OHSWEKEN, SIX NATIONS RESERVE, Ontario – Calmer heads regained control in the Six Nations land reclamation standoff and road blockades began coming down after a mid-May eruption of fighting between Natives and non-Native counterblockaders.
A riot was averted by elders as local town of Caledonia residents pressed down on the Native group when elders in both communities took the lead to calm heated tempers and establish communications between sides.
At the height of the tension on May 22, a fire at a local utility company transformer near the Native encampment at the Douglas Creek Estates site shut down the power supply to some 1,500 homes in Caledonia and about four times that number in the surrounding area, including one-third of the Six Nations reserve.
Native protesters abandoned an attempt to dig a trench across the blockaded road after Jan Kahehti:io Longboat and her niece, Lisa Van Every, stood in the way of their backhoe and told them sternly to stop.
Longboat, a stalwart supporter of the land reclamation, is a well-respected healer and a strong believer in the traditional principle called “the Good Mind.” She had been talking to representatives of the townspeople, Van Every told Indian Country Today, when she realized that destruction of the road was for them the “line in the sand” that could set off further violence.
“The Caledonia people were so angry and screaming really racist obscenities, and wanting to just about kill them,” Longboat said. “The bulldozer tearing up the road was driving the Caledonia group crazy. I did not know what else to do to start calming things down.”
It was a crucial moment that defused potentially tragic violence, coming shortly after the Caledonia counterdemonstrators had blockaded a road just opened by the Native group. Several Natives in a car were trapped; the driver, a Native man, was beaten and two elderly female Native passengers frightened by the gathering mob.
The incident sparked several running fistfights. As the groups disengaged, Six Nations leaders returned to the table with chief provincial negotiator David Peterson, a former Ontario provincial premier, and agreed to a mutual dismantling of the barricades.
Traffic began to move freely on Plank Road into the town by the afternoon of May 23. Hydro One, the local utility, announced that power was restored by 6:30 a.m. May 24 to the 8,000 affected homes. Peterson said that cooperation by the two sides had averted a “near disaster.”
The flare-up on May 22 resulted from an apparent miscommunication, Van Every said. At talks mediated by Peterson the previous week, Six Nations protesters agreed to begin dismantling road barricades. The blockades had been in place since April, after Ontario Provincial Police on April 20 unsuccessfully attempted to end the long-running Native occupation of a real estate development in an early morning raid.
Inspired by traditional leaders, Six Nations protesters – including warriors from other reserves – seized the Douglas Creek site Feb. 28 in a “reclamation action.” They said the province illegally took the land in the 19th century from the original Six Nations grant and in recent years ignored land claims filed by the reserve’s government. The occupation of the site continues.
When protesters agreed May 19 to begin removing the road barricades, said Van Every, they intended to dismantle them gradually “for safety reasons.” But an apparently unauthorized press statement gave townspeople the impression that the blockades would come down immediately. When the Caledonians saw that some Native blockades remained on the morning of May 22, they formed a human blockade on the road toward town and refused to let Natives pass, and which mobbed the car with Native occupants. The Six Nations protesters quickly restored their barricade, using a toppled Hydro One electrical tower.
During the daylong standoff, townspeople threw loaves of bread and packages of sliced cheese at the Native barricade, mocking the bread and cheese promised the reserve by Queen Victoria. Native protesters threw them back. During the day, the Caledonians’ human blockade grew to about 300 people.
After the Six Nations protesters dragged the Hydro One electrical tower across the road, they offered a truce, but the townspeople refused. At that point, one of the warriors began to trench the highway with the backhoe. Several groups of townspeople surged around the intervening line of Ontario Provincial Police toward the Native line. A series of brawls broke out and, according to the local press, makeshift weapons began to appear. But no major injuries were reported.
Van Every said that she and her aunt heard reports of the fighting as they were shopping and hurried to the scene. “When we got back, the bulldozer was revving up,” Van Every said.
Although the protesters had made the initial cut in the road as a threat, they were now prepared to destroy it entirely. Van Every and Longboat knew from their Caledonian contacts that the town mob would have taken that act as the signal for an all-out assault.
“If that happened, it would not be a good thing for us,” Van Every said.
“The only thing we could do was to go and stand in front of the backhoe,” she said. “We told that person to turn off the backhoe and get down. It was kind of tense for a minute. Then he did.”
After stopping the backhoe, Longboat felt she had to do more to calm the occupiers, so she called for a chief or clan mother to address the crowd. An elderly woman came forward and spoke to the group in Mohawk. “She said good words,” Longboat said.
Longboat and Van Every then tried to locate Peterson, who at the time was trying to calm the Caledonians. They brought him across the police line to speak at the reclamation site. “He told people to stop and think about what they were doing.”
As tempers cooled, Peterson and the Six Nations leaders agreed to resume the negotiations.
Meanwhile Peterson was confronting the townspeople, attempting to pass their blockade. They pushed him back, said the Toronto Sun newspaper, “all the while chanting expletive-filled orders to get out.”
Peterson later called the day “heartbreaking.”
“It was a lot of hard work, and a lot of blood, sweat and tears that went into fixing the situation,” he told reporters. “That somehow or other fell apart.”
That night, however, he returned to negotiations with Six Nations leaders and the newly formed Caledonian Citizens Alliance, made up of local businessmen. They focused on the immediate question of removing the blockades. As calm returned, the roads reopened by the end of the afternoon on May 23.
National leaders joined the call for calmer heads. National Chief Phil Fontaine of the Assembly of First Nations said in a statement, “The need for negotiation and reconciliation could not be more acute. We do not want to see any actions that will cause tensions to increase in the community.”
He urged the federal government to take a more active role in a situation exacerbated by jurisdictional confusion. “The federal government must show leadership to resolve this issue because any issues relating to First Nations lands are issues between First Nations and the federal government,” he said. “The federal government must ensure that the discussions continue.”
Fontaine also called for action on the underlying problem of the land-claims process. “Under the current process, Canada acts as judge and jury in claims against itself,” Fontaine said. “There are approximately 1,000 specific claims before Canada, 300 of which have been validated and must work their way through the claims process. Yet it takes on average 10 years to resolve a legitimate, specific claim.
“This is much too long. Last week’s report by the Auditor General of Canada noted that six comprehensive claims agreements have been concluded since 2001, and it has taken on average 29 years to finalize these claims. This is unacceptable,” he said.
“This is an agonizingly slow pace for First Nations, for whom land is central to our cultures and our economies. It creates frustration and anger on the ground and can erode trust.”