Council of Canadians media officer Dylan Penner will be representing us this weekend (August 27-29) as part of a human rights delegation to Barriere Lake, a community of 450 people located on 59-acres of unceded territory 300 kilometres north of Ottawa in Quebec.
What’s the situation there? In short, the federal government is using a section of the Indian Act to abolish the customary method the Algonquins of Barriere Lake use to select their leaders. Their method is a consensus-based, directly democratic process, in which leaders are chosen based partly on their ability to protect and manage the land. Barriere Lake’s inherent right to customary self-government is protected by section 35 of the Canadian Constitution and is enshrined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. On February 17, 2010, Federal Court Judge Robert Mainville concluded in the case of Ratt v. Matchewan that Barriere Lake can “select their leadership in accordance with their customs unimpeded by any conditions or requirements which the Minister may deem appropriate.” A May 2010 report by the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples affirmed that First Nations have the right to maintain control over their internal affairs and be free to pursue their vision of customary government.
The Montreal Gazette reported earlier this month that, “National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Shawn Atleo has weighed in on the controversial issue, sending a letter to Minister of Indian Affairs John Duncan demanding that he rescind the order to impose band elections. ‘Trying to force the community into the Indian Act election system, when they seem to be overwhelmingly opposed, will only increase tensions and the risk of confrontation with your Ministry,’ Atleo wrote.” The Assembly of First Nations has passed a unanimously-backed resolution condemning the government and demanding that the Minister of Indian Affairs rescind the band elections, imposed through section 74 of the Indian Act.
Why is the federal government doing this? The Customary Chief and Council are demanding that the federal and Quebec governments respect key land and resource agreements. Tony Wawatie, a Barriere Lake community spokesperson, has said, “The government is attacking our governance system because it is intimately tied to our continuing use and protection of the land.” The Ottawa XPress has reported, “The impoverished Algonquin community of Barrière Lake has already been waiting for more than 20 years for the government to comply with a landmark 1991 agreement to conserve the forest and wildlife, and to give them a share in the revenue from the logging and hydro projects on their traditional territories. Corporations extract $100-million a year, while the local unemployment rate is 90 per cent.”
More on the Barriere Lake solidarity at http://www.barrierelakesolidarity.org/. A 41-minute video on this struggle can be viewed at http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=3486022596349494527#.