Settler Colonialism and Extractive Dependency: Reflections on a visit to the Algonquins of Barriere Lake territory

By: Sydney Lang

On Wednesday, March 23, I visited Mitchikanibikok Inik, or the Algonquins of Barriere Lake (ABL) territory, as a part of a human rights delegation working on mining justice issues. Although I only visited the 59-acre reserve that the federal government forced the community onto, the community maintains over 10,000 square kilometers of territory. While on the reserve, I heard stories and saw firsthand the implications of extraction and energy within a settler colonial context, and the ways that this controls Indigenous peoples and their territory.

This firsthand experience stressed the past and present dimensions of settler colonialism. Historically, colonial governments and Indigenous peoples signed treaties for the sake of development. Land was needed to support the settler population and natural resources were desired as a source of wealth. Of course, the historical links between extraction and colonialism are not uniquely Canadian; they have roots in Europe’s colonization of Africa and the Americas. Colonial violence against African peoples took the form of forced mining labour, displacement, and slavery. Here, humans themselves were extracted, from Africa to the Americas, in the name of colonialism and resource extraction. As Eduardo Galeano writes in Open Veins of Latin America, this both dislocated agricultural communities, destroyed the collective farming system, and took many lives.

A house on the ABL Reserve. Attribution: Sydney Lang.

Throughout recent history, Indigenous peoples have been forced onto small reserves, often far from territory in which they have spiritual ties, for the sake of development and extraction. When extraction is set to take place on Indigenous territory, the Canadian government, as established through Canadian case law, has a duty to consult and accommodate Indigenous peoples. However, this duty does not require consent from Indigenous peoples. This exists in tension with UNDRIP’s requirement for the government to receive free, prior, and informed consent from Indigenous peoples before moving forward with development on their territory. It is also important to note that extraction is not limited to natural resources. The settler colonial project extracts and exploits labour, culture, knowledge, and autonomy, although this does not fit within pre-established case law.


For many years logging has occurred on the Mitchikanibikok Inik territory I visited. As we walked through the reserve, we noticed a small pile of logs; the government leaves a pile every year for heating. This wood was logged on ABL territory and is the extent of resource revenue sharing by the government.

The ABL sought to address issues of extraction and resource revenue sharing by negotiating a Trilateral Agreement with the Canadian and Quebec governments in 1991. Although many recommendations were adopted under this agreement, resource extraction continues. In 2006, the community put forward a list of seven demands to be negotiated with the government of Quebec. Although Quebec accepted six of them, including co-management of renewable resources, they suspended negotiations in 2006 over a refusal to share resource revenue with the community.

Recently, a junior mining company called Copper One began prospecting on the territory and found large deposits of copper. This mine could have disastrous effects on the community and surrounding wildlife, as the mining claim covers 300 square kilometers and includes part of the La Vérendrye wildlife reserve. Neither the Quebec government, nor the company, informed or consulted the Algonquins of Barriere Lake before granting Copper One a mineral claim on their territories. The community takes a strong “no mining” stance, and have put their bodies on the line to prove it with the creation of a land protection camp. Although the government claims that it will temporarily suspend Copper One’s claims to the territory, the future of this project remains uncertain.

ABL Band Concillor Norman Matchewan giving a tour of the reserve. Attribution: Allan Lissner


The community backs onto a hydroelectric dam reservoir, owned by Hydro Quebec. This has created dangerous conditions for the community. Norman Matchewan, Band Councillor, told us that when it was first installed, the community was not warned when the corporation would be releasing water from the dam. As a result, two elders drowned from falling through the thin ice. Although the dam powers neighbouring communities, Hydro Quebec has not connected the reserve to the grid. This is another one of the community’s recommendations to the government of Quebec: the electrification of Rapid Lake.

Instead, the government has supplied the community with diesel generators. As we walked by the generators, we could smell the diesel. Norman told us that it isn’t unusual for the smell to reach the entire community when it’s windy. He also said that the generators are prone to breaking down, sometimes remaining unfixed for days. The community both relies on these generators for electricity, yet is also limited by them, as they are used at capacity and restrict the community from building much needed infrastructure. The generators supplied by the government both contribute to the community’s precariousness and force them to use unsustainable forms of energy that are polluting their land.

The Algonquins of Barriere Lake have endured colonial extraction in many forms, yet remain strong with their demands. Although the Canadian government has not yet recognized Indigenous peoples’ right to say “no” to development projects on their territory, enforcing the Trilateral Agreement and other integrated resource management plans and recommendations would act as a strong first step towards addressing histories of settler colonial violence through extraction and land use.


Interested in learning more about settler colonialism and extraction in Canada? We suggest these selected articles from our past issues:

6:2 Access to Justice: The Impact of Injunction, Contempt of Court Proceedings, and Costs Awards on Environmental Protestors and First Nations

8:1 Exploring the Mining “Money Trail”: Assessing British Columbia’s mining Tax Regime and Unearthing Legal Tools that Foster Greater Returns for Local Communities

11:2 Tsilhqot’in Nation as a Gateway Towards Sustainability: Applying the Inherent Limit to Crown Land

These articles are referenced as suggested reading. It should not be taken to imply their authors share the views expressed above. 


“Current” issues: why we need to talk about water law in Canada

Julia Redmond is a first year law student at McGill and an associate managing editor with the McGill International Journal of Sustainable Development Law. She holds a Bachelor of Arts and Science in interdisciplinary studies from McMaster University, with a focus in environmental science and policy.

If you live in Canada, you have probably been fed the myth that we are a nation of abundant clean water. Three-quarters of our country’s population live within 161 km of the US border, especially along the Great Lakes and the Saint Lawrence, where availability of water does not feel like an issue. (Of course, many others still feel the effects of a disturbing lack of clean water, in particular on aboriginal reserves; there are still dozens of boil-water advisories in place in aboriginal communities across the country.) In reality, Canada does have more water than most countries in the world — but this does not necessarily translate to availability. Paddlers on the Hart River, part of the Yukon’s disputed Peel Watershed. (Juri Peepre for Protect the Peel)

This water accessibility myth has consequences, be it on people’s day-to-day living, spirituality, work, or leisure. Water is essential, and yet it is not discussed as a legal or governance issue nearly enough. Thinking we have got it covered when it comes to water means that there is less public pressure and motivation to improve water governance — yet it needs improvement.

Various groups have insisted on a new governance structure that can better protect water resources, including academics and research groups, the government itself, and non-governmental organizations. Ultimately, Canada’s water governance challenge is not only a result of the myth of abundance; it also flows from the structure of our Constitution. It seems that water resource management was perhaps not top of mind leading up to 1867 when powers were divided up, leaving fisheries, navigation, and international waters to the federal government, and water resources and supply to the provinces, who delegate to municipalities.

This arrangement leads to different approaches to governance and managing its gaps. Manitoba, for example, had (until recently) an entire Ministry of Conservation and Water Stewardship — the only one of its kind in the country. British Columbia has implemented its own attempt at unified water legislation. Ontario enacted some reforms in response to the Walkerton crisis, while also relying on the Environmental Bill of Rights and its associated Commissioner for environmental stewardship. Like so many areas of Canadian law, water is complicated by our unique brand of federalism.

The last real attempt to make any kind of unified strategy to resolve issues and improve water management was 30 years ago, which is hardly current. While the surprisingly progressive Federal Water Policy (1987) has been praised for its call for the equitable and efficient use of freshwater respecting the needs of future generations, it did not lead to the kind of action needed to fulfill its objectives. No notable efforts have been made since for a unifying water policy.

There is some hope that the tide is turning, however. Water law and resource management has been getting more attention because it overlaps significantly with climate change, which has generally become a higher priority on government agendas at all levels. Water-related crises — like the flooding in Alberta in 2013 — have made it hard to ignore water governance issues, if only temporarily. Nestlé’s purchase of a well in the Township of Centre Wellington sparked public outcry. (Daniel Orth)

There have also been recent examples of the public speaking up and questioning government action on water. One such incident arose in the Township of Centre Wellington, Ontario, where Nestle purchased the rights to the municipality’s groundwater to bottle and sell it. Nestle had not only bought the water company — they had outbid the Township itself, who aimed to protect water from commercial interests. Residents started advocacy efforts, echoing the Environmental Commissioner’s warnings. All this eventually led the Premier to include water as part of her government mandate.

Even more recently, water management has gotten attention in the judicial branch, at the Supreme Court of Canada. March 22 was a watershed moment in more ways than one, as aboriginal and environmental groups came together to fight for protection of the Yukon’s Peel Watershed, a massive, untouched water system. The case arose out of a dispute between First Nations groups and the Yukon government after the breakdown in negotiations for industrial development of the area. The decision will have significant  implications for the duty to consult as well as for water law.

With the hearings of First Nation of Nacho Nyak Dun, et al. v. Government of Yukon done, it is difficult to say yet what will happen. However, no matter which way the case goes, it highlights the importance of addressing water issues at a national level. We can only hope this opens the floor for a bigger conversation, because it is about time for Canada to talk more openly and take action on water issues.

Interested in learning more about water law and resource management? We suggest these articles from our past issues:

10:1 Environmental Monitoring and Ecosystem Management in the Oil Sands: Spaceship Earth or Escort Tugboat?

8:2 Book Review: Inga Winkler, The Human Right to Water: Significance, Legal Status and Implications for Water Allocation

4:2 Book Review: Karen Bakker, ed., Eau Canada: The Future of Canada’s Water

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