The Algonquins of Barriere Lake, a small reserve 280 kilometres north of Ottawa, who have been in the capital city for the last two weeks trying to force either the minister or deputy-minister of Indian Affairs to meet with them, have had to retreat to their home base, without having gained the meeting they sought.
They have now decided to forbid all logging in 10,000 square kilometres (3,861 square miles) of their traditional lands, covering most of the La Verendrye wildlife reserve (which, although it does not in any way preserve wildlife, is maintained under that name by the Quebec government).
The issue between the Algonquins and the federal government is the completion of the so-called Integrated Resource Management Plan (IRMP), a detailed inventory of the boreal forest in which the Algonquins have lived, and from which they have obtained their livelihood, for countless generations. This forest has been progressively clear-cut over the last 40 years, thus hacking the heart out of the Algonquin economy, and their way of life.
The Algonquins decided in the late 1980s to protest, blockade and prevent this process from continuing. At that time their protests were so effective that they persuaded the Quebec and federal governments to join them in a so-called Trilateral Agreement, whose object was to create a plan under which the Algonquin interest in the forest should be taken into account by other users. Until that time, their interest had been simply swept aside by hydro use of the Ottawa river (the heartland river of the Algonquins), and by progressively brutal clear-cut logging.
Work on the IRMP, which would identify the areas of essential interest to Algonquin life, has been going on ever since 1991, when the Trilateral Agreement was signed. It has been a checkered experience, often interrupted. It began in an atmosphere of hostility and indifference towards the Algonquins by both governments and the logging companies. But gradually the atmosphere has improved as the major players have come to realize the importance of the work being done.
Since work on the plan resumed three years ago, both the Quebec government and the loggers have become more sympathetic. The IRMP has been completed and has operated successfully in one area, and what remains is to complete the work to cover the remaining part of the 10,000 square kilometres.
Suddenly the federal government — perhaps alive to the implications for land claims of Algonquin interest having been recognized in the large area, since their reserve is only 59 acres — have withdrawn their support and funding for the finishing of the IRMP. It is estimated the government has spent $5 million so far, and would be required to spend another $700,000 to complete the plan. A federal government release on October 3 has acknowledged the many achievements of the work so far done:
… developing a database
… studying wildlife and forest
… gathering traditional scientific knowledge
… completing individual maps that identify hunting, fishing, trapping and land-use, that have been digitized into a Geographic Information System (GIS).
Other elements are the completion of:
… sensitive area study maps
… a major harvesting study,
… a topography study
… a social customs study
… a traditional ecological study
… measures to harmonize processes established to identify, conserve and protect Algonquin cultural/heritage resources
… a study on the sustainable development of natural resources … and a first draft IRMP report on the Gull Lake Area.
This is a formidable list, whatever the difficulties that may have been encountered in achieving it. It is the kind of work that should be done throughout Canada’s boreal forest wherever Aboriginal people are still living and subsisting on the produce of the land, before other uses are permitted. And it seems almost inconceivable that the federal minister should not only withdraw when the work is so nearly completed, but carry his indifference to the length of refusing to meet with the Algonquins to discuss his decision.
I was present when the first Algonquin blockades of logging were mounted in the late eighties and early nineties. (I made an NFB film on the subject). At that time they were able to prevent work being done close to the major road that runs north-south through the park; but they were not able to prevent clear-cut logging that continued in the far reaches of the park to the east.
Now, the Algonquins, armed with more precise information about the needs
of the logging companies, believe they can shut down the entire logging operation if called upon to do so. Some of the half dozen companies involved realize that if this happens, the large mill at Grand Remous, a nearby town to the south, might be forced to close for lack of wood.
A group of Montreal architects who have been working with the Algonquins on housing and other schemes, Wade Eide and Peter Fianu of Atelier BRAQ, have written to the minister recently begging him to meet the Algonquins.
“ We believe that this plan will prove to be a milestone in Canadian history and will serve as a model for sustainable resource management in Canada and around the world,” they wrote. “The plan will integrate traditional indigenous knowledge with modern science and technique and will benefit not only the Algonquins, but all Canadians, as well.”
Their letter noted that “the bush and the rivers were managed under a system that did not recognise the Algonquins’ tenure on the land. The management system did not recognise that they held a body of traditional knowledge of how to use the true abundance of the land, not just how to exploit it for the maximum short-term profit provided by hydro power, wood and recreational hunting. The tremendous wealth of the bush that they once enjoyed is no longer there for them and they do not even share in the profits garnered by its commodity exploitation.”
Indeed, the Algonquins have claimed recently that $100 million of production is being taken off their traditional lands every year, and they are getting nothing from it.
Not only is the minister turning his face against one of the most far-sighted schemes for Aboriginal improvement (not to mention resource management) ever undertaken in Canada, but he even seems indifferent to the problems of the logging companies.
The fact that the Algonquins are among the poorest people in the country appears to count as nothing to him. He has taken refuge in the old jurisdictional question, so familiar in Canadian issues: “We have spent 10 years working on forestry issues that are really the Quebec government’s responsibility. We’ve funded a process we should not even have been at the table for,” Minister Robert Nault has said.
As the Algonquins withdrew from Ottawa Chief Carol McBride, chosen by the Algonquins to represent them in negotiations with the governments, commented: “I’m just shocked to see how this minister is putting these people aside. It’s terrible. He’s supposed to be here for the native people. There’s a lot of frustration. And the disrespect the minister has shown the elders of Barriere Lake – it’s not being taken lightly.”