Norman Matchewan, a spokesperson and activist for the First Nation of Mitchikanibiko’inik of Barriere Lake, was acquitted of mischief and obstruction of justice charges on June 5, more than two years after attempting to protect his people’s land from illegal logging.
According to Matchewan, he had learned that there was illegal logging going on in their territory in late August 2008. After meeting with the community, a letter was prepared informing the loggers that they had no right to work on their territory as they had been unlawfully authorized by Quebec’s Ministry of Natural Resources. Matchewan and a few others, in the middle of the night, promptly went out to present the loggers with the letter.
“We found loggers working at 2 a.m.,” said Matchewan. “The workers said that they weren’t surprised to see us. They just packed up their machines and left.”
The next day, Matchewan and others camped out near the logging site and waited for the foreman to arrive. According to Matchewan’s lawyer, Jared Will, the foreman was handed the same letter informing him that his company, AbitibiBowater, would not have the right to log without proper authorization from the government and the Mitchikanibiko’inik people.
“The foreman [Yves Paquette] just said OK, and left,” said Matchewan. “We didn’t block the road, we just told him he wasn’t allowed to log on our territory.”
The government had never contacted the community, leaving them little choice but to abandon the campsite. They left after three days, allowing the logging company to return to work. Much to his surprise, Matchewan received a summons, over a year and a half later.
“I was surprised because the SQ officers who came out to the campsite told us they wanted to avoid charges,” said Matchewan.
Will argues that the circumstances surrounding the summons were strange from the get go.
“It’s absurd that it would have taken that long,” said Will. “If they thought they had a basis for charges, they would have arrested him then and there. All they had was he said/she said.”
According to Will, there is a significant difference between actually blocking the road and preventing access to the site, and simply informing the foreman of the illegality of his work.
The absurdity of the charges only intensifies, as it was revealed that a film crew had recorded the interaction between Paquette and Matchewan. Despite having seen the camera crew, Paquette lied on the stand and claimed that Matchewan denied him entry to the site. Paquette also stated that there were no SQ officers on site, despite video evidence to the contrary.
Along with the basis for the charges, the timing was also questionable. Matchewan had recently become involved in the campaign to stop the Cartier Resources mining company from exploiting copper and nickel in the Barriere Lake region. He was issued the summons soon after.
“I thought they were trying to criminalize me because I’m active in protecting the community,” said Matchewan. “There’s been a lot of that in the community. People who are convicted aren’t allowed to be activists or take part in any blockades.”
According to Will, the town has a long history of criminalization.
“It takes a toll in the sense that it’s a poor community,” he said. “It’s a significant burden [to have to deal with these types of charges]. The cost of fuel just to get to the courthouse is significant, especially for people from poorer communities. This is a community that has been under the boot of the government for years. Even when there are sentences, they are harsher than they normally would be.”
For now, Matchewan is left to see his acquittal as a small success in the fight against the suppression of his people and their rights.
“I feel like this is a victory,” he said. “Not just for me, but for all Native communities.”