As our convoy of trucks stopped on the gravel road a little boy, not more than four years old, leapt from the box of one of the pick-up trucks. His bare feet hit the ground and he scrambled up into the forest. His hair hung half way down his back in a single braid. The moment he reached the tree line he began to pick wild berries and shove them into his mouth. As a father of a young boy, a brief moment of panic fluttered over me — what is he eating? Nobody stopped to check; even at this age he knew exactly what was safe to eat and what was not. Blueberries were in season. They were sweet and plentiful.
An elder emerged from one of the trucks with a large cardboard tube. He walked over to a picnic table sitting underneath the skeleton of an old shelter. He began pulling rolls of paper from the tube and laying the maps out on the table. This was the site of the protest camp that the Algonquins of Barriere Lake (ABL) set up last year to try to stop the clear cut logging. We had just spent most of the afternoon touring the clear cut sites, taking in the environmental destruction. What was once a pristine forest was turned into a mud pit, the soil now washing down with the rain from the hillsides into the lakes. Michel began to show us the maps of their territory — maps that were created as part of the process to implement the trilateral agreement. This agreement has never been followed.
It is difficult to describe the connection to the land that the ABL have. You have to see it with your own eyes to understand it. They proudly live on unceded land. They have never signed a treaty or agreed to any of the destruction that is taking place within their traditional territory. And they still use the land, as they have for thousands of years. Despite this, their entire goal in dealing with the industrial activity in their territory is not about stopping everything. They aim to share the land in a way that works for everyone. The fact that they have lived here for thousands of years does not mean that they have exclusive rights to the land. Nobody does. Private property is a concept that is completely incompatible with this society. The land belongs to everybody — the people and the animals — and they are determined to find a way to make this work.
As the presentation continues, we get a chance to look at incredibly detailed maps of a portion their seventeen thousand square kilometer territory. These maps aren’t like the maps that we are used to reading; they have topographical information, lakes, rivers and many other features that you would expect to see. But they also detail how the moose use the land, where they graze, where they mate, where the Algonquin hunt them. They detail spawning grounds for the sturgeon and the best places to pick berries. Every bear’s den and every eagle’s nest is marked on the map. This is not a map of the land; it is a map of the ecosystem: an ecosystem that the Algonquins are very much a part of.
The process to develop the Trilateral Agreement between the Federal Government, the Quebec Government and the ABL was a unique one. Signed in 1991, the Trilateral Agreement outlines a sustainable model of land use that promotes coexistence. Logging and mining could be done on the territory with minimal destruction of wildlife habitat, but this has not been respected. For the community, it is a question of life and death.
The ABL rely on fishing, hunting and gathering of wild plants for sustenance. As the logging companies clear-cut large swaths of land, they drive the animals away. Even when the logging is finished, the animals use the land differently, no longer returning to the areas they were before. Hunting is becoming more difficult. Delays in replanting of trees create soil erosion problems. Previously, the ABL were organizing restoration and replanting of the land themselves. They were ordered to stop.
The community has maintained a connection with the territory. Families are assigned areas of the territory, not only for them to hunt, but to manage and defend. In the summer the community gathers and discusses the previous season. Those who were unable to catch enough food are given meat by those with abundance. This practice maintains the land and preserves their own history and traditions. It is a system of sustainable management of an ecosystem, an ecosystem which they are a part of. This is how it has been for thousands of years.
Incredibly, their own dialect of Algonquin is still the first language used in the community. A historical accident has saved this language from extinction. Many indigenous peoples in Canada had their languages wiped-out as a result of residential schooling. When Algonquin children were taken from Barriere Lake and brought to residential schools, they were divided between French and English schools. This meant that as they were returned to the community, the only language that they had in common was still Algonquin. Michel tells me, that the connection to the land, language and history helped them overcome the pain of the residential school abuse. Those connections still strengthen the community in their own identity and beliefs today.
The culture and language are intimately linked to the land. Many words in the Algonquin language simply have no equivalent in French or English. There are terms to describe geographical features, animal habitats and activities. The language doesn’t actually make sense outside of the context of the land. This is what outsiders have trouble understanding: destruction of the land is destruction of the culture, language and the very identity of the Algonquins of Barriere Lake. You simply cannot preserve them independently of one another.
The government and industry have used various tactics to exploit the territory of the ABL. Approximately one hundred million dollars’ worth of resources are extracted from the territory each year. The community doesn’t receive a penny of this money. The federal government imposes governing structures on the ABL, refusing to respect their wishes. Today, the community is under “third party management”, which really seems to be a modern-day, privatized version of an Indian Agent. The federal government has appointed an administrator to manage their finances and services. This not only disempowers the community and prevents them from making their own decisions, but it also makes it extremely difficult to challenge anything in court.
Divide and conquer tactics are another common ploy. Recently a mining company has expressed interest in opening a large pit mine on the traditional territory. When they needed core samples and surveying done, they hired Cree people to do the work. This was a clear attempt to divide resistance to the project and deflect it in different directions. The attempt to distract the community from the real enemy was not successful, despite some initial reactions.
These types of tactics make it clear that both government and corporations know exactly what they are doing: continuing the process of colonization which has been taking place for hundreds of years. Many Canadians believe that the criminal mistreatment of indigenous populations is something that happened a long time ago. In reality, this is an ongoing colonization. Corporations and their friends in government continue to find ways to exploit resources while marginalizing those who live on the land containing those resources.
There are many struggles on the horizon for the Algonquins at Barriere Lake. In the coming months and years they will be fighting against the possibility of open pit mining in their territory. They will be fighting to regain control of their own community and end third party management. They will be fighting to change the logging practices so that they are not so harmful to the ecosystem. It is important that they are not alone in these fights. Progressive people across Canada and Quebec must stand together with our sisters and brothers at Barrier Lake. It is time we end centuries of injustice.
Mike Palecek is a National Union Representative with the Canadian Union of Postal Workers.
On July 20th-21st of this year, members of ASSÉ, CSN, CUPW, Quebec Solidaire, Regroupement de Solidarité avec les Autochtones and others participated in a solidarity tour organized by the Barriere Lake Solidarity collective. This article has been edited and approved by the solidarity collective and a resident elder.