When do you think people are going to learn? How many times are they going to try and sell or develop land that is claimed under treaty rights by a First Nations tribe? You'd have thought they'd have learned from the mess that's happening in Caledonia in South Western Ontario where the Six Nations Reserve has set up a blockade around a housing development's construction site.
A report in the December issue of The Mohawk Nation Drummer tells how the town of Deseronto is doing just that. Located in Eastern Ontario, bordering the Tyendinaga Mohawk reserve, they are trying to illegally develop treaty land. Eight hundred and twenty-seven acres of land on the eastern edge of the reserve was illegally removed from the possession of the Mohawks in 1837. The Mohawks at the time had leased it to one man, who then left the land as an inheritance to his grandson. The government at the time illegally gave John Cullbertson, the grandson, a crown grant for the land.
In 1995 the Tyendinaga Band Council submitted a claim for the return of the land, which was upheld by the Department of Justice, who agreed the land had never been surrendered nor had any compensation been awarded the Mohawks at the time. It was agreed a settlement would be negotiated with the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs in the year 2003. The Mohawks are still waiting.
The Royal Proclamation of 1763 that stipulated all lands occupied by the First Nations people could only be purchased or leased from them by the Crown (read government now) has been accepted by the Supreme Court of Canada as the law regarding title to disputed territory. If you had any brains you'd consider any land that had an outstanding land claim against it as being unsuitable for anything.
Municipal governments and some provinces are still trying to play fast and loose with the treaties and are illegally disposing of the lands for their own profit. Even when they are fully conversant with the circumstances, as were all parties involved in the Caledonia situation, they are going ahead and making deals with private interests. Perhaps they are hoping that if the courts see populated housing developments on the territory they won't cede it back to Native control, and allow the municipality to continue to collect all tax revenues.
Town councils and other local governments need look no further than the most recent settlement in British Columbia where a whole subdivision has been returned to its original Native owners. The people who own the houses are free to retain possession, but they now find themselves subject to the laws governing the reservation, not those that govern the municipality, and their property taxes will be set and collected by the band council.
There has been the usual amount of complaining by the right wing about rights, etc. (non-band member can't vote in tribal council elections, so the owners of these houses can't vote in their "municipal elections" anymore), conveniently forgetting whose rights were originally ignored when the land was developed illegally. If you buy stolen property, unwitting or not, and it is recovered by its original owner, what kind of compensation do you usually get?
If it can be proven you knew it was stolen, you can go to jail, otherwise you're pretty much out of luck. These people should consider themselves fortunate that they are being allowed to keep the homes they purchased from someone who was dealing in stolen property. If anyone has a problem with the return of the land to the rightful owners, they should take it up with the people who committed the crime in the first place – those who sold it illegally.
But some people just aren't paying attention, and it sure seems like the Deseronto Town Council wants to join the crowd. Just before their municipal election last November the mayor of the town, Clarence Zie, announced that construction would begin on a new housing development as of November 15 on one of tracts of land. Local media reported that he claimed 20% of the initial 60 lots were already sold, and that if all went well, an additional 100 lots would be constructed.
As a reminder to any contractors who might not be aware of the circumstances surrounding the land in question, a group of Mohawk protesters from Tyendinaga showed up on November 15. They erected a new sign proclaiming the area Mohawk territory and amended the "for sale" sign to read "not for sale".
Nobody wishes to have a repeat of what is going on in Caledonia, Ontario right now with the blockades and confrontations, but at the same time nobody is going to surrender their land without a fight. The Government of Canada has tried to stay out of the protest in Caledonia, claiming it's a provincial issue due to the nature of the land under dispute, but they won't be able to hide from this one.
With the promise of a negotiated settlement on the books, now three years overdue, they have the responsibility of resolving the issue. Since the Justice Department has already stated that the land was illegally removed from the Mohawks there really isn't much to negotiate save for whether it will be the town or the developer who is going to have to refund those who have already plunked their money down.
It was one thing for Indian agents and crooked politicians back in the 1800s to try and swindle Natives out of their land; they knew they would be able to get away with it. But now it's not only illegal, it's bad business practice. You try selling people stolen property once and see if you ever get their business again.