After years of infighting, members of the Barriere Lake community have come together to fight Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl’s bureaucrats and their determination to disallow the community’s customary electoral process.
In recent years the divided community has had a series of interim chiefs representing only one faction, or competing chiefs that different groups voted to represent them in simultaneous elections. But this past spring, Minister Strahl imposed Section 74 of the Indian Act on Barrière Lake for the purposes of electing a chief that INAC would recognize.
The unintended result of this heavy-handed decision was to unite the small and impoverished Algonquin First Nation against an outside force. Now, in opposition to Strahl’s decree, the people of Barriere Lake have called on the community’s Elders to select new Chiefs – as they had done for centuries.
“Casey Ratt, our former Chief and Jean-Maurice Mattewan, another former Chief, both signed the documents, a letter addressed to the minister that was also signed by Elders from both sides saying that we want to protect our customs and this is our process right here to select a Chief,” said Tony Wawatie, a Barriere Lake community representative.
Under Strahl’s orders, the community was assigned an elections officer, Bob Norton, to carry out local nominations and ensure the voting process was respected. The Sûréte du Quebec (SQ) has also been on hand to distribute voting information and nomination forms to the First Nation members as not one individual in the community was willing to help out with the task.
The Indian Act’s electoral policy also allowed official band members who may not have ever lived in the community to vote via mail and have a say over the land, much to the dismay of those living within the community.
Having no other recourse, the community sent a caravan of vehicles early on the morning of July 22 to create a barricade to block the access road into their community off of Highway 117. The idea was to keep only one individual out – elections officer Bob Norton – to prevent him from carrying out the scheduled nominations meeting.
According to Shiri Pasternak of the activist group, Barriere Lake Solidarity, who witnessed the interaction between Norton and the community, Norton was respectfully informed that he would not be allowed in to the community upon his arrival that morning. The community members reiterated their position that they are unilaterally opposed to his presence in the community and INAC’s attempt to impose Section 74.
“There was not much that Norton could do. He shook hands with the community members and then turned around and rode off. He was followed out by the SQ as an officer had pulled in after him. It was really just a straight forward interaction, he just realized that he would not be entering the community, turned around and went back,” said Pasternak.
While the community stood in solidarity to keep INAC out, community spokesperson Tony Wawatie, was off in Winnipeg at the Assembly of First Nation’ (AFN) Annual General Assembly winning allies from the national organization.
Upon presenting the community’s case to the AFN, National Grand Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo signed a document detailing his support for the community and condemning Strahl for violating the community’s Aboriginal and treaty rights, an act that was described as a “draconian abuse of power.”
The AFN signed documents and also called on the federal government to honour its 1991 trilateral agreement between the feds, the province and the community to share resource revenue generated from the development of Barriere Lake land. The agreement was also supposed to finally lead to the community being hooked up to the hydroelectric grid, among other advantages. Despite the fact that the community is located right beside a Hydro Quebec project, it has never had access to the provincial electricity grid.
Though INAC had promised it would honour the hydro grid part of the trilateral agreement should the community hold its own election, Wawatie recently told the Nation that the community isn’t certain that they would even want the hook up right now as many of the community members likely couldn’t afford to pay for electricity. The community would instead rather see new homes built to boost the local economy.
Despite public outcry, support from the AFN and the community barricade to keep INAC’s bureaucrats out, the federal government still has August 19 marked down as the election date for the community.