On November 19, the residents of Barriere Lake blockaded Highway 117 for the second time in less than two months, only to be met, once again, by brutal force at the hands of the Sûreté du Québec.
At the end of the day, over 40 of the 120 protestors were arrested, including the community’s customary Chief, 28-year-old Benjamin Nottaway.
Though the majority of those arrested were released the following day, Nottaway was not granted bail and was instead sentenced on December 4 to 45 days in jail for mischief relating to the protest. The sentence came on top of the 15 days Nottaway had already served while awaiting his court date.
When it came to Nottaway’s sentencing hearing itself, Crown Attorney France Deschamps actually asked Judge Jules Barriere for a sentence of 12 months, despite the fact that the maximum sentence for his charges could only be 45 days. The idea was to send a “clear message” so to “to make sure Nottaway has no desire to do this again, and to discourage the group,” said Deschamps in court.
“He is pretty much a political prisoner because the provincial and federal governments wanted to discourage our community members,” said Michel Thusky, a Barriere Lake spokesperson who was also arrested that day for public mischief.
The community of Barriere Lake has been protesting the federal and provincial governments’ refusal to honour a trilateral agreement that the community signed with both governments back in 1991. Implementation of the agreement would have seen the community receive benefits from the multi-million dollar natural-resource development projects that have been ongoing on their traditional lands for decades. The community is also protesting because Indian and Northern Affairs has chosen to deal only with an illegally imposed chief, Casey Ratt, who came to power through a faction group within the community.
Barriere Lake, one of Canada’s poorest First Nations’ reserves, and its 450 residents live in third-world-like squalour. Relying on a generator for power, the community would have seen an actual connection to a Hydro-Québec grid had the 1991 trilateral agreement been implemented.
Since the community has been in dispute over their leadership, INAC has also imposed a third party manager Nolette Lemieux to oversee operations within the community. However, according to Thusky, she communicates only with Ratt.
“The community is still struggling with the situation. As it is now, the alternative school has no fuel. It is run by a generator but there is no heating oil. The third party or the other group does not want to provide services. They are using our children in a way,” said Thusky.
In Barriere Lake, parents can send their children to one of two schools, one is federally operated and the other is supported by the parents of the community.
Thusky and his community are currently seeking donations of either oil or cash to reopen the alternative school as it is their only recourse.
Since Nottaway has been in prison, the residents of Barriere Lake have been subjected to periodic generator failures for days at a time and recently, they had no water for days. Residents have yet to receive any explanation as to why their essential services are failing as neither Lemieux nor Ratt have communicated any explanation to the community.
With two federal court cases underway against INAC for interfering with their leadership and imposing the third-party management, Thusky and his community are hoping to see Nottaway released from jail before Christmas. Nottaway is also a father of five children and thankfully his extended family members have been collecting firewood for the family in his absence so that they can at least remain warm.
Despite the hardships that have befallen this community, Thusky said that by no means would this ever discourage them from protesting again because public pressure is their only shot at saving their community.
“I was told not to go to any barricades but I would rather protect my interests and my identity. I cannot just throw away the knowledge that was transferred to me by my ancestors and my parents. I cannot close my eyes to that,” he said.
Even the youth of Barriere Lake could see themselves removed from the community should they attend another protest. Since many of those arrested on Nov. 19 were minors, Youth Protection files have been opened and monitoring and restrictions have been placed on them. Thusky even said that the SQ presence within the area has been significantly stepped up.
“What we are hoping for is to push for a public inquiry into the way the federal and provincial governments are managing our community issues,” said Thusky.
For the time being the community is trying to weigh their options while at the same time trying to prepare for the cold winter months ahead. According to Thusky, the community of Barriere Lake has no plans to back down.