Masked, camoflauge-wearing men attack police with baseball bats and pipes. An explosion and fire rips through a Hydroelectric transformer near the battleground, plunging over 50 000 people into darkness. One could be forgiven for thinking this is a scene out of Beirut or Bagdahd. But it’s not.
Masked, camoflauge-wearing men attack police with baseball bats and pipes. Black, acrid smoke fills the air as large piles of tires are set alight less than a hundred meters away from a school where terrified students hide under desks. An explosion and fire rips through a Hydroelectric transformer near the battleground, plunging over 50 000 people into darkness. One could be forgiven for thinking this is a scene out of Beirut or Bagdahd. But it’s not. These events are taking place right here in the “Peaceable Kingdom” we know as Canada.
The Caledonia stand-off is just the latest in a sad string of violent native land disputes that have occurred over the last decade in this country.
Native stand-offs were thrust onto the Canadian public’s radar in July 1990 when a Quebec Provincial Police attempt to arrest a group of Mohawk Warriors manning a barricade was met with a volley of native gunfire which left officer Marcel Lemay dead. The government responded by deploying the Canadian Army to the location. 6 weeks later, the last of the Mohawk occupiers were removed from the site by armed troops. But this was only the beginning.
The 1990’s saw many further outbreaks of violence. At Gustafson Lake BC in 1995, heavily armed native protesters ambushed and shot two RCMP officers. Only their bullet proof vests saved their lives. Other natives at the scene were photographed shooting at an RCMP helicopter with AK 47 assault rifles. In Burnt Church New Brunswick, native commercial fishermen refused to adhere to Dept of Fisheries catch quotas, citing traditional hunting and fishing rights. They were soon met by enraged white fishermen and the result was property damage, assaults and several full out riots.
In September 1995, members of the Stony Point First Nation occupied a Provincial Park in Ipperwash Ontario to protest the expropriation of a portion of their territory by the Dept of National Defence during World War 2. Several days later, the Ontario Provincial Police moved to evict the group. The result was a violent melee with riot police doing battle with club wielding natives. At one point, officers were forced to jump for their lives as a school bus was driven at a line of officers at high speed. In the chaos, OPP Sgt Ken Deane shot and killed native protestor Dudley George. A subsequent trial found George had been unarmed and convicted the officer of Criminal Negligence Causing Death. He resigned from the force as a result.
Canada has a mixed past in it’s dealings with natives. While overall, the country has historically made attempts to integrate natives into the greater society and improve their standard of living, some Canadian government policies have been at best, ham fisted, and at worst, dishonest and manipulative. Without a doubt, there are some native land claims in this country that have merit, and the government should be moving to negotiate and settle them much more quickly than has been the case in the past.
That said, the issue of land claims is anything but clear cut. Attempts to re-negotiate deals that were signed hundreds of years ago are bound to be problematic. Records have gone missing or never existed, ownership of various land plots has changed hands several times since the initial sale, and, in an increasingly urbanized Canada, many land plots are now part of towns and cities inhabited by thousands of people. Add to this the fact that some native land claims are completely baseless. For instance, before the Nis’ga treaty was signed in British Columbia several years ago, native land claims in that province covered fully 112% of the total land mass of British Columbia, including all of Vancouver and Victoria.
This brings us to Caledonia in 2006. This dispute centres around the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. The Six Nations consist of the Cayuga, Tuscarora, Seneca, Oneida, Onondaga and Mohawk tribes.
Historically, these tribes inhabited what is today New York State, Conneticut and Vermont. The Iroquois were a powerful nation amongst the first nations, and dominated this part of the world prior to the arrival of Europeans. In the Indian wars of the 17th Century, the Iroquois all but annihilated the Huron who inhabited what is today Eastern Ontario and Quebec. In fact, the area in which the Six Nation reserve is now located was previously inhabited by a tribe known as the Neutral Indians. This group was conquered by the Iroquois in 1651 and the survivors were enslaved. Despite their victory, the Iroquois returned to their traditional homeland in New York and remained there for hundreds of years.
During the American Revolutionary War, the Iroquois assisted the British Crown against the American Rebels. Following the war, the Iroquois found themselves, like the United Empire Loyalists, unwelcome in the United States. As compensation and reward for their loyalty, the Crown granted the Six Nations land along what is today the Grand River. The grant consisted of 6 miles either side from the source to the mouth at Lake Erie.
Today, the Six Nations Reserve is Canada’s largest Indian Reserve. Unlike many reserves in Northern Ontario or Western Canada, the Six Nations reserve is efficiently run. The band council are dedicated and deliver good quality services to their people. The Six Nations Police Service is considered a highly professional police agency within police circles, and there is good access to social programs and infrastructure on the territory. The unemployment rate on the reserve is low, with many residents working in nearby Hamilton or the western suburbs of Toronto.
Relations between the residents of nearby population centres like Caledonia or Brantford and Six Nations are generally good. Intermarriage is common, lacrosse, hockey and baseball teams play against one another in joint leagues, and most Six Nations students attend high school in those towns.
The dispute hails back to what happened after the Six Nations moved into their land grant on the Grand River. Over the years, much of this land was sold off by natives to governments and speculators. Today, this portion of territory is occupied by the Cities of Cambridge, Brantford, Orangeville, Caledonia, Cayuga, and Dunnville. The population living along the river bank exceeds 250 000 people.
The protestors occupying the housing development today argue that the band never relinquished title to the land, and that whatever real estate deals did occur were either dishonest or are being misinterpreted by the government today.
On February 28th of this year, Six Nations protestors moved into a plot of land in the Town of Caledonia that was being developed into a housing sub-division by a local builder. This land is adjacent to another sub-division which is occupied by hundreds of families. There is no particular significance to this plot of land, except that it is part of the much larger claim held by the natives. The developer went to court and obtained court orders demanding the natives leave the area. They refused.
After 2 months of negotiation between governments, the OPP, the land developer and the natives, the OPP moved in to remove them. Police made a deliberate attempt to keep the operation low key. Officers were not permitted to wear riot gear and were instructed to use minimal force to remove the protesters. Nonetheless, a large brawl did break out, and one officer suffered a broken arm, with another being taken to hospital after he was struck over the head with a bag of rocks. Some protesters were subjected to pepper spray or tasers. Several hours later, hundreds of natives from Six Nations returned to the site and forced the police off while wielding bats, rocks and pipes. Two large hydro towers in the area were cut down and the natives placed them across both the town’s main street and a major area highway, effectively cutting off many of the town’s residents from the outside world. Additionally, a hydroelectric transformer located within the native protest area was destroyed and the entire surrounding county was plunged into darkness for 4 days as native protestors refused to allow repair crews in to fix it.
That night, a local Hell’s Angels chapter attended the site in a show of support for the Mohawk Warrior Society, who have been present during the protest. This confirmed to many that the Mohawk Warrior Society are little more than a criminal organization involved in weapons and drug running, who use the political aspect of land claims as a cover for their illegal activities.
After several weeks of this, local Caledonia residents, angry at the disruption caused to their lives by the blackouts and road blocks, began to turn out in counter protests against the natives. This led to a number of ugly confrontations as tempers flared on the lines, and hot-heads on both sides stirred the pot.
Since that time, the OPP has taken a hands-off approach to the protest. The OPP’s position, is that land claims are a political issue and it should not be the police service’s job to resolve issues that are best dealt with at the political level. The policy appears to be a response by the OPP to the deluge of criticism they suffered in the wake of the Dudley George shooting at Ipperwash ten years earlier. While this policy was at first met with some sympathy by the public, the residents of Caledonia appear to have turned against the OPP in the wake of a number of acts of inexcusable lawlessness on the part of native protestors. These culminated in an attack by natives on an elderly non-native couple who did nothing more than stop on the roadside in the vicinity of the protest site. The attack was filmed by a local TV news crew who were in turn assaulted by the native protestors and had their camera stolen. The incident was witnessed by uniformed OPP officers whose response was ineffective.
Today, we now have a situation where both sides are glaring at one another over police lines. Attitudes have hardened immensely in recent months and some fear the town will never return to normal.
While many Canadians are sympathetic towards the native cause, what few are willing to accept is the outright thuggery and violence committed by native protestors in support of it. The idea that shooting at police officers and destroying society’s infrastructure are the only way to resolve disputes in a free country like Canada is ridiculous. Many of the natives involved in the protest movement maintain they are a sovereign nation and not subject to the laws of Canada. This suggestion is patently absurd. In order to be a “Sovereign Nation” a people must first be self sufficient, and second, be recognized as such by the international community. First Nations Canadians are neither. As long as they rely on Canadian hospitals, education and federal funding, the claim they are “Sovereign” is baseless.
Hopefully, in the near future, good will on both sides will avert the bloodshed which is inevitable should these confrontations remain the norm in our dealings on land claims. The government must move quickly to clear the thousands of land claims that are outstanding to be sure. But native Canadians must also understand that they receive tremendous support from this country. Federal programs to assist native Canadians by funding their businesses and education are readily available. Programs are in place to reduce their over-representation in the country’s prisons.
While it’s romantic to imagine oneself in history as a member of a warrior tribe, living off the land, at one with nature, it is not practical to expect to live a primitive, hunter-gatherer existence in today’s world. And to be honest, I doubt many natives would choose that if the option were available to them.
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