Feeling as though they had no other recourse, at around 6am on October 6, community members from the Barriere Lake reserve blockaded Highway 117 in a last-ditch effort to get their message heard to implement an already-signed trilateral agreement.
The agreement, a 1991 deal between the federal and provincial governments and the Algonquins of Barriere Lake, was supposed to see integrated resource sharing on and environmental protection for the reserve’s 10,000 km2 traditional territories.
That morning a crowd of approximately 75 community members, including 44 children, along with 20 non-Native supporters, set up a barricade on the 117 near Grand-Remous, where the highway joins du Lac Rapide Road in La Verandrye wildlife reserve.
The peaceful protestors placed themselves between a barricade of logs and a series of manned lock boxes, devices comprised of 50-gallon barrels filled with heavy materials and PVC tubes that the protestors locked their arms into using an internal mechanism.
“I was hoping that there was going to be a peaceful resolution,” said Joel Klassen from the Aboriginal Justice Team for the Christian Peacemaker Teams, a non-partial observer team that was called in to observe the blockade for human-rights violations.
The protesters communicated with the police, made their demands to communicate with the government about the implementation of the agreement and then let the police know that they had no intention of leaving without communicating with the government.
Canada’s response to the protest however came in the form of brute force as a brigade of 60 Surete du Quebec armoured riot police were sent in to dismantle the barricade. As soon as the media who were there to cover the protest moved away from the barricade, the squad moved in.
As the riot squad made their formation, tear gas was launched into the crowd with one can hitting a handicapped 17-year-old girl in the chest. As the squad advanced, the protestors retreated from the road into the Barriere Lake reserve. According to Klassen, the police were very quick to deploy the gas on the crowd, despite the fact that there were a large number of children and Elders present, a tactic that has the CPT organization very concerned.
Then, to remove the individuals manning the lock boxes, the riot squad officers used pain-compliance techniques.
“I could see them holding the heads of those people from behind and you could tell that it looked very painful what they were doing. At a later point they put blankets over the heads of some of these people so it could not be seen what was being done to them. It reminded me of Abu Gharaib,” said Klassen.
In the meantime, the children present were witness to the apparent torture techniques being used by the riot squad.
By 4:30pm the barricade was down and access to the reserve and the nearby forestry companies was restored.
According to Michel Thusky, community spokesperson for Barriere Lake, “We had no other choice to erect the barricade despite the many attempts and efforts to get the federal and provincial governments to honour their agreements with our community and to respect our customary leadership.”
Though the community and both governments signed the agreement in 1991, Thusky is claiming that “government meddling” has prevented the implementation of the deal by ignoring the reserve’s customary leadership and siding with smaller faction leadership groups from outside of the reserve.
In 1996, the small faction group, with the support of Indian and Northern Affairs, collected signatures for a petition to take over the reserve’s leadership via selection by petition. The faction group, who were then banned from the reserve, let the agreement, which would have seen revenue sharing from the multi-billion dollar forestry for the community, fall to the wayside.
In 1997, Barriere Lake’s customary leadership was restored by Quebec Superior Court Judge Rejean Paul, though Thusky said that this was by no means the end of government meddling. In 2001, the government pulled out of the trilateral agreement again and began to favour minority groups within the community. Though Paul mitigated again in 2007, concluding that the opposition to the leadership was small, the same faction groups conducted another leadership selection in January 2008, this time garnering government recognition.
All the while, those in Barriere Lake have suffered tremendously, subsisting without sufficient government transfers and without hydro electricity, a provision that the trilateral agreement would have also made possible. The living conditions within the reserve have frequently been compared to that of the developing world.
“My father told me not forget my identity, to speak our language on our land and respect the land and the wildlife on it,” said Thusky who is looking for nothing more than to ensure the survival of his people.
Neither during nor since the dismantling of the barricade have the people of Barriere Lake received their desired communication with the government in regards to the implementation of the trilateral agreement.