Commentary | The ways in which we justify settler-colonialism

Working in solidarity with the Algonquins of Barriere Lake

On Wednesday, March 23, I had the privilege of visiting Mitchikanibikok Inik, or the Algonquins of Barriere Lake, territory. I left around 6 a.m. from Montreal, to arrive at the snow-covered reserve shortly after noon. I was one of around twenty human rights activists and academics who were invited to the reserve as a part of a delegation to build solidarity with the community. Although, I attended specifically on behalf of the Mining Injustice Solidarity Network, delegates had backgrounds working on anything from Indigeneity and climate change, to housing and mining justice. We all came with a common goal: to learn from the community and to strategize methods of solidarity and resistance. I engaged in conversations with the community and with delegates, about government control, agreements currently being negotiated in bad faith, and colonial, state-led violence. Members of the community, including the Chief and Band Councillor, told us about about the history of the land, the history of the community, and the current state of affairs on the reserve.

The problems facing the Algonquins of Barriere Lake (ABL) are a result of settler-colonialism and government policy initially created to control and eliminate the ABL population. To start, the community was displaced from their resource-rich land onto a 59-acre reserve in 1961, about 30 kilometers south of the site of Barriere Lake where the community has historical ties, when the administration of the surrounding land was transferred to the government of Canada. This displacement was engineered by the government to both control them and make an enormous profit. In partnership with extractives corporations, the government has built a hydroelectric dam reservoir, engaged in extensive logging, and attempted to mine copper, all on ABL territory. Further, the community has not received any of the profits from the exploitation of natural resources on their land.

The Canadian government also imposed Third Party Management (TPM) onto the community, insisting that the ABL are unable to manage their own affairs. The community’s traditional government was therefore attacked, and is no longer recognized as legitimate. The government was able to do this by imposing section 74 of the Indian Act in 2010. Section 74 is an archaic provision that allows the government to control and influence governance in Indigenous communities; it allows the Minister to order the creation of a band council, “when he deems it advisable for the good government of the band,” although this often diverts from traditional structures of governance. Canada imposed a chief and council election, and although only ten mailed in ballots were received from the community in opposition, the selected band councilors are often consulted, on behalf of the community, regarding extractive projects. The government also hired external accountants to manage the community’s funds — they are paid hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, although the community suffers from a significant deficit.

Further, the infrastructure on the reserve is insufficient, if not deplorable. The government provided the reserve with diesel generators, even though it is situated right next to a hydro dam. While walking around the reserve, we saw the generators that smelled strongly of gas and were prone to breaking down. Many homes are not fully built or are falling apart, so elders have used their residential school settlement compensation to build small shacks for housing. These tiny wooden shacks have been used to fit families of six or more, although the reserve remains highly overpopulated. Professor Hayden King, a delegate who also visited the reserve that day, referred to these systemic and intentional problems as “federally-imposed poverty.”

The challenges that the community has endured could not be fully recognised or understood within the few short hours that I visited the reserve, nor can they be summarized in a few short paragraphs. However, the stories that were shared with us spoke volumes; the stories from individual community members, alongside the community’s collective fight to defend their territory and their dignity, were a microcosm of the contemporary manifestations of settler colonialism in Quebec and in Canada, much of which has been established on unceded territory.
The violence towards the Barriere Lake community, although devastating, does not exist in isolation, and is a result of centuries of settler-colonialism. Settler colonialism manifests itself today in part as historical trauma, notably from experiences of residential schools. It also manifests itself in contemporary political and corporate intrusions such as government services and extraction, which work to control and exploit Indigenous peoples and their land to ensure that resistance is quelled and that the community and the environment remain under government control.

The government consistently interferes with the community’s affairs, through governance, child raising and care, healthcare, and policing. These interventions are both paternalistic and contribute to a paradigm of assimilation, wherein the Canadian government operates with the assumption that Indigenous peoples will eventually be assimilated into Canadian settler society, which entails a surrendering of land rights, amongst other things. This results in the government both intervening to ensure that Indigenous communities remain alive under harsh, state-imposed conditions, while simultaneously expecting them to die. As mentioned above, by attacking the Indigenous family through the removal of children by child services, insufficient housing on the reserve, and a large deficit, the government attempts to “kill the Indian in the child,” repeating Canada’s history of residential schools and forced adoption.

Further, settler colonialism manifests itself by framing the Indigenous community as backwards, non-contemporary, and requiring assistance. This is evidenced in agreements such as the TPM, where the Canadian government mobilizes the paternalistic narrative that Indigenous peoples are unable to manage their own affairs. This logic justifies intrusions into and oversight of the community and is reproduced through colonial legal processes and government agreements, which focuses the blame on the Indigenous community, and often pathologizes the Indigenous family. This narrative is socially constructed and is intentionally mobilized in specific contexts for very specific purposes, as depicted above, often by the government with the goal of domination and community control.

A focus on the inability of Indigenous peoples to govern themselves depoliticizes suffering from environmental destruction and land dispossession; it directs government attention onto the challenges within the community, rather than the external, and state-created, factors that inform these challenges. As such, it allows the government and subsequent officials and private sector corporations to focus their remedies, or their accountability to the community, in the form of governance and social services, or rather further colonial interventions. This allows them to remain inactive in addressing a key component of historical trauma and settler colonialism: the dispossession and exploitation of land. The government can thus simultaneously control the reserve, through services that “help” the Indigenous community, while obscuring and distracting from pressing systemic issues that continue to marginalize and dominate Indigenous peoples, such as logging and mining.

Band Councillor, Norman Matchewan, told the group: “We’re not going to negotiate something that’s already ours.” As such, we must think critically about the ways that power and settler colonialism inform how we understand legal processes and negotiations. What does negotiation mean when you are forced to negotiate something that was stolen from you? How do you exist in a society whose institutions were built to eliminate you? How do you fight for legal recognition, in the form of state-defined “rights,” while simultaneously resisting the nation-state and its continuation of the settler colonial project? What do state-defined “legal rights” mean under occupation and state violence? These are some of the tensions and contradictions that the Algonquins of Barriere Lake have been negotiating, while fighting for their community’s dignity, wellbeing, and basic survival under the harsh material conditions that have been projected onto them by the settler colonial nation state.

As we drove back to Montreal that evening, one of the organizers in our car told us that the distance we were driving – the land between Barriere Lake and Montreal – belonged to the Algonquins. And we wondered how we, in Montreal, can be accountable to the community whose land we live and work on.

We can look to the material consequences of settler colonialism, and the concrete ways that we, as settlers, benefit from and contribute to the settler colonial project. We can look to ways that McGill, a university both built on Indigenous land and with the slave labour of Black and Indigenous people, perpetuates colonialism. Indigenous staff and students at McGill, along with other universities, have taken great steps to engage with issues of colonialism: this has taken the form of panel discussions, speakers, events, and academic dialogue. However, I question the ways that McGill as an institution, and the majority of the settler students, administrators, and academics who work inside it, are actually accountable to the Indigenous peoples and their land on which McGill operates.

We must move beyond, or critically engage with, land acknowledgements and inaccessible events within elite academic institutions. We must question the assumptions, logics, and narratives that the government, private sector, and educational institutions perpetuate and are complicit in.

Solidarity requires accountability, and accountability requires an analysis of power, an acknowledgement of material struggles, and continuous action. As McGill students, we must stand in solidarity with, and be accountable to, the Algonquins of Barriere Lake as they continue to fight for their community and their land, and against the paternalistic and assimilationist efforts of the Canadian government.