Inside Ottawa’s Old City Hall, Prime Minister Stephen Harper holds court. Nearly 300 chiefs attend but they’re skeptical about the timing. For decades, they’ve complained that federal policies are making “Attawapiskat” inevitable by excluding First Nations from the benefits of resource development from their own lands, isolating them behind walls of regulations and mismanaging band councils with funding arrangements that make them accountable to the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs – not their own people.

Almost unnoticed, kept almost out of sight by police, about 30 people from Barriere Lake hold up protest signs. “Revoke Section 74” says one sign. They shuffle about to stay warm. An occasional journalist wanders by but, to them, this is a distraction. Tomorrow, there won’t be a single story explaining why the Algonquin from Barriere Lake are there. Too bad. These journalists might learn a thing or two about Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples if they paid the Algonquin some attention.

Pushed from their traditional lands in the Ottawa Valley by lumber barons, the Algonquin became refugees in their own lands. Lured by empty promises to missions near Montreal, a few returned to their homelands at the headwaters of the Gatineau River north of Ottawa. They were self-sufficient, self-reliant and self-governing until the Department of Indian Affairs got involved. Their lives have gone downhill ever since.

Today, this group of Algonquin survive on about 30 hectares of land that the Canadian government calls the “Rapid Lake reserve”. It’s a tiny piece of sand compared to the 17,000 square kilometres of traditional territory. There hasn’t been a new home built since the 1980s. Most of the existing homes are contaminated by mould. Even so, it’s common to find two or more families jammed into a two-bedroom house. Overcrowding creates ideal conditions for a wealth of health problems. Unemployment hovers between 80% and 90%. A few jobs are found at the band office and nursing station. Logging continues to destroy the ability of hunters and trappers to support their families. Welfare is a growth industry.

In 2007, a mediator’s report by Judge Réßjean Paul said much the same thing: “In the past, this Native community was practically stripped of its wealth (i.e. essentially the forest) by systematic cuts on their traditional territories, with no compensation or economic spin-off. This state of affairs led to an absolute dependence on government programmes and subsidies…”

Logging, assisted by Hydro-Québec, make it difficult for the Algonquin of Barriere Lake to live off the land. Clear cutting destroyed a lot of forest, conveniently out of sight from tourists and camping areas along the main highway. Hydro-Québec built dams to generate electricity but also to adjust water levels for log drives, but gave little thought to Algonquin harvesters or the beaver, moose and muskrat. People found beaver drowned in their lodges thanks to Hydro raising or lowering water levels. It all occurred unnoticed by people heading north to La Verendrye Provincial Park for a tourist’s taste of the Canadian north.

Why didn’t the Algonquin speak up sooner? Part of the answer lies in Canadian history. The federal government made it illegal for Indians, or anyone else, to raise money to hire lawyers or take their cases to court until the 1950s. Canada didn’t recognize Indians as people under Canadian law, or allow them to vote, until the 1960s. Quebec didn’t let Indians vote until the 1980s.

According to Michel Thusky, an Elder with a group representing many Algonquin at Barriere Lake, “There’s a long history of how the government tried to put away our traditional form of governance, how we select our Elders, how we select our chiefs. That’s why we’re demanding that the federal government revoke Section 74 of the Indian Act – because it’s being used to attack our culture and identity.”

Section 74 of the Indian Act states: “Whenever he deems it advisable for the good government of a band, the minister may declare by order that after a day to be named therein the council of the band, consisting of a chief and councillors, shall be selected by elections to be held in accordance with this Act.”

Section 74 lays out the basics for band elections, the size of a community’s council, how the chief councillor is selected, whether a reserve has one or several voting districts. There’s nothing that should allow the minister to over-ride the will of the majority of voters and appoint a council or chief that his department prefers. Yet, Thusky and many others at Barriere Lake say that’s exactly what the minister has done. Thusky says the minister is continuing a long history of violating the Algonquin community’s rights to use its customary laws for electing its council. He says that, in doing so, Canada is violating its own laws and treaty obligations.

According to Thusky, the present situation at Barriere Lake goes back 30 years when the Algonquin stood up to loggers as well as the Quebec and Canadian governments. The traditional chief and council managed to negotiate a place at the table and a share in resource management within their traditional territory. The 1997 Tripartite Agreement was considered a win-win situation for everyone, except the logging industry. Ottawa and Quebec bowed to pressure from the pulp and paper industry and backed out of the agreement. Confrontation was inevitable.

The Algonquin blocked the main highway connecting Val-d’Or to the south. Riot police, moved in to arrest dozens of Algonquin. Two former cabinet ministers in the federal and provincial governments, Clifford Lincoln and John Ciaccia, tried to salvage the agreement. They told their respective governments that the best solution for all was to honour the 1997 agreement. Both governments ignored the two mediators. Tensions rose again.

The community’s chief resigned in frustration. This led to an election. It gave Indian Affairs the chance to get rid of the traditional council by recognizing the losing faction as the new band council. Thusky and others called it a “coup d’etat”, an attack on democratic rights in Canada. They’ve been fighting to overturn that election ever since.

Anita Descourcy works at the nursing station. She’s one of four councillors. There’s no “chief” at Barriere Lake. She speaks French. Hearing English, she hangs up. Everyone else contacted refused to be interviewed. An email to Quebec’s Minister for Native Affairs, Geoffrey Kelley, is unanswered by press time.

Thusky says it’s been difficult for everyone. The community, including families, is deeply divided. Attempts to settle differences end up in shouting matches and worse. Even Harper’s “National Apology” merely opened old wounds for people like Thusky. “Because they didn’t mean it. Nothing’s changed.”

That’s the most difficult part, Thusky says. He’s losing hope and he knows it. So are people back home. They thought they’d finally found common ground and a new future by working with governments and industry.

“All we want is recognition to the land, to be able to support ourselves. And we had that in our agreement.”