CALEDONIA, Ontario – On Feb. 28, residents of the Six Nations Reserve set up camp at the Douglas Creek subdivision and since then have been joined by Natives from across Canada, growing into a crowd of more than 400 at times, before the raid, and now numbering a thousand or more people. The issue, however, goes much deeper than a single parcel of land but dives deep into the issue of Native rights, land claims, jurisdiction and governance.
The subdivision rests on a portion of land known by Six Nations members as the Haldimand tract, nearly 988,000 acres (400,000 hectares) given to the Natives by the British Crown for their loyalty during the American Revolution.
Recently published reports indicate that portions of the tract were sold to non-Natives during the 1800s, however painstaking research by the Six Nations reveals that the traditional councils never intended to sell, but only to lease the land. Whether the land was bought and sold legally is the question, which the Canadian government has not addressed.
In 1999, Six Nations filed claim to the lands on both sides of the Grand River, but private landowners who bought the pieces in recent history have continued to live on and develop the land.
Fifteen years ago two brothers, Don and John Henning, owners of Henco Industries, purchased the land where they have been developing the subdivision. Roughly 10 homes are being constructed, with plans for 600 eventually. No construction has taken place since the protest began on Feb. 28 and no immediate solution has been found.
“We’re dealing with a very concerning and volatile situation so we need to be flexible in how we solve this situation,” said Indian Affairs representative Bob Howsam.
An Ontario court ordered the protesters to abandon the site, but instead, on March 2, the day the injunction went into effect, dozens of women at the site linked arms in preparation for a police invasion. The police did not come that day and the land reclamation, as the protesters call it, continued.
“We plan to maintain the site until we get what we want,” said Jeff Hawk, a protester, days before the raid on April 20. “First and foremost, we want the title. Nobody else is going to develop here.”
Aside from angry passing of words, the demonstrators had remained calm. The strategic decision by the protesters to allow no weapons in the camp site has been noted by many who otherwise would question the occupation.
“We are there peacefully,” Dawn Smith, a leader of the Six Nations Land Claims Awareness Group, had said. “We are there unarmed and it will remain that way. We will not break the order of peace. It will not be us to bring in arms. That will be the [Ontario Provincial Police] or [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] who come in with their mandated weapons that they carry. We will have no weapons.”
Caledonia residents, who have been affected in many ways by the protest, from lost trade work to traffic delays, held a protest in early April. Approximately 500 gathered in the town to discuss events and what could be done to end the protest.
However, the issue is complex.
While Henco Industries bought its land in what appeared to be a fair deal, the Six Nations demonstrators claim that the land was never for sale and should be returned to its rightful owners – the Six Nations territory.
Further complicating the situation is the uncertainty of jurisdiction. Six Nations is often divided by an elected council and a traditional one. The two parties have had conflicting accounts of the history of their land and Dave General, the band council chief, was threatened with impeachment after he failed to support the reclamation. People at Six Nations expressed a variety of opinion on whether the land was rightfully given back to non-Natives when a highway was to be built through the tract. The land issue has given way to the issue of the police attack upon the encampment, which has largely angered community residents.
While some would say that most Indians agree on the history of land-grabs and that the divisions are not as deep as they seem, others point out that the issue is not just about a questionable parcel of land.
“It’s not all that simple,” said Aboriginal Affairs Minister David Ramsay. “We’re talking about a multitude of parties here. There are not just two sides to this. That’s why this is so complex.”
Jurisdictional issues also arise in deciding who should speak on behalf of the owners of the land. Many believe that the Canadian government cannot be held accountable for actions of the British Crown.
While meetings had been taking place between various leaders and officials, provincial leaders argued that an end to the protest was not in sight as the OPP executed its raid. However, the ill-conceived and fruitless attack appears to have energized the Native community and its activists on the emotional issue of land rights.
“The people are committed to wanting the land back and are willing to stay as long as they have to,” said Janie Jamieson, a spokesman at the site.