The troubled community of Barriere Lake has headed back to federal court in another attempt to remove the third-party management system that Indian and Northern Affairs imposed on them back in 2006.
The small Algonquin community of 450 is divided over this issue as one side with their leader, Casey Ratt, support the third-party management system and the other group, led by interim customary Chief Benjamin Nottaway, oppose it.
Both parties and their legal presentation along with representatives from INAC were present at the Supreme Court building in Ottawa on March 16-17.
The community of Barriere Lake was in the news throughout the fall after the Nottaway supporters barricaded highway 117 twice. Many were arrested at both protests amidst police brutality with Nottaway landing himself in jail for the second protest.
The community was protesting not only INAC’s imposition of a third-party management system but also the fact that in early 2008 INAC had chosen to recognize Ratt as the community’s chief despite the fact that he was not put in power by the community’s Elders as is customary.
At the root of the issue, the Barriere Lake community has been attempting to engage both the federal and provincial governments in honouring their landmark 1991 trilateral agreement. The agreement would have seen the community receive profits from the multi-million dollars generated by natural-resource development on their traditional lands.
Currently, the community is known as being one of the poorest First Nations communities in Canada where the conditions can only be compared to that of the developing world.
“The department has not been following its own procedures or regulations regarding the intervention of putting a third-party management system into place,” said Michel Thusky, a Barriere Lake representative.
Back in December, Thusky told the Nation that the community was in dire straits, that the traditional school had been stripped of its furnace oil by the third-party manager as a pressure tactic. Thusky also said that the community was experiencing periodic blackouts and loss of water.
At the same time, Ratt’s supporters are fighting to keep the third-party management system in place. In a recent press release, the Ratt council called the court proceedings “ridiculous”, and stated that they had been making progress with the third-party manager.
Those who oppose Ratt’s leadership have called him an “illegal” chief with many community members alleging that INAC put Ratt in place because he would be less inclined to fight the government trying to impose the trilateral agreement.
Until recently this was more difficult to prove until David Nahwegahbow, the lawyer for Nottaway’s supporters, managed to access an internal INAC briefing note that pointed at how under Ratt the community would be less “dogmatized.” The document went on to state that under Ratt there would be “improved collaboration of the new council with INAC, the third-party administrator and other partners.”
With all parties having had their day in court over this issue, a ruling on the matter is expected in the near future.
The Nation spoke with Nahwegahbow who is also handling a second case in Barriere Lake involving what he describes as “pretty much the same parties.”
The Nottaway supporters have been seeking to remove Ratt as the only recognized chief by INAC since he came into power on January 31, 2008.
According to Nahwegahbow, “Ratt’s election was objected to by the Elders because they did not preside over that leadership and the minister really had no authority or jurisdiction to recognize a Casey Ratt council. Our argument and the suspicion of the Elders was that they did it to avoid the legal obligations of the First Nation.”
Nahwegahbow said that the briefing note proves that the minister recommending the decision to recognize Ratt was blatantly political as his council would be more cooperative.
The motion was brought in to remove Ratt by his opponents in April 2008, but INAC brought a motion to strike down the application on the grounds that there was no real cause of action and won the motion. That motion was struck down last fall and the case is now expected to go to trial later this year or early 2010.
Back in Barriere Lake, life is going on according to Thusky as Nottaway’s council has approved a new leadership selection that is expected to take place this spring.
“The process began yesterday and some of the other supporters of Casey attended our meeting so that was a pretty good start. There was no shouting and both sides were very respectful. So hopefully the Department of Indian Affairs will recognize our leadership selection and not interfere anymore,” said Thusky.