For four years, the Algonquins of the Barrière Lake First Nation blocked roads, fought in court and set up a tent city on Parliament Hill to stop clearcutting on their land. Their campaign forced Canada and Quebec to sign a historic agreement giving Algonquins the final say over logging on their land—an agreement held up around the world as an important precedent for aboriginal peoples.
Today, as sensitive negotiations on the agreement enter their final and most critical stage, the chief who led the anti-clearcutting campaign, Jean-Maurice Matchewan, has been overthrown by a group of Algonquins who are more favourable to the forestry industry.
Between 1994 and Jan. 1996, their legal advice came from Radha Curpen, a Domtar lawyer who works at a prestigious Winnipeg law firm. It was Curpen who filed a case in December with the Federal Court of Canada asking for Matchewan to be thrown out of office.
Domtar makes an estimated $66 million in yearly revenues from its cutting in the 10,000-sq-km area covered by the Barrière Lake agreement. It also holds the largest of the 19 timber leases, known as a CAAFs, in this area. The final negotiations with Canada and Quebec are expected to see drastic reductions in Domtar’s cutting.
“We think the timing is linked to killing the trilateral agreement,” says Russell Diabo, a long-time advisor to Chief Matchewan. “We think the feds don’t like the precedent. They prefer the Nisga’a model [which saw the Nisga ‘a give up their tax-exemption] and we know the Crees and Attikamekw are waiting to see how it will work out.
“Matchewan led the fight and in the process pissed off some powerful people.”
Last November, Chief Matchewan’s opponents in the community presented a petition to Indian Affairs Minister Ron Irwin demanding his removal. “There was a clear consensus in the community,” said Curpen. “Matchewan had been in place for 15 years and people wanted a change, which I think is understandable.”
But Diabo said that of 140 names on the petition, only 41 actually live in the community. Some live as far away as California.
Irwin acted on January 23. Using his powers under the Indian Act, he removed Matchewan and appointed a new council made up of the group advised by Curpen.
Confrontations erupted when the new council tried to take control of the band offices. Matchewan’s supporters barricaded buildings and to this day remain holed up in the village. Barrière Lake has no electricity, school, police, firefighters or mail. Half the residents have left town, either departing for their traplines or Maniwaki, where the rival band council has set up its office.
Solomon Wawatic, an advisor to the new council, told The Nation that Matchewan mishandled the band’s finances, paid consultants too much and didn’t do enough to create jobs. Wawatie said the band could create jobs by getting into logging itself. “Why not? Maybe we can show those guys how to cut. Does it have to be Domtar?”
Wawatie also confirmed that Matchewan’s opponents got legal advice from another lawyer associated with logging interests—Hull lawyer Louise Labrie. Labrie works in the same firm as Yves Letellier, the lawyer handlinga $5-million lawsuit against Barrière Lake by Claude Berard, who claims Algonquin blockades damaged his logging business.