivation was repaid as promised. But in the yearly funding budget, negotiated by the Third Party Manager and Indian Affairs in 2007, the money owed by the government was simply struck from the record. Another coup d’état had taken place, only this time the DIA refused to recognize any new chief.
Superior Court Judge Paul confirmed the legitimacy of Matchewan’s council in yet another round of mediation in spring 2007, calling the government-sponsored challengers a “small minority” who “did not respect the Customary Governance Code.” Matchewan’s council was reinstated, but a year and a half later Matchewan stepped down as Chief. The Elder’s Council and community selected Benjamin Nottaway as Acting Chief, but the dissidents agitated once again and in January 2008, they held their own elections and were recognized by the Department of Indian Affairs as the legitimate government. Even the court worker assigned to observe the process put in writing that he couldn’t confirm the legitimacy of this council.
New Chief Casey Ratt insists he has the support of a majority of the community this time, but has refused to enter the leadership re-selection process demanded by the Elder’s Council to settle the dispute.
Indian Affairs says it plans to take the new council off Third Party Management, something the previous leadership was never offered. The new council has indicated that it plans to quash the court case challenging the federal government for unfairly imposing Third Party Management and for breaching the Trilateral Agreement.
Meanwhile, Québec has sat for a year-and-a-half on the provincial Joint Recommendations for its Trilateral obligations. But even with Québec’s agreement, the Trilateral Agreement could only go ahead with federal co-operation.
Marylynn Poucachiche, youth spokesperson for the community and coordinator of the volunteer school says:
I think the government has us where they want us, fighting with each other and forgetting about the real issues…. they can then keep exploiting our land and renegotiate the outstanding issues on their terms.
The Situation Today
Since March 2008, the community has organized a number of marches in Ottawa, has occupied local MP Lawrence Cannon’s office, and has traveled to Ottawa, Montréal, and Toronto giving public talks to raise awareness about their cause and the situation in the community. As a last resort, the community took the difficult decision to blockade provincial highway 117 on October 6, 2008. Community spokesperson Norman Matchewan explains what happened:
To avoid negotiations, the government allowed Monday’s peaceful blockade to be dismantled by the Sûreté du Québec (SQ), which without provocation shot tear gas canisters into a crowd of youth and elders and used severe “pain compliance” to remove people clipped into lockbox barrels… We set up the blockades Monday morning as a last resort, to inspire in the government a changed attitude. Our good faith and patience and reasonable demands have so far been rewarded by broken promises, deceit, and deplorable interventions. Is this all we can expect? (See October 8 posting on www.barrierelakesolidarity.blogspot.com for Norman Matchewan’s full op-ed in the Montreal Gazette).
There was worse to come. With no government response, the ABL erected blockades again on November 19. This time, the SQ targeted community spokespeople and leaders, arresting Acting Chief Benjamin Nottaway and Marylynn Poucachiche, among others. The Chief was jailed for forty-five days in Ottawa. Since March 2008, over forty people from the community have been arrested and charged.
One sign of hope are the federal court cases pursued by the Elders Council of the community against the Minister of Indian Affairs – one challenging the government’s decision to put the community under Third Party Management, the other launching a judicial review into the conduct of the Minister for recognizing the Ratt council in violation of the Customary Code, which constitutes an abrogation of Aboriginal rights and title. In the latter case, a rare judicial review has been granted the Elders Council and the actions of the Minister will soon bear judicial scrutiny and, hopefully, be called to account.
In their language, Algonquin peoples call themselves Anishnabec, meaning “original people,” or more generally “human being.” As Pete di Gangi, Director of the Algonquin tribal council once wrote, in the face of all this, traditional Algonquin conservation strategies have survived:
Despite years of sustained negative impacts, Algonquin use of fish and wildlife resources within their traditional territory has persisted. Perhaps even more important, Algonquin management techniques have continued to be applied wherever and whenever circumstances have permitted.
There is a saying in Algonquin among the elders, “Aki kina awek kedoja madizi” – “the land is for everyone.” The Algonquins of Barriere Lake are defending their land not only for their own future generations, but for all future generations. The time has come to join them.
In February 2008, one month before the latest coup d’état, a group of Montréal activists traveled to the Rapid Lake reserve. At a community meeting, they presented a request to do solidarity work with the Algonquins and a relationship was formed. The Barriere Lake Solidarity Collective was created in Montréal soon after the visit, with solidarity groups following in Ottawa and Toronto. Leadership has been taken from ABL community members and, save for minor exceptions, supporters have not undertaken to speak on the community’s behalf without permission.
I cannot speak on behalf of the solidarity collectives but I can give an impression of the work that we are doing. The Montréal, Toronto, and Ottawa solidarity groups work on joint initiatives, but are relatively autonomous. Montréal is the most active group with the largest membership, but each group makes strong contributions to the effort. The solidarity groups have hosted public speaking events with community members, undertaken extensive media and outreach campaigns, brought dozens of supporters to the first and second blockades in October and November 2008, organized fundraisers, and helped plan marches, actions, and other protests.
What I find most productive about the work of the solidarity committees has been the emphasis on creative campaigns and cultural production; on historical and political analysis of Canadian colonial policies; and on forming relationships with ABL community members. In particular, Montréal activists initiated “Mitchikinabiko’inik Nodaktcigen” (“Radio Barriere Lake”) on the reserve and are helping with an alternative community economic development project of crafts marketing. “Barriere Lake Anishnabe Kachigwasin,” a film produced by Martha Steigman about the first blockade, with footage later included of the second, rapidly became a viral video that has garnered national and international attention for the community.
Montréal activists also initiated a call-in campaign targeting Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) officials, spending many cumulative hours locked in a serious debate with bureaucrats about the Trilateral Agreement. The capacity for activists to call INAC and get into high-level debate about the fiduciary responsibilities of government, the details of the Trilateral, and the history of INAC’s actions towards the community can perhaps be attributed to the fact that a central focus of the solidarity groups has been research and popular education on colonial history and policy in Canada. As a result we have been able to develop considerable fluency in the particular and complex legal, constitutional, and political history of dispossession in the particular case of the Algonquins of Barriere Lake.
Although much more space would be needed to adequately describe the challenges involved in doing this solidarity work, several issues are worth calling attention to. First, the complexity of the political narrative of Barriere Lake may have demanded a high level of engagement by activists, but this has also proved challenging for media, activists, and other groups to grasp. Secondly, the ABL dissidents have lashed out at the solidarity groups, even blaming them at times for contributing to the crisis. Thirdly, while the size of the community is small enough that there is little confusion about trustworthy gatekeepers and spokespeople, the challenge is precisely to not become a burden for the few spokespeople the community makes available, and also to remain mindful of uneven access to resources – money, phones, and internet access – which can make communication and organizing difficult. Nonetheless, as with any meaningful, responsible relationship, this one continues to be negotiated and redefined. Only time will tell what the long term effects of this work will be. In the meantime, word has gotten out about the situation at Barriere Lake, and that seems a victory in itself.
Urban supporters in today’s solidarity groups are certainly not the first supporters of the ABL’s cause and they will not be the last. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, ABL community spokespeople traveled to give talks in cities on a regular basis. According to Jean-Maurice Matchewan, the community’s supporters have also included non-native Québécois supporters on the early blockades and allies among other nations and organizations he met at a United Nations assembly in Geneva, where Matchewan traveled in the late 1980s to present the ABL’s case.
Native support has also been offered in many forms. First and foremost, the Algonquin nations that form the Algonquin Nation Secretariat tribal council along with Barriere Lake – Wolf Lake and Timmiskaming – were extremely supportive of the Trilateral Agreement, signing a resolution early on allowing Jean-Maurice Matchewan to go ahead with it. Other Algonquin nations outside of the tribal council have been less supportive.
The youth who have taken up the mantle of struggle today are beginning to forge new relationships with indigenous communities across Turtle Island. In November 2008, three ABL members drove to Winnipeg for the “Defenders of the Land” conference, which brought together First Nations activists from across the country to share stories and strategize about developing unity and solidarity across nations. This opportunity to meet people from other First Nations communities led to a “Native Caravan,” which involved two Barriere Lake community members traveling with supporters to Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, Six Nations, and to Ardoch Algonquin Nation.
The intergenerational nature of the struggle is key to understanding how a community can continue to struggle without losing heart or losing sight of the goal at hand: the land. On this theme, and the themes of renewal, resistance, and struggle, I will leave the last word on Barriere Lake to Norman, Jean-Maurice Matchewan’s son:
[At first] I was young and unaware of the significance of what was going on; I was just observing. Now in my twenties, I understand what they were fighting for and I will continue to do the same. I grew up connected to the land. I did my harvest with my family and I know how important the land is to us – to Anishnabek people. Harvesting from the land is our means of survival. Our language survives through our continued connection to the land.
1 Acknowledgements and sources: An excerpt from an article on the recent history of Barriere Lake written by Montreal Barriere Lake Solidarity Collective member, Martin Lukacs (“Coup d’état in Indian Country,” first published in the Dominion.org on April 18, 2008) appears blended into the story about the three coup d’états presented above. Other research, writing, and excerpts on Barriere Lake were contributed by Montréal Barriere Lake Solidarity Collective member Charles Mostoller. Thanks also to Russell Diabo, policy consultant to the Algonquins of Barriere Lake for over 20 years (and tireless explainer of the white man’s cunning) for his contribution to this essay. Russell’s recent public lectures on the struggle at Barriere Lake informed much of the historical account and political analysis of this work. Some of the main sources drawn upon for this work remain the intellectual property of the community and have never been published or publicly cited. These works include Peter Douglas Elias’ epic work, “Socio-Economic Profile of the Algonquins of Barriere Lake,” dated January 1996, then revised in August 2002; James Morrison’s “Algonquin History of the Ottawa Watershed” prepared for Pete di Gangi, Director of the Algonquin Nation Secretariat, and dated November 26, 2005; and Pete di Gangi’s discussion paper, “Algonquins of Barriere Lake: Man-Made Impacts on the Community, Fish & Wildlife, 1870-1979,” dated March 2003. Material relating to the ABL in the 1995 Royal Commission on Aboriginal People (RCAP) can be found online at http://sdcanada.org/images/sb1/RoyalCommissiononAboriginalPeoples-BL-relevant-content-from-Ch4.pdf. Also of relevance is the article “A Perspective from a Barriere Lake Algonquin Youth: From Tikinagan (cradleboard) to Spokesperson,” Redwire Magazine, Vol 11, Issue 2. All other information presented here is derived from primary resources, including audio recordings, presentations, government and tribal council documents which can be found at: www.barrierelakesolidarity.blogspot.com/2008/03/resources.html.