APTN By Shiri Pasternak
Before the axe dramatically fell on Barriere Lake’s customary government in August 2010, there were many forewarnings that the customary band’s days were numbered.
As early as 1995, during the first leadership crisis with the IBC, the Department of Indian Affairs debated imposing Section 74 of the Indian Act onto the community as an exit strategy to the Trilateral Agreement. In March 2008, an internal report summarizing impact scenarios of Ratt council recognition over the Nottaway council also offered the possibility of not recognizing both councils and instead imposing Section 74 on the community.
Despite repeated references to Section 74 over the years in regard to Barriere Lake, these discussions remained internal to the department until October 2009. That month, Barriere Lake received notice from Minister of Indian Affairs Chuck Strahl that an order pursuant to Section 74 of the Indian Act to bring Barriere Lake under band council election provisions was being actively considered.
The context of the Section 74 ministerial order was presented as the internal leadership dispute, but INAC had continued to interfere with Barriere Lake’s internal governance procedures prior to this 2008 conflict, undermining the community’s capacity to govern. At least the department made no secret of the severity of the measure.
Camil Simard, director of Negotiations, Governance and Individual Affairs for the Quebec Region of INAC, told Indian Country Today (after the fact) that “[t]he Section 74 of the Indian Act . . . is an extraordinary measure that is taken very rarely and only under extraordinary circumstances.”
Barriere Lake was well aware of the severity of the threat. A series of meetings were held in the community between INAC representatives and Barriere Lake between December 2009 and August 2010.
One meeting in particular illustrates the independent character and identity of the Barriere Lake people. On December 15, 2009, INAC’s Quebec point-man Pierre Nepton visited the community to consult about the Section 74 order. With Nepton seated at the front of the room, ready as a delegate of the government of Canada to lead the meeting, the community held a community assembly in their own language of anishnabemowin, facilitated by Tony Wawatie, a respected community member in the hereditary line. At the end of their ninety-minute meeting, when everyone had had a chance to speak, the community took a vote and the Indian Act election system was resoundingly rejected. The results of the “consultation” were communicated to Nepton.
In a follow-up letter to the department, the chief and council explained what had transpired at the meeting: “What you observed during the meeting of December 15th is that it was attended by supporters of both our Council and supporters of the Casey Ratt group. What you also observed is that despite the differences between us, both groups are adamantly opposed to the Minister either issuing or threatening to issue an order under section 74 of the Indian Act, to put us under the elective system. There is a broad consensus in our community in favour of retaining our customs and against a section 74 order.”
Nepton had sent a notice expressing his disappointment that Tony Wawatie was not interested in providing him with an opportunity to address the community. Barriere Lake chief and council replied, correcting this and other claims: “[Tony] asked the people if they wanted to hear you and they told him, in no uncertain terms, that they did not want to hear from you. Their only purpose was to give you a very clear message that they were opposed to the Minister either issuing or threatening to issue an order under section 74 of the Indian Act. Once this message was delivered, many people walked out. As a courtesy, some people stayed to listen to your presentation.”
The council then refers the department to the two resolutions passed that day by the Elders Council and the community rejecting the imposition of Section 74 and reaffirming the MAO as the customary government system at Barriere Lake.
One exemplary line from the community resolution that soundly rejects the attack on their customary government reads: “We, the Mitchikinabikok Inik, vow to continue the efforts of our Ancestors to protect our identity, our Culture, our language, our territory and our Onakinakewin against assimilation, marginalization and discrimination such as the Ministers [sic] decision of October 30, 2009.”
Meanwhile, the minister of Indian Affairs invoked his power under Section 74 to impose the elective system on Barriere Lake based on the “leadership process” as the source that “continues to fuel the difficult governance situation” at Barriere Lake. He concludes that the community “is lacking the political will and the governance tools to resolve the matter.”
As evidence of further governance issues, elections officer Bob Norton referred to “several cases . . . involving various parties, [that] are currently unfolding before the Federal Court.”
Although this was the pretense for the imposition of the elective system, this communication strategy defied and denied reason and evidence to the contrary. The court cases were referred to as proof of endless internal conflict and the incapacity to resolve issues on their own. There were in fact four cases before the federal court, but three of them were against the minister.
Besides, Barriere Lake asked the department why they should not have recourse to the courts, especially since the minister himself had said that he has no jurisdiction to adjudicate the dispute. As to the accusation of constant leadership disputes, the community had in fact had only one prior leadership dispute in 1996, making it ten years between occurrences. As they point out, “we consider that quite infrequent considering the frequency of leadership disputes within the current minority Parliament in Ottawa.”
The source of these legal proceedings and leadership conflicts, furthermore, was actions of Nepton’s own department—recognition of the IBC, undue process in the imposition of TPM, failure to honour agreements, and politically motivated recognition of councils—all contributed to the chaos and unrest in the community.
There were also a series of exchanges of communications that clearly expressed the community’s progress in their internal reconciliation process. Nonetheless, on June 18, 2010, Nepton rejected the community efforts at reconciliation. He informed the community that he had received the elders’ resolutions and outline of plans for a reconciliation process toward a new government in Barriere Lake but said that it fell short of requirements INAC had laid out for customary code modification.
The nomination meeting for an Indian Act band council would go along as scheduled by Electoral Officer Bob Norton. At the end of July, the community blocked the first nominations meeting from taking place by driving trucks across the entrance to the reserve from Highway 117, preventing the electoral officer from getting into the community.
There seemed to be no choice by this point but for the Algonquins to try to physically prevent the band council elections from going forward. As Marylynn Poucachiche put it: “The government is breaking the law, but through our actions we are protecting it.”
The second time the electoral officer entered the territory, however, he had learned his lesson. Rather than publicly announce the nominations meeting, Norton arrived early in the morning, hours before the community living at Rapid Lake was told he would arrive, and held a nomination meeting on a site off Highway 117. He had not obtained permission to be there from the family whose territory he was on and, when questioned later, he would not provide any information on how he came to hold the nomination meeting at that time and place. When information finally reached Rapid Lake and around 25 community members arrived to find out what had transpired at the nomination meeting, Norton and his colleagues immediately packed up their things and made to leave, claiming that everything was void. Independent journalist Courtney Kirkby, reporting for CKUT radio in Montreal, caught the exchange on camera:
Norman Matchewan: Who was nominated?
Bob Norton: Nobody, because we didn’t have a nomination meeting. I’m just checking with a lawyer now and I think the whole thing is dead.
Rose Nottaway: Dead?
Bob Norton: I’m just waiting for a legal opinion. Because the law says we have to have a nomination meeting before an election is activated.
Norman Matchewan: But there were people who showed up to nominate people and we want to know who that was. I think we have a right to know. I don’t think you should be nodding your head, “no.”
Bob Norton: I can tell you legally that if those nominations are recognized, they will be posted and you’ll know who nominated who.
Norman Matchewan: Can we have a copy now to confirm that?
Bob Norton: No, because they’re not valid right now.
Norman Matchewan: So this whole thing is not valid?
Bob Norton: That’s my opinion right now. I’m just waiting for a legal opinion. (He holds up his cell phone.)
In the video, Norton continues to fixate on his cell phone before finally leaving the site without word from the lawyers. As he leaves, he says: “They’re void. Everything’s void. There’s no chief and council.”
Matchewan asks for a written confirmation attesting to that statement, but Norton ignores him. As community members encourage Norton to leave and to never return, Kirkby asks Norton whether or not he has received any mail-in nomination ballots. Norton refuses to respond.
On August 16, 2010, community members saw a notice hung up in the health clinic. It informed them that a new band council had been elected to govern the community. Because two nomination meetings were “disrupted,” Norton determined that any attempt to hold a third nomination meeting would fail. Therefore, he declared that the candidates elected through mail-in ballots would be acclaimed as chief and council to form a band council for a two-year term.
Only five people had submitted ballots.
The acclaimed councillors were Anida Decoursay, Steve Wawatie, Chad Thusky, and Hector Jerome. Casey Ratt was nominated as chief but he immediately resigned in protest of the Indian Act elective system, stating that, “We will not surrender our rights nor will we allow the Department of Indian Affairs to do away with our Customary selection process.”
The new band council sent out a notice a month later, claiming that their council was directed by the community to accept the nomination. Shock and anger set in throughout the community.
Another coup d’état had taken place. But this time, an entire system of governance had been replaced.