The Algonquins of Barriere Lake (ABL) travelled to Ottawa on Jan. 24 to protest Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada’s decision to depose their traditional government.
In August 2010, the Canadian government imposed elections under Section 74 of the Indian Act on the small reserve 300 kilometres north of Ottawa.
The community gathered outside of the high profile summit between the Crown and First Nations at Old Ottawa City Hall, where Prime Minister Stephen Harper met with Indigenous leaders for the first time since coming to power in 2006.
“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.”
“When there was an election system put in place, there were 10 people that participated out of 200 people,” said community spokesperson Norman Matchewan. “We have been campaigning against this, reminding people that our customs is who we are, our identity, our language, our way of life. We don’t accept to be in this system of colonization,” he told the Leveller.
“We want to be able to preserve and protect our land, sustain our language, and conduct our assemblies in our own language,” said Thusky. “We want to protect our language, because a nation without its language is not a nation.”
The community has long resisted encroachment on their large swaths of traditional territory, struggling against hydro-dam development, logging, and mining.
In 1991, the ABL negotiated an agreement with Quebec and Canada to co-manage their territory. The Trilateral Agreement gives the ABL decision-making power over development, as well as a share in the revenue generated from activities on their land.
The agreement was dishonoured amidst consistent meddling in the ABL’s internal affairs, accompanied by the imposition of Third Party Management over the community’s finances in 1996 and 2006.
Inside the summit, Chief Isadore Day Wiindawtegowinini of the Serpent River First Nation presented a replica of the historic Wampum Treaty belt from the 1764 Treaty of Niagara. Comprised of 10,076 shells, the treaty belt ensured that Native lands could not be sold before being ceded to the Crown.
The Chief explained, “Given that arrangement and the Royal Proclamation [of 1763], our 24 nations gathered to declare our sovereignty and to ensure that we would not lose the essence and the formal legitimacy of that sovereignty.”
The ABL are a signatory to the treaty and have never ceded their territory.
Addressing the chiefs, Harper expressed interest in improving the relationship through health and education initiatives, and improved economies on reserves.
But critics decried that existing problems have long-been identified and need immediate action, such as raising Natives’ education funding to that of Canadian children.
In 2006, the Harper government scuttled the anticipated Kelowna Accord, which would have pumped $5 billion into Native education, health care, housing, and clean water.
A larger sticking point is the existence of the Indian Act itself, a divisive and discriminatory piece of legislation that produced the reserve and residential school systems and governs every aspect of Indigenous peoples’ lives.
At the summit, the chiefs bitterly denounced the Act.
“Built on the disgraceful premise of our inferiority, aimed at assimilation and the destruction of our cultures, it was a complete abrogation of the partnership between respectful nations,” said Shawn Atleo, Chief of the Assembly of First Nations.
Maintaining that the Indian Act remains “a painful obstacle to re-establishing any form of meaningful partnership,” Atleo declared, “This legislation has utterly failed our people and failed Canada.”
“Our treaties should govern our relationship with Canada, not the Indian Act,” said former national chief Ovide Mercredi.
Harper acknowledged that his government had no desire to repeal the Act, and referred to it as a 136-year old tree with deep roots. “Blowing up the stump would leave a big hole,” he said.
Jody Wilson-Raybould, regional chief of British Columbia, defiantly responded that “the Indian Act tree will topple over. No gaping hole, Mr. Prime Minister, but strong and self-determining First Nations.”
The summit concluded with Harper being whisked away to Davos to deliver his declaration of austerity for Canada. A looming frustration emanated from both those present at the table and those ignored on the outside.
“The only meaningful way they [the Canadian government] can be involved,” according to Matchewan, “is by respecting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, stop ignoring the needs of First Nations communities, and start respecting Aboriginal rights and title.”
This article first appeared in the Leveller Vol. 4, No. 5 (Feb. 2012).