While Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was holding his first Crown-First Nations summit with indigenous leaders at the Old Ottawa City Hall last month, the Algonquins of Barriere Lake gathered outside to rally against what members say is an unwanted and illegitimate council imposed on their community by the Canada government.
The Algonquins of Barriere Lake (ABL) have been protesting the imposed council since August, 2010 when the Canadian government’s Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC), the ministry that oversees indigenous issues, announced that a new chief and council had been elected by “acclamation” according to Section 74 of Canada’s colonial-era Indian Act of 1876. (To put the Indian Act in historical context, Canada became the Dominion of Canada in 1867 as part of the British Empire during Queen Victoria’s reign from 1837–1901. A year after the Indian Act was passed, Queen Victoria became the Empress of India.)
An unknown number of ABL members traveled approximately three hours from their rural community in Quebec to Ottawa on January 24 for the protest.
“We’re here to show that our community is still united in asking the government to retract the imposition of Section 74 on our community,” ABL spokesperson Michel Thusky told the Leveller. “We want the federal government to rescind its decision on imposing Section 74 on our customary selection process.”
Section 74 says that the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development can impose an electoral system on First Nations with customary leadership selection processes: “Whenever he deems it advisable for the good government of a band, the minister may declare by order that after a day to be named therein the council of the band, consisting of a chief and councilors, shall be selected by elections to be held in accordance with this Act.”
The ABL are among just two dozen First Nation bands that follow a customary leadership selection process. Members say that their inherent right to do so is protected not only by Canada’s Constitution, but also by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. They attribute the strength of their community, language, knowledge and protection of the land to the endurance of their customary governance system and say losing it will have devastating consequences on their way of life.
The federal government-run “election” in 2010 yielded fewer than a dozen ballots, but it announced nonetheless that a new chief and council were elected. A overwhelming majority of the community members had boycotted the so-called election. Of Barriere Lake’s total population of about 500 people, including children, nearly 200 members signed a resolution rejecting the entire process, even Casey Ratt, the “acclaimed” chief declined to accept the position. The ABL have protested and held demonstrations calling for their traditional governance and treaty rights for the past two years, but the imposed council remains in place.
“We have been campaigning against this, reminding people that our custom is who we are, our identity, our language, our way of life. We don’t accept to be in this system of colonization,” community spokesperson Norman Matchewan told the Leveller.
The community also continues to protest the federal and provincial Quebec governments’ violation of the 1991 Trilateral Agreement, a resource-use accord that was supposed to create a sustainable development plan for the community’s traditional approximately 4,000 square miles that would include revenue sharing, resource co-management and economic independence for Barriere Lake.
The agreement was highly acclaimed as an innovative environmental treaty at the time of its signing, but ABL members say that federal and provincial governments have refused to implement the plan.
Tony Wawatie, a former ABL spokesman, told ICTMN that the Crown-First Nations summit was “a big scam” to distract attention from the crisis at Attawapiskat.
“But we’re still stuck with the Harper government for another three years and it’s for sure they’re doing everything they can to undermine the collective rights of First Nations peoples across Canada,” Wawatie said. “Their agenda is about assimilation and extinction of our rights. It’s sad that it’s happening all over and they’re trying to have a public campaign by bringing in a process for economic development but undermining people who want to protect their Indian-ness, if you will, their identity. That’s what I see happening.”