Blockade leader says he’s a ‘political prisoner’
Globe and Mail, December 15, 2008
Speaking from a jail cell, deposed native leader Benjamin Nottaway says he is a political prisoner, targeted for his outspoken opposition to the governments of Canada and Quebec.
He is the latest casualty of a power struggle that has included allegations of a political coup, fire bombings and several interventions by riot police.
It reads like a tale ripped from the headlines of a war-torn dictatorship. Instead, it’s the story of the Algonquins of Barriere Lake, a Quebec community of 450 people three hours north of Ottawa.
Mr. Nottaway, imprisoned for 45 days for leading a highway blockade, says that although he misses his children, he is being treated with respect in jail, where fellow inmates refer to him deferentially as the “chief.” But the question of who actually is the chief of Barriere Lake is far from clear.
Mr. Nottaway alleges that he was deposed by an ambitious group of plotters led by Casey Ratt, who launched what Nottaway supporters call an “administrative coup d’état” this year and installed themselves as the band government.
He calls Mr. Ratt a “puppet” and a “government agent,” propped up by officials in Ottawa and Quebec City who see him as a soft touch when it comes to defending aboriginal land title and resource rights.
Mr. Ratt laughs at these suggestions, and says there is no leadership crisis in Barriere Lake, save for the grumblings of those who have lost their grip on power and have enlisted non-native activists to push their case in the news media.
He says he came to power in January after a three-month leadership review, which he launched because he was upset that Mr. Nottaway’s group had closed the band school, a move he perceived as motivated by their own political aims.
“It’s no good for our kids to use them as political pawns,” Mr. Ratt says. “A lot of people didn’t agree with those tactics.”
After Mr. Ratt was declared chief, his opponents said he had hijacked the traditional selection process and tried to push him off the reserve. His house burned down in suspicious circumstances, he says, as did the band office.
“But I’m still in the community,” he says. “It’s a steady struggle.”
Barriere Lake does not elect leaders according to the one-member, one-vote system set out in the Indian Act, but instead uses a selection system led by a council of elders. The federal government says it has no role in adjudicating that system, but has acknowledged the election of Mr. Ratt’s group and says it will conduct business with his council.
After several escalating protests against Mr. Ratt’s government, the Nottaway group blockaded Highway 117 twice in recent months. In October, riot police were sent in by the provincial police force and were accused of using violent tactics to disperse the protesters. In November, Mr. Nottaway and four other prominent political opponents of Mr. Ratt were arrested by riot police for staging another highway blockade, which they called a tactic of last resort. They were asking the federal government to appoint an independent observer to oversee a new leadership selection.
“When I was in court my lawyer told me, ‘The Crown wants you to suffer, they want you to feel the pain.’ They asked for 12 months, but I got 45 days,” Mr. Nottaway says. “I’m a political prisoner, and they know that. It’s all politically motivated.”
The people of Barriere Lake have never signed a treaty with Canada, and they say they have never received a fair share, or had a say, in the resource revenue extracted from their traditional territory, which they estimate at $100-million a year. For its part, the community suffers crippling unemployment and is not connected to the power grid, so it runs on diesel generators.
Mr. Ratt says he wants to put the power struggle behind him and work toward finding both short- and long-term solutions for his community.
Mr. Nottaway says he can’t allow the band to be led by a chief he considers illegitimate. His goal is to see a 1991 trilateral agreement on resource management honoured by the province and the federal government.
“The government imposed a minority faction on our community,” he says. “That’s not what we want and we’re never going to accept it. Even though I’m in here, we’re not going to stop fighting.”