Indians at Loggerheads With Government Over Forest Use
PARC PROV. DE LA VERENDRYE, QUEBEC — ABOUT 300 miles north of Montreal, in the heart of a vast Quebec provincial park called La Verendrye, the way of life of 450 Algonquin Indians is quite literally grinding to a halt.
Chain saws are doing the grinding.
And within earshot of the saws and other heavy machinery is a village of simple wood-frame homes on a winding gravel road on the sloping western shore of Barrier Lake. There, Jean-Maurice Matchewan and much of his small band are watching, listening - and protesting - as lumber and paper company crews clear-cut swaths of forest near their 59-acre reserve.
Unlike the Cree and Inuit, many of whom are widely considered to be well-financed and savvy masters of pressure politics, Chief Matchewan's Algonquins are underfinanced newcomers to the art of making an effective political statement.
Sitting astride a chair in the kitchen of a friend's small home, Matchewan describes how he entered the fray in 1989: "We walked into a forestry seminar in November. From there on we've just kept protesting."
At first, the protests seemed to work. Matchewan was arrested by provincial police in 1989 after he and hundreds from the village blocked a nearby logging road. The tribe then hired an Ottawa lawyer to write letters to the province and federal government to try to keep lumber and paper companies from cutting near the reserve and in numerous "sensitive zones" across the 3,900 square miles of traditional hunting grounds in the park.
In August 1991, Matchewan's band got the federal and provincial governments to sign a pact agreeing to develop a sustainable-management plan for the forest and its wildlife.
"Logging had been extensive in the park," says Remi Smith, an Algonquin involved in the agreement. "Our estimate is that 50 percent has been logged. Basically there were a lot of letters and nothing happened until they took a stand in 1989 and said, `No more logging until we sit down and talk.' "
Under the pact, the Indians were to identify sensitive zones where they hunt. The province agreed to halt cutting until disagreements over the plan were resolved by mediation, according to a February document signed by the provincial negotiator, the Indians, and the federal government.
But Algonquin leaders fear they have hit a brick wall; they worry cutting will resume even though procedures to achieve the sustainable-management plan have not been agreed to.
"The agreement's pretty much dead right now," laments Michel Thusky, an Algonquin elder who predicts that confrontations between logging companies, police, and Indians may be inevitable this summer.
But a spokesman for the Quebec Ministry of Forestries blames the Indians for trying to build a broader agenda of "co-managing" the forest - something he says was not part of the August 1991 pact.
Matchewan says it is ironic that even though there is growing recognition of native issues nationally, Quebec may be moving backward on Indian rights.
"We never said we didn't want logging," he says. "We're not against that. We just want there to be some forest left for us and for the animals when it's all done."
Five minutes from the village by four-wheel-drive truck, Hector Jerome, a barrel-chested elder of the tribe, sweeps his arm across the clear-cut landscape of stumps and tree branches heaped in huge slash piles next to a deeply rutted logging road.
"They say this will grow back in 25 years," he says, stamping his foot at a splotch of oily ground and a plastic wrapper. "But they want to make it like a plantation - like a forest in Germany. There won't be any animals."