No Shortcuts Around the Details

What the Algonquins of Barriere Lake’s Struggle Teaches Us About Canadian Colonialism

There are probably no tougher people within Canadian borders than the Mitchikanabikok Inik, the People of the Stone Weir, or, as they are usually called in English, the Algonquins of Barriere Lake. Mostly isolated within what Québec has called the La Vérendrye Wildlife Reserve, the band has held on to its culture and its forms of governance, and preserved knowledge of the land that has taken thousands of years to gather and understand. Shiri Pasternak’s new book, Grounded Authority: The Algonquins of Barriere Lake Against the State, is a history of the Mitchikanabikok Inik and their resilience and creativity in the face of unrelenting colonial pressure and encroachment, woven through with threads of personal history. This thread of discovery is transmitted through a deep and respectful account of the specific knowledge that the people of Barriere Lake have shared with Pasternak about their world and their history.

Pasternak shows that realizing one’s agency in colonialism cannot be the endpoint of solidarity consciousness and decolonization, as it often is. To go further than a generic solidarity, one must be committed to learning about one’s specific ignorance and how this ignorance reproduces colonialism. Early on in Grounded Authority, Pasternak relates how prophecy at Barriere Lake foretold the coming of people from other nations who would seek the knowledge of the Anishnabe in a time of great environmental upheaval. Her coming, and that of other researchers, was interpreted in that light. Researchers, like activists, may arrive bearing a narrative in which their own purpose and analysis are central. Yet from the point of view of the Mitchikanabikok Inik, the arrival of researchers like Pasternak fit precisely their own purpose and expectations. As Pasternak writes,

of all the Indigenous research methodologies covered here, [prophecy] honours most profoundly and illustrates most eloquently the inadequacies of conventional assumptions about power relations between researchers and Indigenous peoples. Prophecy can reverse expectations about the role of outsiders in a community as primarily exploitative of Indigenous knowledge. (50)

Pasternak frames her methodology in terms of polishing the covenant chains: a metaphor applied for centuries by the Haudenosaunee to the need for settlers to renew treaty by renewing their understanding of their relationship to Indigenous laws. Central to her project is understanding Algonquin law and teachings, as well as the history of their treaties with settlers going back to the Three-Figure Wampum, as taught to her by Mitchikanabikwi elder Toby Decoursay.

Pasternak also challenges classical Marxist political economy—and its focus on the staple economy—by emphasizing the centrality of land and colonial dispossession to the constitution of a resource-driven political economy. Colonial jurisdiction over territory is structured by the needs of supply, in which lands are seen merely as standing reserve, abstracted from social relations and the beings that live there and converted into mere inputs for capitalist economic processes. Algonquin jurisdiction, on the other hand, is governed by care and is “a reflection of the ways in which the bush is a sacred place” (81). Care is not simply an ethic. It implies specific modes of governance, in which Algonquins are attuned to and responsible for the well-being of all living things, human and non-human, in their lifeworld. It means knowing when not to kill a moose, because she is pregnant. It means knowing when to trap a female beaver, and when not to.

Governance and social relations are tightly bound up with the transmission of culture and knowledge, which themselves are inextricably linked to life on the land: hunting, trapping, gathering, observing the animals, knowing the medicines. How and when do you dig around the birch tree to gather its roots? When is the bark ready? How can you tell if a moose is pregnant? What does the food a moose is eating tell you about its health? Such knowledge is gathered through careful observation, and living on the land, and the ethic of care is transmitted intergenerationally and through specialized Algonquin vocabulary. Exercising Algonquin jurisdiction is not only a matter of care for the land; the land and water also care for the people, and maintain families and kinship. For example, a moose will be shared among the families of all the hunters who helped with the kill, affirming the social ties that underpin the broader system of Anishnabe governance.

When territory governed as supply overwhelms territory governed by care, the result is not only the destruction of life and habitat, but also the undermining of the basis of Algonquin society. Pasternak characterizes this mode of dispossession as slow violence. To destroy a forest is to destroy the basis of Indigenous social relations, it is to make impossible the exercise of care which lies at the core of Algonquin culture and jurisdiction. As Chief Jean-Maurice Matchewan says in Pasternak’s book: “They are clear-cutting our way of life” (126).

Ignorance of such extensive knowledge and Indigenous forms of governance is an essential quality of settler consciousness. Such ignorance colours activist assumptions, but more profoundly, it structures and is essential to colonial ideology and law-making. It allows the courts and traditional ethnographers, for example, to minimize the significance of the hereditary chief’s primary responsibility: directing the movement of the community through the territory over the seasons. From a colonial perspective, the chief’s responsibility is indicative of a limited governance model. From the Anishnabe perspective:

The responsibility of moving people throughout the territory requires an incredible store of knowledge about a vast territory and the resources it contains. It means understanding the migration of large game, the preferential access points for fishing and plant harvesting, the history of family occupation throughout the territory. Furthermore, this leadership in land allocation was done in service of a profound and critical task of protecting the lands for future generations. (93)

I quote at length here for the same reason Pasternak is careful to go into depth on this and many other such examples. Algonquin jurisdiction derives from relationship with the land, not recognition by the state. As Chief Jean-Maurice “Pancho” Matchewan wrote in 1992:

It is not our position that the Trilateral Agreement is the source of our authority or jurisdiction. Our authority derives from the traditional knowledge of our elders which has been passed down from generation to generation and accumulated over hundreds of years of occupation of our lands. It derives from our sense of responsibility to the land and forests and wildlife and our desire to maintain the integrity of those things so that we may continue to benefit from them in our traditional pursuits. (Quoted in Pasternak, 156)

One particularity of settler-colonial consciousness is that the detailed knowledge and understandings of Indigenous peoples—their cosmographies—are invisible to it. An important lesson of this book is that these details matter when it comes to undoing colonial ignorance, which settler colonialism depends on, and giving weight to Indigenous jurisdiction. There are no shortcuts around the details. The other significant lesson of Grounded Authority is that knowing the details is equally important when it comes to understanding state technologies, strategies, and efforts to secure territory. Solidarity efforts should align their focus and resources according to what the government considers most strategic. Here, too, Pasternak has done activists a service by shining a bright light on the strategies and hidden agendas of the Canadian capitalist state, using the history of encroachment on Barriere Lake as a case study.

For many years, fairly remote as they were, the Anishnabe of Barriere Lake were able to go on exercising their jurisdiction mostly through noncompliance and by ignoring settlers. During the 20th century, however, colonial jurisdiction began extending its tentacles into Algonquin territory more aggressively. Settlers began encroaching on Barriere Lake jurisdiction and lifeways by imposing bureaucratic regimes of control over trapping and hunting, creating genocidal trauma through residential schools, and destroying resources by clear-cutting forests and flooding waterways for hydroelectric dams. The introduction of the trapline system in the 1920s brought with it another mode of dispossession that Pasternak describes in the book: alienation through the insertion of foreign jurisdiction that overlays, competes with, and limits Algonquin jurisdiction.

But it was not until 1986, when the province of Québec approved clear-cutting plans for the territory, that Barriere Lake’s assertion of its jurisdiction would take the form of confrontation with the Canadian state more familiar to the outside world. Despite the new guarantees for Aboriginal and treaty rights in the 1982 Canadian Constitution, the clear-cutting plans were made with no regard for the impact on the Indigenous inhabitants of the territory. This pushed the Algonquins of Barriere Lake to a more militant assertion of their laws and responsibilities, with a series of traffic slowdowns and pamphleting, escalating in 1988 to road blockades and an occupation of Victoria Island in Ottawa. The community was back to the blockade in 1990, and helped inspire Kanehsatake in its fight against development on its territory. Through a skillful media campaign and a confluence of political factors including a powerful anti-forestry movement among environmentalists, electoral calculations in Québec, and the Oka “crisis,” Barriere Lake found itself with enough political leverage to bring the province and the federal government to the table on different terms.

The end result, after much negotiation, was a unique agreement between the Algonquins of Barriere Lake, the province of Québec, and the federal governmnet called the Trilateral Agreement, signed in 1991. It set out a system of co-management according to principles of sustainability, with the fundamental interest of maintaining sacred harvesting sites and Algonquin lifeways. It also included a revenue sharing agreement where the band would receive $1.5 million annually from the $100 million in annual resource activity on its territory. All of this was agreed to without Barriere Lake surrendering their Aboriginal title and rights. Mulroney’s federal government, wanting some good press after its mishandling of Oka, signed off, as did the province of Québec. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (rcap), struck in the aftermath of Oka, praised the Trilateral Agreement as a model for future co-existence between Canada and Indigenous Peoples. Even the forest industry came around to the deal, preferring the stability of negotiation under a clear process which ensured the viability of the forest for a long time to come. Despite this, the narrow interest of industry would end up clashing with the broader need of the capitalist state to establish regimes of control.

Ottawa soon grew cold to the deal and Indian Affairs adopted a strategy of sabotage and dirty war against the community. This included police harassment of Barriere Lake’s Chief Matchewan, fomenting of internal strife, a state-sponsored coup to replace the traditional Indigenous government, and two years of deliberate starvation, imposed poverty and withholding of vital services like electricity. In 2006, on the pretext of a small deficit in the band’s budget, Ottawa handed control of the band’s finances over to distant settler accounting firms, under the system of “Third Party Management” to which about one third of First Nations are subjected at any given time. The band has no access to its financial information and the accounting firms are paid out of existing program and service funds, shrinking these dollars further. As of 2017, the accountants have been paid more than 10 times the amount of the original deficit, and the federal Trudeau government will not say when, or under what conditions, Third Party Management will be lifted. All of these events—normally hidden from view of the settler public through bland bureaucratic administration and secrecy—are dramatically told by Pasternak.

Ottawa’s reason for wanting to destroy the Trilateral Agreement was strategic: it undermined the government’s Comprehensive Land Claims Settlement policy, established after the 1973 Calder decision by the Supreme Court. Under the policy, bands who settle land claims lose 90 to 97 percent of their land base, as well as their Indian status and their right to self-determination as a separate order of government. Instead, they become provincially regulated ethnic municipalities. Typically, they receive a one-time cash payment, which for a band like Barriere Lake would amount to $1 million to cover all past infringement and loss of future rights (compared to the $1.5 million they are entitled to annually under the Trilateral Agreement). Vast lawyers’ fees loaned to bands by the government must be repaid out of eventual settlement monies, sorely depleting monetary settlements. Dubbed “termination tables” by Mohawk critic Russ Diabo, these negotiations permanently extinguish Aboriginal title and replace Indigenous territories held in common with greatly shrunken land areas that can be bought and sold. The government offers no alternative to this package, other than an Aboriginal title case in the courts, costing tens of millions of dollars which bands have no way to fund. The Trilateral Agreement’s model of inter-legal coexistence poses a uniquely potent threat to Ottawa’s agenda of achieving “economic certainty”—in other words, certainty that land is undisputed by Indigenous claims and therefore open to development.

To forestall the possibility of other First Nations following Barriere Lake’s lead, Ottawa ratcheted up its campaign to destroy the community’s traditional social fabric and forms of governance, which Ottawa identified as the source of the community’s strength. The most drastic measure taken by the government was its invocation in 2010, for the first time in 76 years, of the draconian section 74 of the Indian Act, by which the government forcibly replaced Barriere Lake’s customary government, the Onakinakewin, with Ottawa’s preferred, easily manipulated short-term elective system. The ensuing struggle over governance, which is ongoing, merits a full chapter in Pasternak’s book, as does her discussion of the subjection of Barriere Lake and other “hot spot” First Nations to intensive surveillance.

It is where the state is most unbending that we see its weaknesses. If Canada feels threatened by the Trilateral Agreement because it makes coexistence a reality rather than a buzzword, then supporting the Trilateral Agreement should be an urgent priority for settler activists and settler solidarity campaigns. If Ottawa has supplied a list of hot spots, activists should direct support to those communities. If Ottawa has identified cross-community coordination of resistance and linkages with non-native groups as a strategic concern, solidarity activism should figure out how to facilitate these.

But activists cannot be useful if they are mired in colonial ignorance. Solidarity alliances require deep learning and orientation to the terrain, an entry into territories constituted by the jurisdiction of care, and not by their instrumental relation to capital, or to leftist struggle. This may mean setting aside one’s own ideological certainties and cherished political objectives as not particularly relevant to the cause. It means a solidarity practice that takes seriously the complexities, the histories, prophecies, and laws of Indigenous peoples. It means knowing and naming where one stands, and where one has come from, with all its difficulties. I can think of no better model, no more suitable guide to an ethical practice of decolonial solidarity, and no more useful theoretical framework than Shiri Pasternak’s Grounded Authority.