After months of infighting, mud-slinging and name-calling, the Algonquins of Barriere Lake have hit a low point that resulted in the erection of a barricade on March 2 and with it, caused even more irreparable damage to the tiny reserve of 350.
After being appointed by the Elders and the community under the Algonquin hereditary system last May, Jean Maurice Matchewan stepped down as chief amidst allegations of drug use and possessing an illegal hand gun.
He, along with the Elders, but without community consultation, then appointed Benjamin Nottoway as acting chief. That was just one of the contentious moves made by the former council.
The problems started in earnest when a new chief, Casey Ratt, was appointed to the leadership position on January 30 through the proper channels. The long delay in getting Indian and Northern Affairs Canada to recognize the decision was partially to blame for the heat being turned up on both sides.
“They say we’re dissidents and a minority faction,” said Ratt. “This is a recognized band council, not an interim one. They don’t want to relinquish the power they have.”
Once the blockade was up, a second one was erected by Ratt and his supporters. A third one, from the Nottoway’s side, followed shortly thereafter.
Accusations of foul play flew from both sides, but when Elders from each side had to be taken to hospital because of exhaustion and to monitor their decreasing diabetic condition, both sides started to think about lifting them.
“We didn’t do this (take over the leadership) because we didn’t like the former council,” said Ratt. “We did this based upon actions of the former council that did not reflect the community’s wishes.”
Finally on March 7 the barricades were taken down. A heavy Surete de Quebec presence has followed ever since.
Nottoway and Matchewan shut down the school last year to put pressure on the government to get them back to the negotiating table. Ratt said a major agreement for local police to patrol the reserve was not renewed by the former council for reasons unknown.
The Head Start Program, for children aged 3-6 to get acclimatized to school before they enter elementary school, was first moved to the health centre and then cancelled altogether by Nottoway’s group. That was part of the motivation for Ratt to seek appointment as chief.
“They were using our kids as pawns to push their political agenda,” he said. “We pleaded with them that there must be other options.”
Ratt went to a meeting in Quebec City on March 19 to meet with the province to try to reinstate funding for public security.
“We’re trying to make a difference here,” said Ratt, who used to work at the local health centre before becoming chief.
“There’s a trend here, they wanted everything to stop in order to get INAC to the table. Why make your own people suffer to do that? This is how the leadership became an issue for the majority of the community.”
Former Acting Chief Nottoway claims that the school was shut down because they did not have proper Algonquin language instruction. He admitted it was a tactic to put pressure on the government, but he said that his side did not want the schools to continue to be run like residential schools were, where kids were not encouraged or able to learn or speak their language.
“We, the Algonquins of Barriere Lake do not recognize Casey as chief,” said Nottoway.
When asked about the accusations of violence and the trashing of houses on the part of his followers, Nottoway said it was not true as he made inflammatory comments of his own.
“They vandalized their own places before they took off,” he said. “They’re just trying to make us look bad.”
Although sorting out the mess will take some time, Ratt said he was open to meeting with Nottoway to settle their differences for the betterment of the community. Nottoway quickly replied that there was no chance that will ever happen.
“The only solution is to recognize us as leadership,” he said. “We won’t back down because we believe in our land and our language and culture.”