By Alex Tyrrell, leader of the Green Party of Quebec
Last week I was offered a last minute invitation to Barrier Lake First Nation by community members who are upset that their school is contaminated with mold and sewage. They invited me to visit the reserve on the same day that high level members of the Trudeau government were visiting the community in response to media coverage about the school.
As reported by both CBC and APTN, the federal government has cancelled and pushed back plans to replace the mouldy school leaving parents of elementary school children with a difficult choice; whether or not to send their children to a school that could damage their health or keep them home and risk having their children taken away by child protective services for not sending them to school. In response to this reporting on this issue, the Trudeau government sent MP Vance Badawey who is Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Indigenous Services as well as local Liberal MP Sophie Chatel.
This was a rare opportunity for me as Green Party leader; to be invited to witness meetings between the federal government and indigenous community chief, band council and members. I have had many conversations with indigenous people about the way the government treats them but had never been invited to watch a community meet with the federal government. It was at many times difficult to watch and I have emerged from this experience increased knowledge about the ongoing colonial domination, exploitation and impoverishment that the federal government is continuing to unleash on indigenous communities across the country and how it is being perpetuated. I hope to contribute to reconciliation and to the healing of divides by sharing my account of what I witnessed that day in Rapid Lake.
When arriving in the community I was immediately struck by the poor state of the housing. People are living in extremely dense quarters; often two or three families in small houses or trailers. Many of the houses and trailers are falling apart, pieces of siding are falling off and I can only imagine how difficult things must be in the winter. I have never seen such poverty like this in Quebec.
Shortly after my arrival, a man named Allen took me on a tour of the outside of the community’s only elementary school which was experiencing mold problems. Every other school that I have seen in Quebec has been built with bricks and a foundation. This school was made out of wood and sat about 2 feet above the ground. Under the school was a crawl space in which humid sand had become mouldy infecting the air the children breathe. Health Canada had condemned the building in 2015 but the ministry of indegenous affairs had produced a report saying that everything was fine. The federal government used that rapport to send the children back to school, while they continued promising and planning a replacement school with the community.
The federal government has now canceled the school reconstruction on the basis that the community does not have the electrical capacity to power it. The reserve is located near a reservoir and the construction of hydro dams both large and small in the area has flooded land, contaminated the water with mercury and completely altered the indegenous way of life. Despite all this, the community is not connected to the electrical grid and they are forced to rely on diesel generators and fuel deliveries. Canceling the school construction because the provincial government has not hooked the community up to electricity is exactly the kind of bureaucracy that the federal government uses to mistreat indegenous communities. It’s a manifestation of systemic racism. It’s the consequence of a lack of political will to get things moving. It’s a symptom of a government that does not care about indegenous communities or worse yet one that wants to keep them impoverished and under-educated in order to be able to extract as many resources as possible without sharing the profits. The last thing the federal government wants is for indegenous people to have the knowledge, power and resources to exert their constitutional and treaty rights.
The cancelation of the school replacement means that parents are now faced with the decision of whether or not to send their children to a mouldy school. If they send them the children could get sick. If they keep them at home the children’s education suffers and the parents run the risk of losing their children to social services. In fact, parents can even lose their children to social services for living in substandard housing yet have no means of finding better housing in their communities as there is no federal support or jobs available with the exception of the band council office, public works and the school. Children who are removed from the community are very rarely placed in indegenous foster families and end up being assimilated and are removed from their land. The assimilation of indegenous children through child protective services is another way to ensure they do not exercise their rights. It’s the modern equivalent of residential schools.
When Parliamentary Secretary Vance Badawey and local Liberal MP Sophie Chatel arrived in the impoverished community they were all smiles. They went around the room and shook hands with each member. Next to me was community activist Shannon Chief who gave the parliamentary secretary a Québec flag with the words « No to the implementation agreement, No means no. » written on it. Rather than ask for Shannon’s opinion on the agreement the parliamentary secretary read it, posed for a picture and moved on to the next person without further inquiry. The message that Shannon had written on the flag was in reference to a trilateral forestry and resource management agreement which the chief is in the process of signing despite vocal opposition from community members who say it will green light forestry and other extractive activities without their consent. In a recent press release, the Quebec government said that this agreement would « guarantee and facilitate access to natural resources ». As reported by CBC the signature of this agreement was highly controversial amongst community members in this divided community.
After the meet and greet, Chief Tony Wawatie led the officials and their entourages on a tour of the community. While walking through streets of run down homes, Parliamentary Secretary Vance Badawey was all smiles and jokes. He talked about how « beautiful » this place was and about how much he wanted to « work with the community » he explained that they just needed to «identify priorities » and « update » their «master plan». This was frustrating to watch because the priorities should be so obvious to anyone visiting this community; a new school, housing, electricity, health services, conservation of wildlife and land back. When we arrived at the hockey rink, Parliamentary Secretary Badawey declared «this is the most important part of the community.» The chief then explained that the children wanted to partake in a hockey tournament but that they did not have the funds required. Badawey quickly changed the subject and then said that he wished he had heard of this community before because his own community in Niagara Ontario just redid their rink and that they could have donated their used boards and glass to the Algonquins of Barriere Lake. In other words, Niagara Ontario is entitled to new equipment but indegenous communities should be happy with what they are getting rid of.
We then walked passed the condemned gymnasium, the fire department that lacks the capacity to extinguish fires and the closed down community police station which is falling apart. It is now provincial police who patrol the community rather than an indegenous police force. When we passed by a run down house, band councillor Norman Matchewan explained that the woman who lived in that house had 9 kids and that she could not find proper housing for them and that child protective services was after her. With no means to get better housing or fend off child services he said that she « decided to call it quits » and hung herself in the basement last year. Suicide is a major problem in this and many other indegenous communities. This was only one of many horrible stories of suicide that I heard that day. A lack of access to housing is one of the main things that destabilizes people’s mental health and pushes people to use drugs and alcohol to cope. A lack of access to healthcare is another major factor. At one point, Vance Badawey asked the chief if the community had access to preventative care for diabetes, stroke etc. The reply was no. In fact, community members have limited access to services even when they have urgent needs or medical conditions, whether that be for physical or mental care.
After about 20 min of touring the community on foot, the federal MPs wanted to cut things short and get back to the community center for a discussion. When we arrived at the community center, the MPs sat at a table in the middle of the room across from the chief. Community members, their staff and myself sat along the walls of the room.
Parliamentary Secretary Badawey and MP Sophie Chatel were still all smiles. In their introductory remarks, they stressed how they were there to work with the community on incremental change. Badawey(a Liberal) repedadly commended his Liberal colleague Sophie Chatel for her work representing the community within the Liberal government. He said that he and his colleague were there to « work shoulder to shoulder » with the community but that change « would not happen overnight ». When asked by the chief if there was anything concrete that they could commit to on his visit the parliamentary secratary repeated that his commitment was to work « shoulder to shoulder » with them. He had come essentially empty handed and was not prepared to commit to a new school in time for the fall, to addressing their housing situation or to giving them additional land or resources.
I have been in politics for some time now and I have seen politicians say all kinds of things but it was particularly upsetting for me to watch these two federal MPs walk through this impoverished and brutalized community with big smiles offering nothing but personal promises and nice words. They did not seem shocked or bothered with the state of the housing or the problems in the community. I do not want to predict that they will not do anything but I highly doubt that they will contribute to change. The visit struck me as a way to shield themselves from criticism if the situation with the school made its way back into the news. At least they will be able to say they visited the community and are « working with them » if that happens…
Once the initial remarks concluded, community members began to speak up. They spoke about the intergenerational effects of residential schools. They spoke about being pushed off of their lands, of being given substandard treatment, about having no opportunities for economic development and of being forcefully assimilated and removed from their lands. Many tears were shed and the federal MPs just repeated how they wanted to « work together » but without showing much emotion or empathy and without admitting federal responsibility for the issues the community is facing. Once someone in Secretary Badawey’s position has made too many personal promises to communities like this one they will just be replaced in their roles by another similar politician who will start everything over from scratch again while the community is left without progress.
Indegenous communities like the Algonquins of Barrier Lake have constitutional rights to land, resources and territory. The objective of the federal and provincial governments is to get them to sign away their rights for little to nothing in return. The impoverishment of indegenous communities is not a mistake. It’s intentional. What better way to get them to sign away their rights than depriving them of a quality education, forcing them to live in condemned housing, depriving them of physical and mental healthcare and removing their children from the land through youth protective services. All of these things are intentional. They are designed to get community members, one by one, to abandon their communities and their rights to resources and land. This is the Canadian genocide. The federal government wants to erase and destroy indegenous communities in order to extract resources. Contrary to what many people think these events are not in the past but are still occurring. The agenda of the federal government has not changed.
The kind words of Justin Trudeau about indegenous communities during election campaigns are nothing but a front. During the meeting I witnessed the Liberal MPs who represented him come nowhere close to speaking in the kind of language he has used to win over progressive voters who care about indegenous communities. Their relationship with the Barrier Lake Algonquins is certainly not « top priority » for the Trudeau government because if it was they would be building a new school, new housing and giving land back rather than continuing to take and exploit while keeping the Algonquins of Barriere Lake in heart wrenching poverty. The Quebec government is just as guilty; Legault and his minister allow this kind of poverty to exist in Québec, they have pushed the community to sign away their rights to resources for little to nothing in return. They have so far refused to connect the community to hydro electricity despite flooding their land and they dismissed the communities demands that the moose population be protected until community members literally had to set up barricades in 2020 to stop sport hunters from entering their territory.
Stopping and reversing the canadian genocide will take the political will to place reconsiliation over resource extraction. It will require sincerity, understanding and compassion. Until that happens, indegenous communities across Canada will continue to suffer ireparable harm, racism, discrinimation, brutal poverty and hart wrenching suicide rates. Despite all of Trudeau’s rhetoric his actions are no different from the Harper government. Legault likes to say that Quebec’s first nations are better off than other places in the country. I would like to see him make that statement after visiting the Algonquins of Barrier Lake.
Leader of the Green Party of Quebec