Chief Casey Ratt’s house was burnt to the ground in what appears to be a case of arson as the volatile situation between the traditionally-appointed band council and the opposition in the Algonquin community of Barriere Lake is heating up.
Ratt and his family were at the powwow in Maniwaki on June 1 when his house was torched. As a result there were no injuries.
“We tried to save what we could, like clothes and stuff, but there was too much damage,” said Chief Ratt, who received a call around 8:15 that morning. “About 80 percent of it is burned; we can’t live there that’s for sure.”
As a result of the fire, Ratt will be moving into an aunt’s cabin located on the territory for the time being until he and his family can find a place to live.
“We think it’s criminal because we found accelerant from an analysis at the scene,” said Gatineau Surete du Quebec media-relations officer Melanie Larouche.
“We still need to meet with neighbours and witnesses so it’s an ongoing investigation,” said Larouche, who added that she is not getting full cooperation from some community members.
Ratt has been embroiled in a dispute with former Hereditary Chief Jean Maurice Matchewan, who stepped down as chief last year amidst allegations of drug-use and possessing an illegal handgun, and former Acting Chief Benjamin Nottoway, who has denied Ratt’s leadership from the beginning.
A blockade was erected by Nottoway’s side after Ratt was appointed chief this past March.
Both sides have made allegations of violence, vandalism and theft.
To make matters worse, Ratt and his family did not have insurance on their home. “They said they wouldn’t insure it because of the wood stove we have in the basement,” he said. “There’s no insurance on the houses here.”
The community did have minimal insurance paid for by the band council at one point, but a fire that took down two houses caused the rates to go “sky high” from $60,000 to $ 100,000 a year.
The tiny community of 350 residents has also had problems with its elementary school, which has been shut down for months by the former chief as a pressure tactic to get more funding from the government.
The council’s minuscule operating budget of $350,000 limits its capacity to provide essential services – such as policing and health care – to the community.
The fire further illustrated the housing crisis on the reserve. Ratt lived there with his wife and two kids as well as with his parents and sister.
“They didn’t want to hurt any of us is what I’m hearing,” said Ratt. “I heard they were trying to go after some documents they thought were there. But what if my kids had been there? They’re trying to run us off the reserve and this is one of the ways they are trying to do it.”
To top it all off, Ratt said he knows who did it, but his hands are tied until the investigation is complete in a few months.
“I know it’s not all of the opposition, it’s just a few individuals trying to create scare tactics,” he said. “I know who it is. He’s been bragging about it, but I can’t say because I have no proof. He’ll get what’s coming to him as the investigation progresses.”
To top it all off, the federal government is threatening to get rid of the hereditary system and instill the Indian Act electoral system that it thinks will put a stop to the infighting.
“I’ve always been a strong supporter of my own customs and traditions,” said Ratt. “There is something within our system that says if you do not like the leadership, there is a process to change it. I welcome it and I would be part of it, rather than the tactics they have been using. I don’t agree with their tactics at all.”