Skip to main content

For years, I've tried to come to terms with the fact that the federal government, in its dealings with so many first nations communities across our country, uses a divide-and-conquer strategy as one of its main tools. I guess I can't blame them. This is, after all, a centuries-old and highly refined art, and it's proved devastatingly effective.

First nations from British Columbia to the Atlantic provinces have countless stories of how federal and provincial envoys have managed to pit band against band, community member against community member, and son against father. Sometimes, the strategy is as simple as promising reserves money, jobs and the same economic stability that the rest of Canada takes for granted. Often, the promise of personal political power is added to the mix. And more often than you might know or believe, federal access to first nations natural resources is at the root of all of it. Simply put, though, if the government didn't need to negotiate with so many first nations councils in order to exploit their resources, it wouldn't.

But it does. And what I can't come to terms with when investigating these negotiations is the knowledge both federally and provincially that the more rural or isolated the community, the more abusive, bullying and undemocratic our government becomes. I've seen it first-hand in my former home on James Bay, but this isn't the only place.

Take Barriere Lake, a small Algonquin community about 3½ hours north of Ottawa. This is an unceded first nation, meaning it never relinquished title to its land to the government by treaty or otherwise. Despite a very high unemployment rate and a far lower standard of living than the rest of Canada, these people, who call themselves the Mitchikanibikok Inik, are a proud group that maintains Algonquin as their first language and rely heavily on hunting, trapping and the land for subsistence.

The Algonquins of Barriere Lake have always been governed by a traditional, customary government, not by Indian Act band council elections. That is until last summer, when then-Indian affairs minister Chuck Strahl, against the wishes of the vast majority of the reserve, abolished it by imposing Section 74 of the Indian Act, an archaic provision not forcibly used since 1924. Polling took place 45 kilometres outside of the community and, in an act of group resistance, only 10 ballots ended up being mailed in. Despite all of this, a new chief and four-member council were put in place by the federal government. Three of the four new members weren't even residents of the reserve.

In 1991, the traditional government of Barriere Lake signed a groundbreaking trilateral agreement with Quebec and the federal government. This United Nations-praised deal was meant to reconcile the pressures placed on the community by industrial logging and was geared toward taking into account the environmental and cultural needs of the Algonquin. To date, neither Quebec nor Ottawa has upheld any part of the agreement, including the sharing of natural resource revenues generated in this unceded Algonquin territory.

Before a new government was forced onto the people of Barriere Lake, the reserve held a number of peaceful protests to draw attention to the fact that government on all levels completely ignored their end of the trilateral agreement. Some of these protests included the blockading of a nearby rural highway. Instead of the desired negotiations culminating from this, men, women and children were tear-gassed by the provincial police. And now, with a new and unwanted council in place, community youth spokesman Norman Matchewan says this council has "started dealing with forestry companies and signing away parts of our land to be clear-cut without the community's consent."

Tony Wawatie, another spokesman, puts it this way: "The federal government never liked the trilateral agreement. Why would bands sign land claims settlements, where they have to extinguish their rights and title for a fraction of their land base when, instead, they can have a co-management agreement like ours? The government's been trying to quash it ever since."

So far, it looks like the government is succeeding, in large part due to its belief that rural communities such as Barriere Lake don't draw much media attention. But these proud people continue to protest. On Monday, on Parliament Hill, community members and their supporters will once again gather to send Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Indian Affairs Minister John Duncan this message: Hundreds of generations before us protected the land with our customary governance code. We refuse to be the last.

Joseph Boyden's last novel, Through Black Spruce , won the Giller Prize.