By Christopher Mason (New York Times)
CALEDONIA, Ontario, Aug. 10 — Blame it on the American Revolution.
At the time, six Indian tribes that had lived for centuries in what is now upstate New York sided with the British Crown, lost and were forced from their lands. For their troubles, however, Britain granted them a paradise rich in moose and deer, across the new border, in southern Ontario.
Today the game are largely gone. The wilderness has been transformed into suburban sprawl. The once pristine lands of the so-called Six Nations Reserve have been whittled away.
This year, one more housing development on the edge of town was one too many, and the Native Canadians decided to make a stand.
Since February, hundreds have blockaded roads, set bonfires, confronted the police with bags of rocks and lacrosse sticks, cut the maple leaf out of a Canadian flag and refused to obey court orders to vacate. During the height of tensions, a van was driven into a power station and set on fire, leaving residents in the dark for days.
The protests have become the knottiest of Canada’s many native land disputes and paralyzed the local economy.
“Some businesses are down 30, 40 percent,” said Neil Dring, who publishes a weekly newspaper here. “This has really hurt.”
For the Native Canadians, however, the dispute is a matter of mending a broken promise by the government to manage the land on their behalf. “Through the years, our people said, ‘You can come here, you can settle here,’ but that didn’t mean they could take over,” said Hazel Hill, who lives on the reserve.
Police officers brought in from all over the province now watch the occupied site around the clock, while town residents whose backyards border the land must show identification to be allowed down their street.
Confrontations have been laced with racial slurs and crude signs. Native Canadian protesters have surrounded the site with traditional flags, and many don fatigues when tensions are at their highest.
In early August, Native Canadians used a fire hose to repel crowds who marched to the site from the town to protest their refusal to obey a court order to leave the disputed land.
“People who live near the site are stressed beyond belief,” said Jason Clark, who lives in town. “They see flags flying and people wearing camouflage — it’s intimidating.”
A mile down the road from the site, downtown Caledonia is slow moving and rich in history. Canadian flags line the main street and businesses are a mix of restored heritage buildings and newer developments that have come with the town’s growing status as a bedroom community for cities like Hamilton and Brantford.
“We had a tremendous amount of housing growth in recent years,” Mr. Clark said. “But that’s come to a complete stop. That occupation is creating a lot of economic hardships in Caledonia.”
The police conducted a raid on the protesters in April, but they retreated when waves of Native Canadians arrived to reinforce the occupation.
“They really did us a favor,” Mrs. Hill said of the raid. “That’s when internal politics were put aside and everyone came together.”
The occupied land covers 100 acres among tens of thousands taken over by the government from the Native Canadians in the 19th century after a disagreement that lasted decades over whether the Native Canadians had the right to sell their land to British settlers.
The Native Canadians filed a lawsuit over the land in 1995, on behalf of the Six Nations: the Mohawk, Onondaga, Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida and Tuscarora. But, tired of waiting while housing developments encroached on the land, they took matters into their own hands.
A younger generation of Native Canadians has led a resurgence of indigenous culture across the country. Unlike many of their parents and grandparents, these Native Canadians did not attend residential schools, where Native Canadian students were often hit with a strap for speaking their own languages. Entire generations of culture were submerged.
The revival has not only restored pride; it has also opened old wounds over how the British and, later, Canadian governments negotiated land deals with chiefs.
In one such deal, chiefs had signed a document that the British interpreted as surrendering the land where Toronto now sits, but it was later disclosed that the chiefs had signed a blank piece of paper.
Native bands elsewhere are watching Caledonia, wondering if the protesters here have found a new way of forcing governments to settle land claims, or at least expedite them. The brash and confrontational nature of the dispute contrasts with the glacial system the Canadian government uses to settle land claims with its Native Canadian population.
Of the 29 claims filed by the Six Nations since the 1970’s, only one has been settled. There are some 770 outstanding claims across Canada, with more than twice as many claims coming in each year as are being settled.
“They’ve created a system to deal with these land disputes, but they take years in the courts,” Mrs. Hill said at the barricaded entrance to the occupation. “They’re the ones with the money who can afford that process. We decided it was time to deal with things differently.”
Whether their approach will work depends on politicians, the behavior of protesters on both sides, and the response by the police.
Nearly six months into the occupation, the Native Canadians have persuaded the provincial government to buy the disputed land from developers while forcing both sides to begin negotiating a settlement.
The question is whether, in the meantime, the Native Canadians and the townspeople can keep the peace.
“I’m concerned that at some point we’re going to see more violence,” said Mr. Clark, the Caledonia resident. “That’s not a threat, that’s just reality. People can only withstand so much.”
Photo credit: Donald Weber
Published: August 17, 2006, New York Times
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