OTTAWA, Ontario – A small Algonquin First Nation community plans to continue struggling for sovereignty and self-determination against the Canadian federal government’s efforts to control its land, resources and internal affairs.
On Dec. 13, more than 100 people from the Algonquins of Barriere Lake demonstrated on Parliament Hill to demand an end to the unwanted council that members say was imposed on them by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, the ministry that oversees indigenous issues. The rural Algonquin community is located in the province of Quebec about three hours north of Ottawa, Ontario, the country’s capital.
The ABL citizens were joined by hundreds of their supporters, a broad network that includes members of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, Canadian Union of Public Employees, Public Service Alliance of Canada, the Council of Canadians, KAIROS, the New Democratic Party and Green Party, Christian Peacemaker Teams and others.
At issue is the Canadian government-imposed “election” held in August under Section 74 of Canada’s 1876 Indian Act.
Section 74 says that the minister of Indian Affairs 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 councillors, shall be selected by elections to be held in accordance with this act.”
The Barriere Lake Algonquins are among only two dozen First Nation bands that follow a customary leadership selection process. Members say 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 endorsed by Canada this year. 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 would have devastating consequences on their way of life.
The federal government-run “election” yielded fewer than a dozen ballots, but officials announced nonetheless that a new chief and council had been elected “by acclamation.”
An overwhelming majority of community members had boycotted the so-called election. Of Barriere Lake’s total population of about 500, including children, nearly 200 members signed a resolution rejecting the entire process.
Even Casey Ratt, the allegedly acclaimed chief, rejected the ruling. He declined the position.
“I am in agreement with our elders that (the imposed council) will cause serious harm to the social fabric of our community,” Ratt wrote to INAC. “As you are aware, we are in the process of developing a community-based solution to the internal matters of our community with respect to our Anishnabe Onakinakewin. With the guidance of our elders, a new generation has taken a stand to resolve these issues while also opposing the process initiated by the Department of Indian Affairs. We will see to our own well-being, as Anishnabe. We will not surrender our rights nor will we allow the Department of Indian Affairs to do away with our customary selection process.”
The INAC council consists of four members and no chief.
The community also continues to protest against the federal and provincial Quebec governments’ violation of the 1991 Trilateral Agreement, a resource-use agreement that was supposed to create a sustainable development plan for the community’s traditional 10,000 square kilometers 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.
The members fear that imposing an unwanted council is the federal government’s strategy for severing the community’s connection to the land. By doing so, the members say the Canadian and Quebec governments hope to get away with violating the resource-use agreement and illegally clear-cutting in the Algonquins’ traditional territory.
“How can anyone trust a government that won’t honor its word?” said Berriere Lake community spokesperson Tony Wawatie. “The Trilateral Agreement would allow us to protect our land and be economically independent. But Canada and Quebec don’t want to share the land’s wealth. So the Harper government is violating our constitutional rights by trying to forcibly abolish our traditional government, which maintains our sacred connection to the land and our ability to protect the environment.”
The demonstrators delivered a copy of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a resolution opposing the INAC council with more than 150 signatures to be delivered to INAC Minister John Duncan.
Wawatie said the imposed government is “an undemocratic, unwanted, and foreign governance regime installed in order to derail our environmental agreement. Minister Duncan and the Harper government must reverse their draconian action and respect our right to maintain our traditional government. We encourage Prime Minister Harper to start implementing the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that he signed.”
The ABL have the backing of the Assembly of First Nations in their quest for self-determination.
AFN National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo issued a statement the day of the demonstration, calling on Canada to respect Barriere Lake’s traditional governance and environmental agreements.
“The AFN fully supports the citizens of the Algonquin of Barriere Lake in their call for control of their governance and decision-making based on their traditional approach – Onakinakewin, as it is called in their language,” he said. “I have offered a proposal to the Minister of Indian Affairs for a joint fact-finding process with the AFN and the minister to work with the community to clarify the issues, to help resolve any governance matters and to ensure they can take control of their own governance and decision-making processes. The community supports this proposal and we call on Canada to work with us and the Algonquin of Barriere Lake to find the path forward.”