On May 22, 2006 – after holding a blockade of the Highway 6 at Caldeonia, Ontario (Canada) since February – the indigenous of Six Nations unblocked the highway. The dismantling of the blockade – initially erected by the indigenous to enforce their claim to a piece of land called the Douglas Creek Estates – was a gesture of goodwill on the part of Six Nations after they made headway in their negotiations with the provincial government. (for background see my previous article on the topic: http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=10152). The gesture was probably to help defuse the organized "angry residents", who had been rallying at the blockade weekly to demand the road be opened.
But the "angry residents" responded by striking a blockade of their own, preventing native people from getting from the Six Nations reserve to the area they have reclaimed.
Six Nations responded by putting their own blockades back up, and on the afternoon of May 22, there was a tense standoff, with hundreds of "angry residents", hundreds of indigenous people, and the Ontario police, all present. The standoff continued through May 23. With this action, the "angry residents" have become the most significant impediment to a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
The angry resident rallies
Three weeks ago, when I went to Caledonia to see the "angry residents" protest against the Six Nations blockade, I admittedly had a preconceived notion about what the Caledonian rally would be like. I had feared the presence of open white supremacist organizations like the KKK. Not only were there no KKK costumes or signs, but indeed the angry residents were angry at the very implication that they would allow KKK among them. Indeed, the angry residents suggested that the rumors of KKK presence were Six Nations disinformation.
The demonstration of angry residents that took place on May 5, 2006, however, was interesting to me in a number of ways.
First, the protesters did not have an adversarial relationship with the police, which is the norm at most protests. There were a few moments when angry residents yelled at police officers – but these were quickly calmed down by other residents who reminded them that the police were on the residents’ side. And the police were on the residents’ side, quite literally – in addition to the police on the line, there were police interspersed with the residents, conversing and mingling. At one point, an angry resident tried to lead others straight to the police line and past it towards the Six Nations blockade and force open the road. But he was stopped, not by the police, but by another angry resident who argued that a violent incident with the police would not be in the interests of the protesters.
Second, I felt there was a lack of proportion demonstrated by the angry residents. It is true that the Six Nations blockade disrupted traffic. The detour, however, allowed everyone to get to their destinations, despite taking longer. The indigenous were not preventing anyone from reaching their homes, even if they lived within the blockaded areas. Even the angriest residents had to admit this, and qualified their angry claims accordingly, saying: "We can’t get to the hospital – quickly," and "People can’t get to their homes – without being questioned first."
I traveled in the Occupied Palestinian territories in 2002, and I saw the effects of real checkpoints, Israeli checkpoints, on Palestinians’ lives. At the time, Palestinians were dying in ambulances because they are not allowed through Israeli checkpoints. Checkpoints turned what would be a 15-minute drive into day-long ordeals of waiting and humiliation. Palestinians really did lose access to their homes, and their families.
Of course, there are few inconveniences that do not seem insignificant when compared to the sufferings of the Palestinians. But even by Ontario standards, I found it difficult to understand the rage behind the residents’ cries to open the road. Yes, any delays in getting to the hospital are potentially very dangerous. But is there as much rage at the increasing wait times at the hospitals themselves, traceable to both federal and provincial government funding cuts, used to fund tax cuts? These cuts have been responsible for many unnecessary deaths over the years, in Ontario and throughout Canada.
Third, I was struck by the contradictory nature of the demands and the tactics of the residents. At that rally three weeks ago, a resident – who refused to give his full name – told news cameras of a plan the angry residents had to block the native people in. This was contradictory. If all of the anger had to do with opening the road, surely besieging the indigenous would not help matters?
I also heard residents complain about the ‘lawlessness’ of the indigenous. But the legal struggle was, and is, ongoing, and the law is favourable to the indigenous claim. The problem for the indigenous has been the ‘facts on the ground’, and the willingness of settlers (in the 19th century) and governments and corporations (today) to take a piece of indigenous land illegally, and have the laws changed in their favor later. That is the problem that forces indigenous people to blockades and direct action to protect their interests even though the law is often on their side. Now, here were the residents, threatening siege and extralegal action themselves, in the name of protesting native ‘lawlessness’. This, too, is contradictory.
A factor in negotiations?
The ‘angry residents’ have made themselves a factor in the negotiations between the various levels of government and the indigenous over the Douglas Creek Estates, the piece of land being reclaimed by Six Nations. Provincial negotiator David Peterson has talked numerous times to the press about how important it is to reduce "tensions in the community," and the need to open the road to accomplish this. "All of us were praying and working hard to ensure that something ugly didn’t develop out of this," he said to the CBC. The "angry residents" help Peterson’s negotiating posture by moving the "middle of the road" away from the indigenous and towards the government’s position.
While "praying and working", Peterson was also able to present the very useful idea of "two warring sides" and "tensions in the community" to the public, equating two sides that are not at all equal. Indigenous peoples are not represented by Canadian governments. They have their own ideas and structures. The "angry residents", by contrast, are represented by the governments they voted for and participate in. They are represented by the police who mingled with them at their rallies. To give them a seat at the negotiating table would be to give them double representation.
Despite this, the provincial government does have an interest in a peaceful resolution. It is headed by Liberals who want to distance themselves from the previous Conservative government of Mike Harris, which was responsible for "something ugly" in 1995 – the murder of indigenous man Dudley George by a police sniper at Ipperwash. The real estate developers have an interest in a resolution as well. The developers of the Douglas Creek Estates, Henco Industries, have repeatedly and publicly stated their desire to be bought out by the government. This points to a very simple potential resolution to this particular conflict: the government can compensate Henco and turn the land over to Six Nations. Progress towards such a resolution was expressed in a document called "Compendium of Commitments, Ontario and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy Six Nations Council, May 10, 2006".
With some success in the negotiations, the indigenous opened the road on May 22, removing the greatest grievance of the ‘angry residents’. But the ‘angry residents’ responded by creating a blockade of their own, preventing native people from crossing. Six Nations spokesperson Janie Jamieson described it to the CBC as "colonialism at its finest."
If the provincial government and the developers both have an interest in a peaceful resolution, why did the "angry residents" act so irresponsibly to try to scuttle it? It cannot be because they want to see more suburban homes built – they have no reason to be more keen on home-building than the developers’ own corporation. Nor can they claim any longer to want freedom for the road – the minute they had it, they ruined it, for every resident, angry or otherwise.
So, in whose interests are these "angry residents" really acting? Perhaps the Conservative federal government. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s party is full of people who are contemptuous of indigenous rights and indigenous people. The same sorts were responsible for what happened at Ipperwash. Though Six Nations has expressed desire to talk to the federal government from the beginning, on a nation-to-nation basis, the federal government has said nothing publicly. Perhaps the "angry residents" really do represent the federal government? It is easy to speculate and difficult to prove. But Canadians who want to express that neither Harper’s people nor the "angry residents" represent them should speak, and move, now, before "something ugly" happens.
Justin Podur writes frequently for ZNet and can be reached at [email protected]