Widj-e-nia-mo-dwin: Walking together for Indigenous rights

Norman Matchewan in conversation with Martin Lukacs

Barriere Lake is an Algonquin First Nation of 450 members located in north-western Quebec, a three hour drive north of Ottawa. The community lives a land-based existence, subsisting off of 15,000 square kilometres of traditional territory. Since the 1980s, they have been involved in confrontational struggles against clear-cut logging to ensure the sustainable management of their lands. Norman Matchewan is an organizer and school teacher, and a community spokesperson. Martin Lukacs is a writer and organizer, involved in a solidarity campaign with Barriere Lake that started in early 2008.

Martin: Do you have any memories of political struggle from when you were really young?

Norman: When I was a child, I used to drive down the bush road with my father or my uncle, depending on who I was going hunting with. We used to have narrow roads. When the clear-cutting started the roads began to widen. There would be logs piled high at the side of the road, maybe 20, 30 feet high. As time went on, we were pushed further into the bush to places where the trees had not yet been clear-cut. I later found out that around the same time, in the 1980s, forestry companies that were logging on our territory had begun spraying the land with pesticides, harming both small plants and animals, and making people sick. This is when our community started to realize that the land—the land, the animals, the water—was in danger. When our land is in danger, our identity is also in danger.

The community started taking action. In the late 80s, the community went to Parliament Hill, demanding to meet with the Prime Minister. We camped out. I was about seven or eight years old. Some people that are fighting now were still then in their Tikinagans, or cradleboards. I remember my great kokom being there. She was in her 80s. The police had to carry her out of her tent and to a paddy wagon. My grandmother’s refusal to leave in that moment, in her last years on this earth, demonstrated to me just how far our community was willing to go to fight for our rights and defend our land.

In 1989, I remember the logging blockades about a 40-minute drive down the road from where our community lives. These blockades lasted for a long time. I remember my Dad being attacked by the Quebec Provincial Police.

I was told about another fight my great kokom faced while out hunting many years ago. She killed a moose and the game warden tried to take her moose. The governments had created new laws to control our hunting practices, to undermine our economies. But my kokom didn’t want to let go of the moose. She put up a fight and was hit in the head with a rifle that left a big cut across her forehead. This anticipated the violence my father faced in the 1990s and I am facing today. All for protecting our rights—my grandmother for her right to hunt, and my father and I for defending the land. This is my community’s struggle to protect our way of life and our land.

Martin: What does the land mean to you today, and to your community? I think it’s hard for many non-Indigenous Canadians, living in urban areas, to understand this, and to empathize.

Norman: It’s where everything starts. It is our home. I grew up connected to the land. I did my harvest with my family and I know how important the land is to us—to Anishnabek people. Harvesting from the land is our means of survival—we hunt, fish, and trap for food to feed ourselves. We share food with families who do not have it. And it is how our identity survives, as Mitchikinabik Inik.

Our language survives through our continued connection to the land. Much of our Indigenous language comes from the land—naming trees, medicinal plants, water areas, animals and different places. Each area of traditional territory has a specific name based on the landscape and the animals that frequent the area, for example Waboos Washak (Rabbit Bay), Mitchikinabik (Stone Weir), and Enegoshik (Ant hill). Gaining knowledge of our traditional lifestyle strengthened my identity as Anishnabe.

I’ve always understood the land was there for us to protect, and understood our role as caretaker. As I grew up, I learned that, in the face of clear-cut logging, tourism and sport hunting, we had to continue to protect it, and that the blockades and visit to Parliament Hill were the only ways the government would listen and work with us to conserve the land.

Martin: Talk a little about the current situation in Barriere Lake. What are the issues people are struggling over, the rights they are fighting for?

Norman: Outside interests – logging companies, Hydro Quebec, and recreational hunting and camping companies — make $100 million off of our territory. We don’t see a cent. After many years of struggle, the community got the governments – Quebec and Canada – to sign a Trilateral Agreement in 1991. The Trilateral is a binding agreement between Barriere Lake, Canada and Quebec. It is based on sustainable development, conservation and reforming and reconciling the logging with our indigenous traditional land use. It was praised by both the United Nations, who described it as a “trailblazer”, and by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) as a model of co-existence. When implemented, it will give us a decisive voice in the management of our territory.

The agreement itself was in the works for over a decade. But here we are, more than 20 years later, still pressuring the governments to honour the agreement that they signed with my ancestors, my people. In all those years, all the government has demonstrated is disrespect for my community. They have been dividing my people—turning families against one another by throwing money around—trying to undermine the agreement. The governments understand that the agreement sets precedent in terms of First Nations having increased control over their land and having some benefits from the resources. They prefer to try to keep us poor and powerless.

We are also now fighting to prevent a big copper mine from opening on our territory. It will threaten the water and land. But after a campaign with the solidarity group that involved camping out on the proposed mine site and an intervention at the company’s Annual General Meeting, we were able to get to them back off. They have now sold off their mining claim to a bigger company, but we think we can get them to back off too.

Martin: My impression is that in Barriere Lake older people, especially Elders, guide youth into political activism. There is a period of tutelage, a kind of intergenerational learning, that doesn’t unfortunately exist as much in non-Indigenous communities. Can you talk about this?

Norman: There is something new to learn from the Elders every day!

It depends on the youth and what they want to accomplish. But I love to learn the stuff about the land—cause there’s a lot out there to learn about and survive off of. For a long time, I wasn’t fully aware of what was going on. Once I became interested, I started to ask around about what’s going on with the struggle.

Elders taught me a lot. Almost every day you hear about the history. There are some people who talk about the history of the more recent struggles—the 80s and 90s, when they fought against pesticide spaying, slowed down the logging. I also visit certain Elders who teach the youth a lot about the wampum belts, our agreements with white governments, about the history of Barriere Lake, about our customs.

At a certain point, Elders started to tell us that it’s our time now, to step up, to continue our struggle, to not to forget who we are. You see a lot of youth showing up, when there’s something happening, participating in meetings, in peaceful actions. We know there have always been people who protected our rights. We want to continue that.

Martin: You’re pointing to how important collective memory is. Stories of oppression and of struggle are omnipresent in Barriere Lake. I’ve found that marginalized communities usually have a keener sense of history than dominant society, because they understand much better how it informs and structures the present, and all of its injustices. Assimilation, racism, police violence can trample that grounding in history. A community can then lose its moorings. But if they understand their script, they’re not as vulnerable and disoriented when they’re facing savage attacks from government and industry.

Norman: Memory is crucial for our people. It is so important to know our history, to know how much people were connected to the land, and how much they fought to protect that. Memory helps us understand who we are. It helps us understand how we became defenders of our land.

It also helps us see through the lies of white governments. And non-Indigenous people. [laughs] Though we have always had an open mind to non-Indigenous people working with together with us. What does solidarity mean to you?

Martin: I once asked an Elder in Barriere Lake if there was an Algonquin word for "solidarity." He said there was no direct translation, but that the closest approximation was Widj-i-nia-mo-dwin — which means "walking together toward a common aim." I love this. It captures for me the essence of solidarity. Solidarity is about a conscious choice to join together, to share a struggle, while remembering that the burdens, especially in collaborations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, always remain unequal.

Solidarity means meeting the people whom you wish to organize with where they are—and taking that as a starting point for the path you’ll travel together, rather than imposing your own idea about how a struggle should proceed. When walking, you’re not in front of someone, as a guide, as a vanguard. You’re side by side.

When two people go walking, they talk, and solidarity at its most respectful and responsible is essentially a conversation. This is how you discover a community’s vision for itself, how it would like to determine itself. The principle of self-determination really is the foundation of solidarity. That forms the basis of the struggle. Solidarity is also a never-ending process to better understand each other's norms, limitations and boundaries—whether political, cultural, psychological, or material. The exchanges we have help us know when the trust is strong enough to let us push each other, push those boundaries. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes! That’s often how we learn best.

And speaking of “walking together” hints at the commitment and stamina involved in meaningful solidarity. The process of winning campaigns, expanding people’s rights and liberties, and changing society, is not a sprint. Getting to that place we want to go will take time—we’ll get there by walking.

What that commitment of solidarity looks like is another question: it doesn't have to mean giving your life over 24/7 to a struggle (though it might during some actions or campaigns!). But it does mean maintaining some contact, finding ways to express concern or offer some kind of support over the long-term. And it means never forgetting. There is nothing more powerful than carrying the spirit of one particular struggle to whatever other struggles you walk with in the future.

Ultimately, solidarity is an exchange that strengthens each other in our conviction that something is very wrong in the world. And it strengthens our belief that it can be put right.

Norman: Yeah, we could use a lot more of this kind of solidarity.

It’s good the support we get. And it’s so important to build awareness of these issues. Recognition helps us keep fighting. In the fight for the environment, everybody ultimately is in this together, non-Indigenous or Indigenous. What do you think should motivate more non-Indigenous people to be involved in this kind of solidarity?  How do non-Indigenous people get to that place?

Martin: I can talk about my experience, which passed through a few steps. I think other people might share some of the experience. As a young teenager, I had a lot of racist prejudices about Indigenous peoples—you know, the typical stuff, like that Indigenous people are uneducated, drunk, and lazy. I was ignorant. But I started reading history, which gave me perspective on how social problems that oppressed communities face have root causes—like dispossession, human rights violations, racism, poverty. That helped me untangle myself from the tricks that can blind us: people create systems of oppression that spawn these ugly symptoms, and then they point to the symptoms to justify the oppression. I also came into actual contact with Indigenous people, working briefly on a night-time street health patrol in Toronto. Contact breaks down myths and stereotypes. We need to understand that lack of contact is a structural legacy of the Canadian government’s policy of segregating Indigenous peoples into reserves while they tried to assimilate them. It is a huge obstacle to understanding and solidarity.

At a certain point, I was letting guilt and anger about the suffering of Indigenous people motivate my political activism. Guilt can be a good temporary learning experience — because the violence, abuse, and mistreatment of Indigenous peoples that our government and society has perpetrated is massive, the deepest and most enduring injustice in this country. It is a heavy thing to contemplate. But guilt can diminish your effectiveness, and even paralyze you. I sometimes found myself stressing only Indigenous peoples’ victimization. When you focus your mind exclusively on victimization, you can get consumed and overwhelmed, to the point that you lose sense of how much can be done to help change the situation. Guilt is also an intensely individualized emotional reaction.  But these injustices we’re confronting are structural, and they can only be changed collectively. No one person is responsible for an injustice like colonialism. No one person has to take ownership of it.

Anger about injustice is an important and vital force. We need to respect it, even nurture it. But on its own, it doesn’t sustain you. You will burn out. And if your political organizing is only fed by anger, it will inevitably turn in on you and do unhealthy things to you.

A really important step for me was to come to understand how central Indigenous peoples and Indigenous rights are for the struggle for a better world. I was fortunate to learn from Indigenous activists and analysts. I appreciate now how Indigenous communities have been involved in practically every major environmental battle in this country! We have them to thank for so many of the regulatory and environmental oversights won in this country. For lands and waters preserved from destructive extraction and pollution. For greater awareness about the environmental costs of industrial activity. And for the understanding that we need to transform our society so that it stops dominating and controlling nature, and learns instead to live in harmony with it.

Through their struggles, Indigenous peoples have won a unique set of rights: constitutional protections, land and cultural rights recognized by the courts, and the international human rights instrument known as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. If we think of these as tools, Indigenous peoples are the best equipped to stop destructive development and ensure that vast areas of territory are more sustainably managed. This means that supporting Indigenous struggles becomes one of the best ways to fight for broader environmental and climate justice. That for me is an exciting and motivating idea. I know it can be the basis of a life-long commitment to solidarity.

What gives you hope for the struggles ahead? I know that sometimes people ask, “Do you ever get tired of fighting?”

Norman: It gets frustrating when the government doesn’t respect your rights. But I’m not tired of fighting. You know, it’s something that every indigenous person grows up with. It’s in your system. When you have that fighting blood, you’ll carry along.

And I know there will always be Anishnabe living off the land. Anishnabe speaking their language. Anishnabe fighting for their rights. That gives me hope.


For more information about Barriere Lake, visit www.barrierelakesolidarity.org.

Norman Matchewan, 29, is a teacher and organizer, and a community spokesperson for the Algonquins of Barriere Lake.

Martin Lukacs, 27, is a writer and organizer living in Montreal, involved in movements for climate justice and Indigenous rights. He has written for The Guardian, the Toronto Star, and is an editor with the Canadian grassroots news network the Media Co-op