Though the holiday season might have been a dark time for the Algonquin community of Barriere Lake, the community finally has something to celebrate: the right to choose their own leadership.
On January 6, Federal Court Judge Russel Zinn struck down a ruling to judicially review Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl’s unilateral support of Chief Casey Ratt. The decision means a legal challenge to Strahl’s interference in Barriere Lake politics can proceed.
There has been a tremendous amount of dispute over the 450-member community’s rightful leadership over the last decade. But on January 31, 2008, the federal government decided to deal only with Ratt and his council of four.
This decision was met by intense anger by the majority of the community. Many said Ratt’s election was a sham as it breeched the band’s customary election code and deposed the Elders council’s selected interim chief Benjamin Nottaway.
“We were quite pleased that this came out at this time to help this community because our tribal council has continued to recognize Chief Benjamin Nottaway as the Chief of that community,” said the Algonquin Nation Secretariat Grand Chief Norman Young. “INAC chose to recognize another group without the involvement of the Elders council.”
On January 7, many community members along with New Democratic Party MP Charlie Angus, Green Party leader, Elizabeth May, several union leaders and grassroots activists took to the streets of Ottawa and marched from Parliament Hill to Indian and Northern Affairs Ministry offices to celebrate the landmark ruling and show support for Nottaway.
“I am quite pleased with the support that the community members from Barriere Lake are receiving from the different groups out there. Nottaway has been in jail for couple of weeks now just for standing up for his people,” said Young.
Benjamin Nottaway was sentenced to 45 days in jail for civil disobedience December 4. In addition to the time he has already served since his arrest November 19, when his community barricaded Highway 117.
The community was protesting their leadership in their November protest along with the refusal by both the federal and provincial governments to honour a trilateral agreement that the community signed with both governments back in 1991. The trilateral agreement would have seen the community receive resource sharing funds from the logging and mining that occurs on their traditional territory, as well as a hook up to a nearby Hydro-Quebec grid. The community is powered by a diesel generator.
According to Barriere Lake spokesperson Marylynn Poucachiche, Nottaway will remain in jail until his next trial date January 15.
According to Poucachiche, the last few weeks have been difficult for the Nottaways. “It was pretty hard for the kids you know, for his family especially, not having their father there for Christmas. And, it was also really hard on Benjamin himself.”
Benjamin Nottaway is 28 years old and has five children.
In his absence his community has also been suffering. In the last few months INAC has also installed a third-party manager for the community, but as of December the community has seen various water shortages, days without electricity and a loss of oil to fuel the furnace at the local traditional school.
“Welcome to the world of third-party management, the accountability seems to disappear the second a third-party manager enters the picture and that happens in community after community,” said Charlie Angus after speaking at the march to INAC’s offices. “The situation in Barriere Lake is so unacceptable because it is one of the poorest communities in the country and yet it is 300 km north of Ottawa.”
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May also spoke at the demonstration. “I always find it to be empowering to be in groups expressing solidarity like that because as frustrating as the situation is and as awful as it is to know about it in the abstract it is actually encouraging to join in a statement of strong voices on their behalf and in solidarity with them. We were all frozen stiff but it was a sign of dedication because people didn’t leave and the speeches went on, quite a lot of us were speakers,” said May.
Despite the cold, for May the pinnacle of the event came when, via cell phone, Nottaway had the opportunity to address the protestors from jail.
“He was in a jail cell two kilometres away and he was hearing us cheering for him and his mom was in the audience. He kept saying he is not going to stop struggling. People kept shouting, ‘We are not forgetting about you Benjamin,’” said May.