Life is getting desperate in the Algonquin community of Barrière Lake as its blockade of a logging road in La Vérendrye Park enters its fourth month.
Food and other basic necessities are in short supply since virtually everyone in the community has been forced onto welfare and hunting activities have been disrupted.
“The community is having a very difficult time right now. They don’t have too much to depend on to survive,” said Harry Wawatie, an Algonquin elder appointed by the community as chief last March. Wawatie isn’t recognized by Ottawa.
Frustrations are growing as Ottawa refuses to take Algonquin concerns about clearcutting seriously. To increase the pressure, the community is now considering moving its blockade to Highway 117, the main artery linking Montreal to Val d’Or.
“Some families are completely destitute. They have nothing to eat. Almost everyone is on welfare. With the barricade they haven’t had a chance to hunt for moose,” said Michel Gratton, a former Quebec cabinet minister advising the Algonquins on a volunteer basis.
“They are suffering many hardships,” said Gratton, who said the Algonquins are requesting contributions of food and money to alleviate the worsening conditions in the community.
The Algonquins blockaded a logging road near their community in late October as a protest against clearcutting on their ancestral
lands and against Ottawa’s interference in the band’s affairs. The community has been in turmoil since last January 23, when Indian Affairs Minister Ron Irwin stepped in to remove Barrière Lake’s long-time chief, saying he lacked community support.
Now, nearly a year later, the community still doesn’t have a recognized chief, all but a handful of people in the 450-member reserve have lost their jobs and were forced onto welfare, and most of the children have missed nearly a year of school since nearly all band services were shut down.
Most community members believe Irwin removed the former chief, Jean-Maurice Matchewan, because he led a noisy campaign against logging interests in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The blockade threatens hundreds of jobs in the region. The possibility of layoffs has prompted Guy Chevrette, Quebec’s Minister of Natural Resources and Native Affairs, to send a stern letter to Irwin, taking Ottawa to task for how it has handled the conflict with the community.
“The only card they have is the blockade. Any time they’ve got any justice is when they’ve blocked a road,” said Gratton. “The school is all boarded up. There are children in the streets. People have lost weight. They look despondent. They’re going through something (the feds) will never know about sitting in (their offices). The community’s patience is wearing very thin.”
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