Indian Affairs has to accept blame for the escalating crisis in Barrière Lake, says Robert Kanatewat.

Kanatewat, a Cree businessman and former chief, was one of two Native Elders on the federal government’s mediation team working to resolve the Barrière Lake situation.

He said Barrière Lake is desperately short of Indian Affairs funding and the people live in deplorable conditions that should not exist in Canada. The community of 450 has only 60 homes and many are fit to be condemned. Roofs are caving in, ceilings are coming down and some homes are not even finished. The community doesn’t even have its own store, forcing residents to drive 160 km to Maniwaki for shopping.

The lack of housing has forced many residents to leave the community. Those who stayed behind were left to fight it out for what little money there was. This has led to resentment and infighting between various clans in the community.

The community is now divided between traditionalists who oppose forestry and those who have moved away, whose leaders are more pro-forestry and have been getting advice from the logging industry behind the scenes. The proforestry side managed to convince the feds to kick out the anti-forestry chief last year. For the last year, the community has had no official chief, no band services or school. The traditionalist side is now in the fourth month of its blockade of a logging road. Hunger and poverty in the community are rampant.

“As far as I am concerned, both sides are to blame, but mainly Indian Affairs. They haven’t really made all the efforts they could have,” said Kanatewat. “I don’t blame those people who moved out. There’s nothing there. I wouldn’t want to live there. It’s pretty dismal.”

Kanatewat said the lack of funds has been “very devastating” for the community: “I sympathize with the way the whole thing has happened. It’s not the way you should be living in Canada.

We’re supposed to be decent people living in Canada and look at what we’re doing.”

Meanwhile, at a press conference in Hull, a top Indian Affairs official denied reports that hunger is widespread in Barrière Lake. The Algonquins issued a call for emergency donations of food and money in early January. “There is no evidence that we have uncovered to substantiate those allegations,” responded Gordon Shanks. “Our information is that all services continue to be provided as in past years.”

Later in the press conference, Shanks was put on the defensive when reporters asked about whether a lawyer for Domtar, the biggest logger in Algonquin country, was involved in getting rid of anti-forestry chief Jean-Maurice Matchewan. At first Shanks claimed to know nothing about it: “We have no knowledge of that. This is the first time I’ve heard of that.”

Later, however, Shanks backpedalled. He admitted that Domtar lawyer Radha Curpen had advised the pro-forestry Algonquins. This “might have been a conflict (of interest),” he said, but then added: “As soon as we were aware of that the legal counsel was removed.”