Colonial Courts Attack Barriere Lake's Sovereignty

By Krishna E. Bera, Lori Waller, and Greg Macdougall

In Feb. 2010, the Mitchikanibikok Inik – or Algonquins of Barriere Lake (ABL), a small First Nation community located 130km north of Maniwaki, Quebec, presented arguments in the Supreme Court of Canada defending their latest leadership selection.

A few weeks later, the court decided the selection was not held according to ABL's customary governance code. The judge misinterpreted the customary governance code with inconsistent logic in his arguments, which might play a role in paving the way for Indian and Northern Affairs Canada to impose section 74 of the Indian Act. This would abolish the customary method the ABL use to select their leaders.

This follows a notice Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl sent to the ABL in October that he would not recognize their legitimate leadership. Instead, he said he will impose elections on the community in April 2010.

In August 2009, a 2007 private report External link to the federal minister of Indian Affairs was obtained under court order. The report lays out a wide-ranging set of schemes to undermine the Barriere Lake First Nation’s customary chief and council and ensure that the community’s trilateral agreement never takes on life. Couched in the language of development and progress, it demonstrates what the community has known for a long time but which the Department of Indian Affairs has always publicly denied: the federal government has refused to implement the trilateral agreement because it fears it would throw into question their comprehensive claims process, which amounts to a modern day land grab aimed at extinguishing aboriginal title.

As Norman Matchewan, youth spokesperson for the Mitchikanibikok Inik explained in an editorial to the Montréal Gazette, “In 1991, Barriere Lake signed a historic trilateral agreement with Canada and Quebec to sustainably develop our traditional territories - a United Nations report called the plan an environmental 'trailblazer.' Yet in 1996, the federal government tried to hijack the agreement by replacing our legitimate chief and council with a minority faction who let the agreement fall aside.”

The trilateral agreement and several subsequent agreements were never fulfilled. Consequently, the Algonquins still have not seen one dime from the $100 million extracted from their traditional territory every year by logging, hydro, and sport hunting operations. The Barriere Lake Algonquins have witnessed the continual exploitation of their lands - in violation of the trilateral agreement guidelines - by unsustainable extraction practices such as clear-cutting. In a community where many continue to subsist off the land, this destruction of traditional territory has directly compromised people's ability to live.

The exploitation of the land was coupled with strong government interference in the community's traditional leadership selection process. Not only were the customary chief and council bypassed, but the band council was placed under third party management. Third party management constitutes the highest level of financial intervention in a community and results in a complete financial and managerial takeover. This takeover resulted in the hiring of teachers at the Barriere Lake community school who refused to allow children to speak Algonquin - a particularly painful throw back to the era of residential schools.

On March 18, an Ottawa resident along with a co-defendant from the Algonquin community of Barriere Lake will go to trial in a Maniwaki court on charges of obstruction of justice, mischief, and assaulting a police officer. On March 31, three other people will be sentenced for similar charges.

The cases both stem from a series of peaceful highway blockades mounted in late 2008 by the ABL. Activists from Ontario and Quebec joined the Mitchikanibikok Inik in two successive blockades of Highway 117, to protest the provincial and federal government's ongoing violation of an agreement signed with ABL over a decade ago.

In Oct. 2008, after months of public education, letter writing, and visits to MPs, with no response from the government, the community took the difficult decision to blockade provincial Highway 117 - demanding to speak to a government representative. The blockaders were attacked within hours by police.

Norman Matchewan describes the assault, “To avoid negotiations, the government allowed [the] peaceful blockade to be dismantled by the Sûreté du Québec, which without provocation shot tear gas canisters into a crowd of youth and elders and used severe pain compliance to remove people clipped into lock-box barrels.”

One person was hospitalized for three days after getting shot with a tear gas canister.

Unfortunately, there was still no negotiations, so the ABL erected blockades again in November 2008. This time the police response seemed deliberately less violent, although community members felt threatened when the police approached with tear gas launchers.

Instead, police carried out targeted arrests of community leaders, including chief Benjamin Nottaway. Arrested activists were strip-searched. An Ottawa student activist spent 24 hours in jail before being released, and an ABL community spokesperson spent five days in custody because police claimed, “they couldn't find a translator". Over 40 people from the community have been arrested and charged since March 2008 and a few, including Nottaway, have served sentences in prison.

The ABL have not given up and have no intention of surrendering aboriginal title to their land. They continue to live on the land and apply traditional management techniques where possible, preserving their language and culture while pursuing court cases to ensure their leadership selection process is respected.

Ottawa activists and Barriere Lake community members are preparing for court on the charges stemming from the 2008 blockades. Support is needed in the courtroom and in the form of donations toward legal and research costs. If you can attend court on March 18 and 31 in Maniwaki or would like to donate, please email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. Rides will be arranged from Ottawa.

You can read more about the Mitchikanibikok Inik and their struggle on the websites of the following groups, or by coming to one of the meetings or events in your area:

Indigenous Peoples Solidarity Movement Ottawa External link

Barriere Lake Solidarity External link

NOTE: A different version of this article appeared in the Peace and Environment News (PEN) paper in Ottawa.

With files from the Indigenous People's Solidarity Movement, Ottawa


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