Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The “Coup D’etat at Barriere Lake and Why it Matters

During the 2008 election campaign, a citizens group occupied the offices of Lawrence Cannon. After a member of his staff insulted the peaceful protesters, by suggesting that they were all drunkards, Cannon was forced to issue an apology.

But the incident brought the situation at Barriere Lake in Quebec, from where the occupying citizens hailed, to the public's attention.

Because the sit-in was only one measure taken by the community, that has been victimized by corporate greed and government intervention, for decades.

In his book, Speaking Out, Jack Layton mentions a visit to the community and a meeting with then Chief Harry Wawatie.
The true heroes, however, are First Nations leaders and communities. Like Barriere Lake Reserve Chief Harry Wawatie, whose community of four hundred people live in sixty decrepit houses in abject poverty while resource-extracting firms and tourism companies suck the enormous economic wealth out of the lands that should provide the community with sustenance. Courage and wise determination are what you see in the chief's eyes, along with deep sadness as he watches an affluent nation systematically deny human rights and security to the next generation of his community. (1)
And it has indeed been systematic, in what Todd Gordon calls a "violent intervention by paramilitary force to impose government-friendly leaderships in First Nation communities" (2), Barriere Lake being one of them.

The occupation of Lawrence Cannon's office was to protest the hostile takeover of their government.
In what residents of the Algonquin community of Barriere Lake, located 250 kilometres. from Ottawa, describe as a coup d'etat, SQ officers forcibly entered their community of 650 to remove a customary leadership, which had not been subject to the Indian Act's band council system and which had the support of the majority of the community. The SQ-enforced coup followed the Department of Indian Affairs' decision to remove the traditional chief and council and replace them with a small and unpopular faction. (2)

The conflict began in the 1960s, when the federal and Quebec governments forced the First Nation community off of its traditional lands and onto a small plot, with 'no community centre or high school, only one phone line for the entire community and serious overcrowding in substandard houses (in some cases; up to eighteen people live in small dwellings with unfinished basements and leaky roofs.'

The reserve is badly underserviced and the rape of the land has wreaked havoc on the ecosystem of their traditional territory. Hydro development has damaged waterways. Logging companies have cut over traplines, destroyed moose habitat (moose have been a staple of the community's diet) and sprayed the area with industrial herbicide.

One of their struggles has been a battle with lumber giant Domtar. In the 1980's the people of Barriere Lake mounted blockades, and cut off the wood supply to their mills, resulting in a Trilateral Agreement between the federal government, the Quebec government and the First Nations. But that agreement has not been honoured. Financial remuneration has been withheld and important meetings cancelled.

This has necessitated the residents to again mobilize, while the government worked behind the scenes to remove dissidents and plant a more compliant municipal body.

When former Barriere Lake leader Chief Jean Maurice Matchewan, was charged with assault, his bail conditions prohibited him from returning to the community. The same thing happened with band administrator, Michel Thusky. And though the cases were eventually thrown out, the legal troubles were damaging.

In 1995, the Quebec government began making accusations of sexual and financial misconduct by the community leadership, based solely on accusations by the puppet government in waiting.

Indian Affairs hired the law firm of Thompson Dorfman Sweatman to file a motion with the federal government to have Barriere Lake's traditional council removed from power. It was later discovered that the law firm also represented Domtar, the company standing the most to lose if the citizens retained their democratically elected council.
But the residents remained defiant, and blockaded their own reserve to keep the opposition from entering their community. Faced with the resistance, Indian Affairs cut off all government funding to the reserve, which was already suffering from ninety percent unemployment and extremely poor living conditions. But community members refused to give in, and lived for over a year without water, electricity or schooling for their children. They survived entirely by living off their land as best they could given the decades of environmental destruction caused by resource development. And when logging companies tried to move back into areas that had previously been protected, they were met once again by blockades. With mills facing shutdowns as a result, Indian Affairs dropped its effort to replace the community's leadership, and when elections were subsequently held, the opposition was soundly defeated." (2)
They won this battle , but the war continues. When a new chief was elected in 2006, the Harper government refused to recognize his leadership. Instead, it put Barriere Lake under Third Party Management meaning that an external consultant unilaterally runs their affairs.

This allowed the unwanted and unelected opposition, under corporate friendly Casey Ratt, to move in. He refused to hold elections and has promised to drop the lawsuit against the federal government.

This again sparked confrontations that led to a number of arrests.
Although most of those activists were eventually released from jail, the experience is a chilling re-minder of the lengths to which the state will go to keep indigenous people under its thumb. The full force of the state's coercive apparatus is brought to bear on those indigenous peoples willing to step outside the parameters Canada has set for its colonial relations with First Nations.
According to the Department of National Defense's counter-insurgency manual, there are aggressive measures that can be taken to handle "indigenous militancy".

One is the use of deception and misinformation campaigns, something we have already witnessed at Barriere Lake. But it does not rule out the use of "deadly force".
The rise of radical Native American organizations, such as the Mohawk Warrior Society, can be viewed as insurgencies with specific and limited aims. Although they do not seek complete control of the federal government, they do seek particular political concessions in their relationship with national governments and control (either overt or covert) of political affairs at a local/reserve ('First Nation') level, through the threat of, or use of, violence.
Given Harper's new border security deal with the U.S. and the Wikileaks documents that express their concerns over "indigenous militancy", we could see the use of force becoming more commonplace, if campaigns of deception and misinformation fail.

And let's not forget the most troubling aspect of all. A deal signed three years ago that allows the U.S. military to cross our border in the case of what they deem to be a "civil emergency".

I'm very concerned with the direction that the Harper government will take, given their unfettered power.

Lawrence Cannon has fortunately been replaced, and the new NDP MP Mathieu Ravignat, seems to be a compassionate and caring man. But if this becomes a military issue, there is little he will be able to do to stop it. I'm very worried.


1. Speaking Out: Ideas That Work for Canadians, By Jack Layton, Key Porter Books, 2004 ISBN: 1-55263-577-5, Pg. 265-266

2. Imperialist Canada, By Todd Gordon, Arbeiter Publishing, 2010, ISBN: 978-1-894037-4507, Pg. 283-286


  1. As I read this, I was trying to imagine the federal government stepping in to replace the mayor and council of the small town in which I live, turning off the electricity, natural gas and phone service, then closing the schools because they didn't like who we elected, and leaving us to live for a year with no heat or light.
    It wouldn't be a year. It would be a day, and the country would be outraged.
    Where, then, is the outrage when suchdeprivations are forced on our First Nations people? The "oh, well, they're just Indians" attitude is shocking. It's atrocious. This is a free country. This is Canada. They are Canadians. What has happened?
    As for letting the US military crossing our border in the case of what WHO decides is a civil emergency? The Americans decide? The Harpies decide? "Come on up here with your guns and shoot some Canadians"? WHAT?

  2. You're right Kay, and out silence only gives him permission. Every reserve that has resources the corporate sector wants could be treated the same way.