The federal Ministry of Indian and Northern Affairs (INAC) has arranged the election of its chosen candidates for Chief and Band Council of the embattled Algonquin community of Barriere Lake by employing a range of tactics that critics there charge have blatantly disenfranchised them.
Ministry officials selectively and unilaterally applied parts of Section 74 of the Indian Act, including the use of mail-in ballots, to impose an election on Barriere Lake despite the once-divided community’s near-unanimous opposition.
Last spring, INAC designated ministry official Bob Norton as returning officer in order to impose an election for a Chief and Council under Section 74 of the Indian Act. The community opposes submission to Indian Act provisions as an unlawful attack on their right to traditional practice in the selection of community leadership.
Under section 74, not only would the community have leadership imposed on them but it also allowed for individuals from outside of the community to nominate candidates and vote.
On July 22, the community barricaded the access road into the community off of highway 117 to keep Norton from entering the community to hold the nominations. The act of defiance was a success according to community spokesperson Tony Wawatie. But this didn’t prevent Norton from going about his business by other means.
According to Wawatie, Norton returned to the community a few weeks later on the day welfare cheques were delivered and many of the community members had left to go shopping. He hired two teenagers to pass out notices identifying 2 pm, August 12, as the designated hour for nominations for the new Chief and Council – a process to be staged at the community’s airstrip. The documents also stated that anyone who attempted to erect a barricade or protest the nominations would be arrested.
“The community decided that we would boycott it but at the same time monitor the whole situation just to see who would participate,” said Wawatie.
Norton returned to the community August 12 to supervise nominations but caught the community off guard by opening the nominations at 10 am and closing the nominating period at 1 pm.
There are questions about whether the nominations received enough support to be considered legally valid. The “candidates” were each nominated by between six and ten people, all by mail-in ballot.
Nonetheless, the following morning Norton returned to the community at 6 am, posting a notice that the nominated candidates had been declared elected by acclamation. According to Ottawa, Barriere Lake now has a new, federally recognized Chief and Council.
However, the chosen chief, Casey Ratt, has in the past refused to serve after winning previous INAC-run elections in the community. It is unclear however if the other four councillors will also refuse their positions.
During their July barricade, Wawatie had travelled to Winnipeg to meet with Assembly of First Nations National Grand Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, who signed a document condemning INAC violating the community’s Aboriginal and treaty rights by imposing the election.
The community is now also trying to appeal to INAC’s new Minister, John Duncan, the Ministry of Justice, the Attorney General, the Quebec Minister Responsible for Aboriginal Affairs, the Minister of Public Security for Quebec and a series of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal rights groups for support in opposing the imposed leadership.
Over 200 community members (a majority of eligible voters) have also signed a document stating their opposition to INAC’s leadership selection.
Not only is the community opposed to the election but also the deal that came along with the election from INAC that would finally see the impoverished community hooked up to the hydroelectric grid.
Wawatie has previously told the Nation that the promise of a hook up isn’t good enough as it was already supposed to happen as a part of the community’s 1991 trilateral agreement that was signed by both Quebec and Canada and then never implemented. The trilateral agreement would have also seen the community receive a portion of revenue sharing for the natural resource developments on their traditional lands. The community has yet to see anything they were promised in almost 20 years.
“If just a handful of people can try to run the community, there is a big difference in numbers there. What the Department wants is somebody they can control, manipulate and even go as far as buying off,” said Wawatie.