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Caledonia: An Oka In The Making

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There is something tremendously ironic about a white politician declaring that he's losing patience with Native protesters. Even funnier, in a really dark humour sort of way, is when they bemoan how difficult it is to conduct negotiations in good faith with native groups. They sound like such victims, don't they, the poor dears.

The latest example of this has been the reaction of the Premier of Ontario to the continued blockade by members of the Six Nation Mohawk reserve of Grand Bend, Ontario, of a building site for a housing development in Caledonia, Ontario, just outside the city of Hamilton. The people of Grand Bend have long established claims to this land under treaty rights and are quite miffed that a private developer was given permission to build a housing development on it.

Back in 1776, there was something called the American Revolution, where the original thirteen colonies of Great Britain south of the 49th parallel decided they had had enough of being part of the Empire. Some of the people living in those areas hadn't agreed with the idea of separating from the crown and had fought on the losing side. Included in that number were members of the Mohawk nation who resided in what is now upstate New York.

The British government, in recognition of service rendered to it by these people, granted all the Loyalists land in their closest colony, Canada. British soldiers, families, and the Mohawks all had to pick up and walk from New York to Ontario in the middle of winter, or make a perilous crossing of Lake Ontario by boat. The Mohawks were deeded two swaths of land in what is now Ontario as theirs to keep forever.

According to the people of the Six Nation reserve, the land they are now occupying in Caledonia is part of that treaty land. In the 1800s, that land had been leased to the Ontario government in order to build a highway, but instead of releasing lands not used back to the Mohawks as required by terms of the lease, the government seems to have decided they own it, because they merrily sold it to this developer.

This was not land the government expropriated from private citizens, this was land they were leasing; i.e., they were tenants. Usually tenants don't go around selling the property they've leased from the lessor – that sort of practice is usually called fraud or theft. But when it comes to dealing with Native lands it's obvious the rule of law doesn't apply.

Over and over again, we have seen this habit repeated across Canada, and probably the United States, of the lands deeded to the First Nations people being "borrowed" for a purpose like building a highway, and then mysteriously never being returned. The government will then "discover" they own these great swaths of prime development land and sell off what they call crown assets to make some extra cash.

In British Columbia, where this has happened on numerous occasions, the result has been that as the courts have settled treaty claims in favor of the tribes, and whole developments and suburbs have been turned over to tribes because they were built illegally. The real losers in this are, of course, those folks who bought houses in this development, because they now no longer own the land their homes sit on, and there has been no means of compensation developed for them. In an ideal world, they should have their money returned to them by either the government that sold the land to the developer or the developer who sold them the houses.

But we know that's not going to happen. Even though the government knew full well they were selling the land without proper ownership or deed, they are not being held accountable. They are the ones who are to blame for acting in defiance of laws and treaties, but obviously they thought the treaties would be overturned in their favour.

And why not? No one has recognised the treaty rights of First Nations people in the past, so why should these new violations be any different? But times have changed and the courts are no longer owned by those with the deepest pockets. Now they actually try to work according to the rule of law. This is how people in affluent suburbs of Vancouver found they no longer owned the land under the houses they lived in, and that it was now owned by the Nisga nation.

This brings us back to the situation in Caledonia, where, since February, the people of the Six Nations reserve have been occupying the land they claim as theirs through treaty rights. They have also blockaded an adjacent highway, which has infuriated locals because of the necessity for having to detour around it for commuting purposes.

Since the occupation began, there have been attempts by the Ontario Provincial Police (O.P.P.) to remove the protesters, but they have met with failure. Ten years ago, an unarmed protester was killed by an O.P.P. officer in a similar stand off in Ipperwash Provincial park and the police have no wish for a repeat of that incident, so they are showing restraint. (There have been numerous suggestions made in the Ipperwash incident that undue political pressure was brought to bear on the O.P.P. by the then Conservative government of Ontario to clear the park as quickly as possible, but these allegations are still under investigation.)

For a time, it seemed like the Premier of Ontario was willing to go the slow route of negotiations with the people of the Six Nations, but a couple of incidents at the barricade last week have changed his mind. People at the barricades roughed up a carload of American tourists, an elderly couple, and two photographers. It has not been reported what, if anything, instigated these incidents, but there have been reports of racial slurs being yelled at protesters on other occasions, and projectiles thrown at them by the public.

Whatever the circumstances, the police have issued seven warrants for the arrest of unknown persons who were involved in the incidents. Spokespeople for the Six Nations reserve have apologized and have removed those individuals from the barricades so it won't happen again. But I'm sure tempers are fraying on both sides of the barricade and people are reacting when perhaps they shouldn't be.

But for the Premier to cite those actions as a reason for losing patience is pretty lame. For any politician in Canada to think that they have a right to be impatient when it comes to negotiating with the people of the First Nations, no matter what the circumstances, is ridiculous.

What about their impatience? Sixteen years ago, at Oka in Quebec the same sort of stuff was happening when the town's mayor decided he wanted to cut down a stand of pine trees belonging to the local Mohawks so he could expand a private golf course to which he belonged. What resulted was a stand off eerily similar to this one. It started peacefully enough, but continued to escalate as the politician lost "patience" and called for more aggressive action, until a Quebec police officer ending up dying from being shot in the face.

Nobody even knows who fired the shot, whether it came from a Mohawk weapon or a police weapon. The police had fired smoke and tear gas toward the barricades, but it drifted back towards them, so both sides were equally blind during the police's direct assault upon the position. Eventually, the armed forces were called in, and the result was a stalemate until the Federal government bought the land to hold in trust for the Mohawks.

It must appear in the eyes of Native people that nothing has changed in the ways that governments treat them. What do we know about what happened before February, when the barricades went up? Why were the Mohawks ignored until the barricades and the occupation started? Why were they ignored for so long after the occupation started? Why was this issue allowed to degenerate to a state where the people felt they had to make this type of stand in the first place?

First Nations people have negotiated in good faith and with patience with various levels of the Canadian government for decades, and more often than not, they end up getting stiffed. Local tribes have tried to finalise land claims and ended up having them drag on for decades. At the federal level, where they finally negotiate a deal that might make a difference, they instead see it yanked out from under them because the government changed their position.

This is like when segregationists used to accuse black people of being impatient for wanting to change the laws in the Deep South during the fifties and the sixties. Is it any wonder Native people are losing their tempers and taking direct action again? After having the majority of their land stolen, and being given tiny parcels to live on, they've had to watch as those pittances have been whittled away as well.

What patience and good faith has any government ever shown them? As long as you're quiet and don't stand up for your rights, you can be as proud of your heritage as you like, and we can say, "look at the all the good we're doing for you by coming to your Pow-wows". Nearly anything good that has happened for the First Nations people in Canada has come about because of their efforts. Treatment facilities for addiction, job programs, pre-natal classes, language programs, and cultural instruction have all come about because of their efforts.

The Assembly of First Nations, the council of all elected chiefs in Canada, under the leadership of Phil Fontaine, has been preaching patience and calm to its constituents for the last ten years. They have been negotiating in good faith during this time, in spite of all the occasions in the past where they have been betrayed. They thought they had achieved a deal last November with the Kelowna Accord, but that rug looks like it's been yanked out from under them by Steven Harper and his Conservative Party of Canada government.

While former Prime Minister Paul Martin, who had negotiated this deal, had entered a private members bill in parliament calling for the ratification and implementation of the Kelowna Accord, that motion now has as much hope of being passed as the proverbial snowball in Hell. For any politician in Canada to claim that Natives are negotiating in bad faith, or to whine about losing patience, is a disgrace and an embarrassment.

It just proves how little things have changed and explains why First Nations people have reached the limits of their patience. They are still being played for fools and their concerns are taken for granted by all levels of government. I hope the situation at Caledonia doesn't develop into a mess on the proportions of Oka or Ipperwash, but given the attitudes expressed by the government, I'm not holding my breath.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • Maria

    Great article, Richard. We need more intelligent commentary like this. The media is typically so biased when it comes to coverage of land claims disputes. First Nations rarely get their side of the story published and as a result the general public walks around thinking that aboriginal people are the ones causing all the trouble. It’s just not true.

    I am a “white” girl who not only grew up in an aboriginal community but today does a lot of work with First Nations. I have seen first hand what First Nations Peoples have to go through. They must on a daily basis for their rights and many times it is almost impossible for them to have a voice. They are continuously pushed aside by politics and bureaucracy. It’s not fair. The way we can help is to continue to have an open an honest dialogue with people, to get the message out and to stand alongside First Nations Peoples with a strong voice.

    It’s incredible to me that after Oka and Ipperwash, the government has still not learned anything. Let’s hope they can get the message before it’s too late and history repeats itself.

    Thanks for your insight. Keep up the good work.

  • amy

    Thanks and enjoyed hearing your opinion.

    You should send this to editorials like the Hamilton Spectator, The Star and the Globe & Mail.

  • Valery Dawe

    A Google news search of “henco” will get you the latest Canadian Press propaganda on the situation in Caledonia. According to CP, Henco Industries “legally owns the occupied land”.

    CP was the same sleazy outfit that hoodwinked Canadians during the Gustafsen Lake standoff in British Columbia by repeatedly calling unceded Aboriginal territory, “private ranch land”.

    They weren’t alone in their efforts to undermine Native rights. Almost every mainstream news organization joined in the chorus of calling Natives at the Gustafsen Lake Sundance site “terrorists” or “rebels”.

  • Candace

    very well written, just a few corrections you may want to make…Its Six Nations of the Grand River (not Grand Bend) and the “Roughed up American Tourists” were actually ATF (Alcohol, tobacco and firearms) agents from the United States who have been present in the area since April 2nd

  • marilyn james/appointed spokesperson of Sinixt Nation

    just another correction…it was not the nisga in vancouver who you mentioned in the article it would be the musqueam people who were not recognized and thought to be a wiped out people until their recent recognition…am an indian in a similar situation myself…my people were declared extinct by the federal government of canada in 1956 just prior to the signing of the columbia river treaty between the u.s. and canada…we do exist in the u.s. however only 20% of our territory is on that side of the border and 80% of our territory is represented in canada…we were the only indian people on the columbia river system in canada…although i generally agree that these issues need to be resolved the treaty process in b.c. is pitting one tribal group against another by making those other indians claim our territory…and as you mention the kelowna accord…not all of us indians believe that the ‘elected’ and ‘federally recognized’ indian leadership represents our people we have too many experiences of the embezzlement of funds, nepotism and the puppet indians who dance to the government tune…i.e. manny jules who promotes indian taxation and phil fontaine who negotiated residential school funds without a broad consultation of what those residential school survivors would have wished…he was here in our territory recently and housed his meetings at the most expensive venue available…didn’t even know who’s territory he was in and was generally uninformed about any of the local issues…seems to me if he claims to be a great indian leader then he should bother to inform himself of the territory that he would be visiting and meeting in…we are sick to death of it all yes…and it is good that folks like you are willing to speak these truths…just wanted to give you my perspective on what i view as a few of the kinks…if you are interested in our story you can google sinixt and the kics site is informative…again done by a non native but with some care taken for sensitivity…also if you go to http://www.firstnations.de…under the invasion section you will also find the sinixt…thanks again for your comments. mj