People go about their daily business, hitting the bank machine and mailing letters on a cold fall morning in the small village of Ohsweken on Six Nations of the Grand River Territory, a few kilometres west from where a bitter standoff unfolds over development of a contested subdivision on the outskirts of Caledonia, Ont.
“It’s heartbreaking, everything that’s going on there,” says Taia Miller of Six Nations, searching for the right words as she sits in an idling pickup truck.
“Yes, we want our land back. It is our land. I just wish it wasn’t how it is today with all the violence. It should be more of a peaceful protest. I do support Six Nations standing there keeping our land.”
Community members and supporters walked on to the McKenzie Road construction site on July 19, halting work and renaming it 1492 Land Back Lane.
Over three months later, there’s been a police raid, rubber bullets fired, stun guns used, two permanent injunctions, two rounds of blockades, attacks on infrastructure and accusations of escalating violence from both Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) and those reclaiming the land.
“We’re building and we’re hunkering in for the winter, making sure that we got firewood and calling for support from all our brothers and sisters across Turtle Island,” says Land Back Lane spokesperson Skyler Williams.
On Oct. 22 and 23, people dug a trench outside the camp’s front entrance after officers shot someone with a riot control gun and Tasered someone else. Police later released video showing two masked individuals attacking a parked cruiser with rocks and a lacrosse stick, suggesting this is what precipitated the use of force that prompted the shutdown.
Others who preferred not to go on camera echoed Miller. They support the cause but struggle with the violence.
“It’s just sort of a hard one there,” says Gary Froman outside his front yard, where he runs a small stand selling moose burgers and fries with his wife.
“I just knew that was going to happen, where the judge was going to rule against us, because there’s no way we can win in court anyways,” he continues. “Our people just got sick of it, so they finally started to do something. But it’s waking up everybody to what’s going on so that hopefully the federal government will sit down with our people and start negotiating.”
Train tracks were damaged as part of the retaliation and one hydro pole was torched, knocking out power to a few homes in the immediate vicinity. People also dug up roads on either side of the back entrance to the camp on Argyle Street and Hwy 6, establishing a large protection zone and making it difficult, if not impossible, for police to remove the camp residents by force.
Only hours before the clash, the court handed down two permanent injunctions prohibiting road blocks and ordering the camp dismantled.
Negotiations continued Monday and Tuesday to restore hydro but stalled after the camp refused to let a police escort accompany Hydro One behind the barricades.
“We have been negotiating with Hydro One and the OPP to ensure the safety of our camp given the recent police violence inflicted on our community. We will not allow anyone onto the site with weapons, especially the OPP,” said a written statement from the camp.
Hydro one says four customers remain without power on Wednesday.
“We are concerned for their safety and wellbeing and our crews are on standby to make repairs once it is safe,” a statement from the company says.
Enbridge also has crude oil and gas pipelines in the area which supply Caledonia and Six Nations. The camp said Tuesday the company had shut down it’s Line 11, but Enbridge said operations continue.
“Enbridge pipelines are safe and continue to operate, providing natural gas and crude oil to our customers, including homes and businesses on Six Nations,” says an official in a statement.
“Enbridge has shared information with all parties to ensure that everyone is aware of our infrastructure. The safety of everyone involved is our highest concern.”
Colin Martin, who works for the traditional Haudenosaunee Confederacy Chiefs Council as a police liaison, says he was involved in the talks with both companies to keep the infrastructure running.
“Hydro is meeting in regards to getting the pole fixed over on Argyle Street in front of Kanonhstaton,” he says. “I’ve offered some options, solutions to their problems and right now they’re meeting on it.”
Like the elected council – who called the injunctions “disturbing” – Martin says he was upset and frustrated by the judge’s decision.
“I was very disheartened about it, disillusioned and very angry,” he said. “I’m behind our people 100 per cent on what’s going on, and until they stop we’re not going to stop.”
“Sure, there’s some things that have been questioned by our community,” he added. “But again, it’s about getting out there and showing that support and being behind the people who are out there, who are taking a stand, putting their lives at risk in terms of being jailed and fined on our own territory.”
As someone who works for the traditional Six Nations chiefs, he believes they’re the “true government here” and that negotiations should go through them.
But it’s a contentious subject.
“There’s a lot of division right now because the government set it up that way, that we’ll infight,” says Froman, kids and dogs playing in the yard. “We’re fighting amongst ourselves and then you can’t see what they’re doing behind your back.”
He says he disagrees with the elected council’s decision to sign an agreement supporting the development. The elected council promised to “do better” after acknowledging that many community members “feel it was not the best decision for the Territory” to ink the deal.
But the traditional chiefs were never consulted and, according to their website, say the development takes place in a “red zone” against these kinds of projects.
The feds offered to meet with both traditional and elected chiefs in a letter dated Aug. 19, but they’ve been “dragging their feet” since then, says Williams.
“Carolyn Bennett’s office has continued to drag their feet and led us to the situation that we’re at right now. If they’re going to continue this, to let the OPP dictate what land claims look like in this country, then that this is what can be expected.”
It’s something people on both sides of the barricades agree with.
“They built Canada on our money,” Froman adds. “I know they didn’t keep their promises, and we’re still keeping our promises.”
Haldimand Mayor Ken Hewitt has consistently opposed the 102-day land occupation and consistently called on Ottawa to get involved.
“No one has heard any responses from the Federal government who carries all the weight in terms of discussions to be had with members of Six Nations,” says Hewitt in a statement. “It is disgusting that with all the pleas from all parties we still have no engagement from them.”
The OPP are also ratcheting up pressure. On Wednesday, police released a soon deleted video on social media, this one showing the excavator digging the trench outside the camp on McKenzie Road.
— OPP West Region (@OPP_WR) October 28, 2020
They say several construction vehicles, worth an estimated $2.1 million, were stolen and used to erect the barricades.
But the occupation is also receiving support, namely from NDP MP Matthew Green. Green represents Hamilton, 22 km north of Caledonia, and recently donated $1,492 to the camp’s legal fund.
“This is an ongoing example of police as an extension of the state using every tool available to discredit and dehumanize the people who are subject to their enforcement of law. I’m not surprised by it all. We’ve seen this be used time and time again,” says Green.
“From Wet’suwet’en with the lethal overwatch to Six Nations territory with the rubber bullets, the escalation of the use of force against Indigenous people has been a part of the dispossession of their land and colonial genocide since contact.”
He too blames the federal government for letting things get to this point.
“This Liberal government continues to talk out of both sides of their mouth. The reason why we’re at this place of escalated hostility is because of their absolute refusal to negotiate there and to settle these land claims in good faith,” he says.
On Monday, ministers Marc Miller and Carolyn Bennett were asked about the situation. They reiterated that they’ve extended a hand to both the traditional and elected chiefs and await an invite “on their terms.”
Green suggests it’s something they should’ve been in front of, given that a similar dispute happened over the Douglas Creek Estates subdivision in 2006. It’s since been reclaimed as Kanonhstaton and sits directly across from the back road that leads into the 2020 reclamation camp.
Fourteen years later, no solution’s been reached and the land remains held in trust by Ontario.
“None of this is new,” he says. “I find it very challenging that this government would somehow be taken by surprise by this particular thing.”