By Lloyd Dolha
The Algonquins of Barriere Lake in northern Quebec set up a blockade to prevent Abitibi-Bowater logging equipment and forestry workers from entering their traditional territory. Protesters peacefully lay down in front of trucks loaded with logging equipment on a road near their Rapid Lake reserve. The Algonquins plan to continue the blockade until the government responds to their needs. “Our community has decided there will be no forestry activities or any new developments in our Trilateral Agreement Territory until the status of our leadership is recognized and the agreements we signed are resolved to our community’s satisfaction,” said Jean Maurice Matchewan, customary chief of Barriere Lake.
Chief Matchewan said the Quebec government has acted in bad faith by ignoring their legal obligations and giving the forestry company the right to continue logging in the meantime. Matchewan said he received no response to an August 25th letter sent to Paul Grodin, manager of Abitibi-Bowater’s Maniwaki mill, requesting that the company suspend logging operations until Quebec and the Canadian government follow through on their legal obligations.
The Barriere Lake Algonquins say the governments have refused to honour the “spirit and terms” of legal agreements reached in 1991 and 1998 intended to harmonize forestry activities with the traditional activities of the First Nation. In August 1991, Canada and Quebec entered into a trilateral agreement with Barriere Lake to develop and implement an Integrated Resource Management Plan (IRMP) for the greater protection of forests and wildlife. Companies such as Abitibi-Bowater would need to develop cutting plans and submit them to the First Nation for review and approval. Once approved, the plan would then be submitted to the province for review before issuing any cutting permits.
The 1991 three-phase agreement became a landmark in sustainable development and co-management and was praised by the United Nations and highlighted in the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) in 1996. Phases One and Two involve the development of the draft management plan, and have been essentially carried out. However, as part of Phase Three, representatives from Barriere Lake and Quebec had to reach a consensus on a set of joint recommendations for the IRMP and negotiate an agreement to carry out the recommendations. Those recommendations appeared in a report submitted by two Quebec cabinet ministers in a letter dated July 13, 2006. Three years passed, and the government of Quebec has yet to respond. Canada dropped out of the process in 2001.
The complimentary 1998 agreement was intended to allow logging to continue while protecting the Algonquin’s traditional way of life and giving them a $1.5 million share of the $100 million resource revenue generated annually in their territory. But most importantly, the governments of Quebec and Canada have refused to conduct relations with the customary council and have not acknowledged elected Chief Matchewan as the legitimate customary chief of the Barriere Lake Algonquins.
The 450-member community, some 300 kilometres north of Ottawa, has been affected by a long-simmering dispute between two camps led by opposing cliques of elders; some support the customary system of electing leaders and others support the Indian Act system. In September 2007, former chief Matchewan stepped down after being charged with gun and drug-related offenses. However, he remained on the customary council and Benjamin Nottaway was named acting customary chief. In January 2008, another election was held, and Casey Ratt became chief. Chief Ratt charged that changes were made without the full support of the community and held that he was the legitimate chief. Violent clashes between the two groups erupted that spring, peaking in early March when riot police from the Surte de Quebec had to be called in, arresting supporters from each side.
On February 22, 2008, the Algonquin Nation Secretariat tribal council recognized Benjamin Nottaway as the legitimate chief of the First Nation. Less than a month later, the situation worsened when Andre Cote, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) Regional Director-General, faxed a letter to Chief Ratt. The letter confirmed Chief Ratt’s legitimacy and indicated INAC would work with him in all future endeavors. The band’s previous leadership vowed they would never accept the INAC decision to support Ratt.
Ratt and his council had been out of the community, dealing with INAC, and Nottaway declared Chief Ratt and his council would never be allowed to come back. Ratt’s house later burned to the ground in a mysterious fire. Nottaway also sent a letter to INAC minister Chuck Strahl, warning him to “act carefully” and reconsider the decision to recognize Chief Ratt and his councilors.
In January 2009, the Federal Court of Canada agreed to hear a legal challenge from the custom council elders, accusing Ratt of breeching the First Nation’s customary election code in deposing acting Chief Nottaway. Judge Russell Zinn set aside an earlier ruling, determining that the decision by Minister Strahl to deal with the Ratt council was reviewable. That challenge is still before the courts awaiting a final ruling.
In the spring of 2009, a new leadership selection process was initiated under former Liberal MP Keith Penner and eventually resulted in the return of Matchewan as customary chief on June 24, 2009.
Quebec and Canada have refused to acknowledge those results, although the Algonquin Nation Secretariat has reiterated its support for the custom council. AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo met with Chief Matchewan on August 19th to discuss the trilateral agreement. “Instead of acting honourably and cooperating with our customary council to implement these signed agreements, the federal and provincial governments have been working in unison to try to install a minority faction whom they can use to sign off on the cutting of our forests,” said Chief Matchewan.