Why we try to protect our land: Lessons from Barriere Lake
Barriere Lake’s three-figure wampum belt, which dates back to the 1760s, records an agreement between the community, the Church, and the French and English Crowns – that no interference would be made into the Algonquin way of life. For Barriere Lake, the wampum symbolizes a treaty between nations; a pledge they see renewed through the Trilateral Agreement. These agreements have never been forgotten, as powerfully displayed by their campaign slogan on blockade banners: “Honour Your Word.” Put simply, the Trilateral is a conservation plan signed in 1991, that gives Barriere Lake a powerful voice over resource development in 10,000 square kilometers of their traditional territory; and 1.5 out of the estimated 100 million dollars made in resource revenue every year – without surrendering their Aboriginal title, or rights to the land. That’s the usual concession Canada demands through the land claims process used to negotiate modern treaties. As a renewal of the three-figure wampum agreement, many in Barriere Lake see it as anchored in the Onakinakewin, their Algonquin constitution.
The agreement forces forestry companies to “harmonize” their activities with those of Algonquin hunters and trappers. It protects trap-lines, large areas of moose habitat, sacred sites and medicinal plants areas from logging. It also protects large buffer zones around lakes and forbids the use of chemical spraying. If implemented, companies would submit their cutting plans to the customary chief and council for approval; and adjustments would be made based on the detailed mapping that was carried out in the opening phase of the agreement.
The United Nations calls the Trilateral agreement a “trailblazer”; the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) sees it as an alternative model for First-Nations/Canadian relations.
The Trilateral sets an important political precedent as a viable alternative to Canada’s much criticized Comprehensive Land Claims process, what prominent Indigenous critic Arthur Manuel calls “Canada’s agenda of extinguishing Aboriginal title, by any means necessary”. That’s why the government has been trying to back out of the agreement ever since it was signed. Land claims force First Nations to extinguish their Aboriginal title, and mortgage federal loans for maps and legal fees against any eventual financial settlement; meanwhile resource extraction continues during long years of negotiations. Instead, the Trilateral secured government funding for land use studies, while giving Barriere Lake a decisive role in resource management during negotiations – without putting their land rights on the negotiating table.