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Algonquins of Barriere Lake Embody Refusal of Settler-Colonial Extraction

by Trycia Bazinet

In order to protect both the environment and Indigenous ways of life, land defence and water protection camps of all sizes are organizing  across Turtle Island. While Standing Rock has made headlines in recent months, there are camps closer to home that are embroiled in struggles no less important. One of these camps can be found in La Vérendrye Park (300 kilometres north of Ottawa) and is led by the Algonquins of Barriere Lake. Here they are contending with a mining claim, stretching over 80 square kilometres, which is held by the mineral exploration company Copper One Inc.

Even though the Algonquins of Barriere Lake live on unceded territories, the community has a Trilateral Agreement (signed with Canada and Québec in 1991) and a supplementary bilateral agreement with Québec (1998), which means they have a say in extraction projects that take place in their territory. Yet, their sovereignty is still being challenged.

In 2016, the mining moratorium — in place since 2011 and retroactively suspending numerous mining permits, including ones held by Copper One — was lifted by the Québec Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources without consultation or consent from the community. During the fall of 2016, Copper One trespassed onto the territory of the Algonquins of Barriere Lake to conduct exploration activities.

According to Ugo Lapointe of MiningWatch Canada, a group dedicated to reinforcing the need for safe and responsible mining practices in Canada, this kind of trespassing is permissible due to Québec’s “free entry” mining system.

The “free entry” mining system is essentially a modernized version of the gold rush where, broadly speaking, anyone with a credit card and internet access can buy a mining claim. The basic premise behind the system is that the federal government claims ownership rights of subsurface minerals and can then lease these rights to any entity who holds a prospecting licence, having been obtained by paying a small fee to a provincial or territorial government.

Once “free entry” is granted, exploration work including drilling can be conducted.

With this in mind, the Algonquins of Barriere Lake are looking to broaden their support base in order to successfully resist these attacks on Anishinaabe lands and rights. At a March 11 fundraiser in Ottawa, community elder Michel Thusky equated mining exploration activities on Algonquin territory as a “massacre against their culture.”

Unfortunately, Anishinaabe people are no strangers to this and to other kinds of violence.

To date, Québec has denied Copper One’s request for a permit to further explore the land in question. Copper One, however, has initiated legal action against the Québec government. The first hearing took place on Feb. 24.

At the aforementioned fundraiser, Norman Matchewan, Councilor of the Barriere Lake Algonquins, speculated that it is “not expected that Quebec will put up a fight [against the corporation].”

Therefore, the community is in need of funding to pursue legal action. Since Québec’s Mining Act does not even recognize the presence of First Nations people, it has been called “unconstitutional” by the Assembly of First Nations of Québec and Labrador. This means they may have to take legal action against Québec’s Mining Act.

Carleton’s Graduate Students’ Association (GSA) has recently passed a motion to support the ongoing struggles of the Algonquins of Barriere Lake. In line with their land acknowledgment, the GSA recognizes that supporting communities who oppose extraction on their territory is a tangible, material way in which universities can demonstrate solidarity with Indigenous peoples. The GSA has promised to issue a statement of support as well as a donation to the camp. 

Community members and supporters have been invited to participate in a human rights delegation to Barriere Lake on March 22. Participants from various local human rights campaigns, such as Justice For Abdirahman and the Ontario Committee for Human Rights in the Philippines, have been sought out by Barriere Lake residents. The delegation will be hosted by residents, who will cook a traditional lunch and provide a tour of the community.

The community is seeking short-term and long-term support for their campaign against Copper One and to compel the Québec government to maintain the suspension of Copper One’s mining claims as well as extending the suspension to all mining claims on Barriere Lake’s territories.

On Feb. 16, Québec Solidaire’s Manon Massé, member of the National Assembly of Quebec, submitted a petition containing over 2,000 signatures in support of the Algonquins of Barriere Lake. The petition calls on “the Québec Minister of Energy and Natural Resources to completely ban all mining activity (staking, exploration, development) within the 1991 Trilateral Agreement Territory of the Algonquins of Barriere Lake (La Vérendrye Wildlife Reserve Region).”

A press release issued by the community on the same day expressed gratitude towards Massé and other supporters. “We would like to see everyone working together towards reconciliation with First Nations rights and interests, including the right to self-determination and implementing our own vision for developing and caring for the land,” said Chief Casey Ratt. “It’s the only way to ensure a viable future for our community and our culture.”

This article first appeared in the Leveller Vol. 9, No. 6 (Spring 2017).

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