According to Tony Wawatie, a community representative from Barriere Lake, Minister Chuck Strahl and the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs (INAC) are imposing section 74 of the Indian Act electoral system on the community despite its desire to select its own leadership traditionally.

“They are sending out mail-in ballots to people I don’t even know. People who we don’t even know are submitting their names to be Chief,” said Wawatie.

Traditionally the small and impoverished community of Barriere Lake has left it up to the community’s Elders to select new Chiefs as they have done for centuries but in recent months, INAC has assigned its own electoral officer to the community. Under the Indian Act electoral policy, people who have never lived in the community will be able to vote via mail and select a leader and have a say over the land that the community has fought so hard to protect.

Over the course of the past few years, the community has been no stranger to leadership selection issues. In 2008, INAC chose to recognize Casey Ratt as the community’s Chief, one who was selected by a small faction of the community. At the time the community had its own appointed interim customary Chief, Benjamin Nottaway.

Wawatie said there is still a small minority of the community that is supportive of INAC’s imposed electoral policies, but the rest of the community has focused on reconciling their differences and come together to oppose the government’s imposition.

While the community would like to settle the election issue amongst itself, Wawatie said the Quebec government has been taking advantage of the situation by issuing logging permits to industry on the community’s traditional land. Besides not being consulted on this matter, the community is not seeing a cent of revenue generated from the development.

“The thing about our customs and our governance is that it is based on our connection with the land. One of the jobs, the Chief and Councilors have, under our custom, is to oversee the management and stewardship of our territory so that when there is a concern, they will listen and deal with it,” said Wawatie.

According to Wawatie, what is even more difficult is that the community has been fighting with Quebec and Canada to see the trilateral agreement that was signed by the two governments and the community in 1991 is honoured. Under it, the community would see new homes built and resource revenue sharing as well as the expansion of its territory that would allow for the community to finally be hooked up to the hydro grid. Despite being located near a hydro development, the community has always been powered by generators.

While Wawatie said the government is currently promising to honour the hydro hook-up portion of the agreement, the community isn’t sure at this point if they want to go on the grid as the community is so impoverished and the fear is that many members wouldn’t be able to pay their bills. The community would rather see new homes built first to address the extreme housing shortage in Barriere Lake and to improve the local economy.

In recent weeks, Wawatie said Surête du Québec (SQ) officers have been in the community handing out ballots and that INAC-appointed electoral officer, Bob Norton, has been offering an annual government-paid salary of $50,000 to an elected Chief. So far, those approached by Norton have rejected the lucrative offer in favour of the traditional Chief selection process.

On June 15, members of the Barriere Lake community, along with broad network of political parties, unions, human-rights groups and Indigenous organizations, rallied outside Strahl’s Ottawa office to protest INAC’s imposed election policies.

The community has also been holding traffic slowdowns on Highway 117 to hand out pamphlets to the public to create awareness. They are hoping that this might lead to an opportunity to get a table with both Quebec and Canada to see the implementation of the trilateral agreement.

For the time being however, INAC has already posted notices within the community for an upcoming August 19 election and the nomination meeting for a Chief and six Councillors is set for July 8.

“Right now INAC has been forcing their agenda on us. They are telling us that they will be imposing it on us and that we had better comply with what they are telling us to do,” said Wawatie.