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Shawn Brant


On August 30, about two weeks before Canada became one of only four countries to vote against a UN declaration on indigenous rights, Tyendinaga Mohawk father and activist, Shawn Brant was released from Quinte Detention Centre on bail. Bail had been denied him twice before, when he first turned himself in on July 5th and again after a bail-review hearing on August 10th. The conditions of his bail were restrictive. $50,000 cash bond with another $50,000 surety, 30-day house arrest, curfew, no protests, and above all, no returning to the struggle for the Mohawk territory the government hoped to disrupt by putting him in jail in the first place. His trial will take place some time in 2008. He is to stand trial on 9 charges having to do with two blockades, one that occurred in April 2007 and the other in June 2007, including 6 charges of indictable mischief (for which the maximum penalty is 10 years in prison), and 3 charges of breach of bail.  His actual crime, for which he is being persecuted, is being an articulate and militant spokesperson for his community and indigenous struggles in Canada more generally.

The bail hearing also featured massive, militarized security, all for a community activist who had been involved in activities no more violent than blockades of roads and reclamations of sites, and who had turned himself in. It was a disgraceful display by the state, an attempt to generate fear of violence as a diversion from the substantive issues.

Exclusion and Environmental Destruction

The Mohawks of Tyendinaga, and community members from sister Mohawk territories Kahnawake, Akwesasne, and Kanehsatake, are no strangers to repression and persecution by governments. Indeed, with borders transecting Quebec, Canada, and the US, the Mohawks have known three different flavors of violence. The variations, however, are less striking than the similarities. In the 1990s, these communities faced a military occupation, with thousands of Canadian troops besieging the Mohawks, who were protesting that their sacred sites were slated to become condominium developments and golf courses. An all-out invasion was planned for these communities in 1994, called off at the last minute because of concerns that the political fallout from the bloodshed would be too high. More recently, Kanehsatake, for example, has faced tense standoffs with Canada’s federal police and Quebec’s provincial police, including the creation of a privatized police force to invade the community in 2004 (1). Before that, the Canadian police and military presented these sieges of communities as “law-and-order” activities, using force to stamp out the crimes of Canada’s indigenous people. But the massive, ongoing crime is one committed against indigenous people, and the law-and-order posturing, to which we will return, is intended to present an inversion of reality.

The Canadian state and corporations view the country’s economic development in terms of extracting resources from the land and selling them off, mainly to the United States, for profit. In this model, indigenous people, who live on the land and have their own ideas about how to treat it, are an obstacle, and have been treated that way historically. Even though rights to exploit the land were as often won by negotiation and treaties that included mutual obligations by Canada and indigenous nations as by force, Canada has treated indigenous people as a colonizer treats its victim, disrespecting agreements with them, dispossessing and excluding them, and using force with impunity.  “Development” on indigenous lands, whether of resources or, in more densely populated areas, of suburban housing construction projects, is a sort of development that provides no benefit at all to them. While indigenous people from the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory neighbouring Caledonia in Ontario watched their historic lands turned into suburban developments, and Mohawks in Tyendinaga watched trucks carting tons of gravel out of their lands, the majority of indigenous communities in Canada (75% in 2001) have substandard, dangerous water quality and inadequate housing.

Beyond merely excluding the indigenous, Canada has destroyed the very basis of their survival through environmental destruction. The Mohawk territory on the Ontario/Quebec/New York border has been thoroughly poisoned. Canadian authorities have been destroying Mohawk fishing grounds since they started manipulating the flow of the St.Lawrence River in the 1830s. When Canada opened the St. Lawrence Seaway in the 1950s, it offered cheap hydro power to industrial investors, and heavy industry, from General Motors to Alcoa and Reynolds, responded, contaminating the rivers and lakes of the region and the groundwater table with PCBs, DDT, mercury, Mirex, and more. Poisoned water killed both the wildlife and the traditional economy. With no more hunting or fishing, there was no more traditional diet and, consequently, a whole set of new health problems (2).

Environmental destruction and exclusion from the economic benefits of their own territories has led to poverty and unemployment in indigenous communities. This has provided the state with another lever of control over the communities – small amounts of money distributed through the welfare system and through institutions of “self-government” that were imposed on indigenous communities, often at gunpoint. These meager and humiliating funds have an additional value to the state besides control: they also enable the state to sow racism by claiming that indigenous people are “lazy” and “don’t work”, living off of “handouts” from the state.

Adaptation of Tobacco

But the indigenous were never excluded quietly or easily, and the Mohawks found a way to adapt even to this narrowing of their options. Taking advantage of their position on the border, they created businesses selling a traditional sacred plant – tobacco cigarettes. Canada’s establishment treated the “native cigarette” trade as a major crime, alleging associations with organized crime and threatening brutal action. Indeed, from 2004-2006, the government threatened the Mohawk communities, repeatedly, on the basis of the tobacco trade. In an interview with the CBC in April 2006, Shawn Brant explained some of what the tobacco trade had meant for Tyendinaga:

“We have approximately 6 to 7 million dollars a month which comes into the community as new revenue from the outside, that we’ve been able to establish infrastructure within our community. We’ve been able to put forward our first institution of government, as we call it, the longhouse. We showed them that we were going to use the proceeds from tobacco in order to recreate ourselves within the society, that we would allow for something greater to come from it than just padding the pockets of a few people.

“So Tyendinaga now sits in a unique situation, where we have this money coming in, where the stores bring it in at retail level, where construction crews and workers are working, people are preparing their roofs and contributing in a way to, not only the local economy, but also to the surrounding economy in a way that we never had. We’re in position now where we are able to have, as a community, some influence in the outside world. When our people go out shopping, because of the availability of revenue within here, they’re not treated like shit anymore, they’re treated like consumers that have access to revenues, that are going out and making purchases. They’re treated in a way and a standard that we’ve never enjoyed before.” (3)

When the interviewer asked him about rumors of a Canadian military raid into Tyendinaga with cigarettes as a pretext, Shawn Brant answered:

“We’ve always known, and we’ve always been told to prepare for this time, when they would stop at nothing to remove us, to have us not exist. We’ve been through the assimilation process and it didn’t work, and now there’s one option that as a nation, a military option is very real. I believe the day will come, and with Kanesatake in 1990, when the people of that community stood up and everything changed, we talked about the transition time.

“Kanestake has got nothing in the 16 years since 1990: they haven’t settled the land claims, their status within the Indian act, they haven’t settled their financial and fiduciary responsibilities with them – it’s a community where schools barely exist, their programs are non-existent. While everything changed in people’s minds across Canada, and maybe the way in which people perceive us as changed, nothing has changed for them and that’s their punishment for 1990. If Tyendinaga can take on that responsibility, and take the brunt of the force and the government’s wrath, and it allows for some peace to exist in Kanesatake, then we’ll gladly shoulder that responsibility. We don’t just see it as being something just around us. It’s time for our sisters and brothers that have fought for so long to have a break and let them turn their attention to us, and we’ll welcome it.” (4)

Resistance to Dispossession

The tobacco trade is not the only indigenous adaptation to legal and economic exclusion and dispossession. The more direct adaptation has been to resist dispossession, using legal arguments and, when Canada ignored these, resorting to the very measured and restrained use of reclamations and blockades.

One such reclamation began in February 2006, at the Douglas Creek Estates bordering the town of Caledonia and the Six Nations reserve. The Douglas Creek Estates were in the process of being converted to a suburban subdivision when members of Six Nations reclaimed it. They wanted the land, which, like so many other pieces of indigenous territory, had been taken from them in a process of very dubious legality, to be returned to them (5). Instead of negotiating in good faith, the provincial police attempted to dislodge the indigenous people from the reclamation site in April 2006, and succeeded for several hours, after which the indigenous reclaimed the site yet again. Six Nations called on people outside the territory to speak up and to mobilize on their behalf. One community that heard the call was Tyendinaga.

The day after the police dislodged the Six Nations reclamation on the Douglas Creek Estates (April 21 2006), Mohawks from Tyendinaga blocked a CN Rail line that runs through their territories, both the Culbertson Tract and Surrender 24 (discussed below) demanding that the government negotiate with Six Nations in good faith. Later that year, the government would force the Mohawks of Tyendinaga to conduct a reclamation on their own behalf. The Culbertson tract, like the Douglas Creek Estates, had been stolen from the indigenous through a dubious swindle (6). When, on November 15 2006, Mohawks went to the site of a proposed subdivision on the Culbertson tract to publicize their claim and their intention to stop the construction of a subdivision there, coincidence had a convoy of Canadian Military vehicles just passing through the reserve. The Mohawks blocked the convoy with cars and trucks and asked them what they were doing. Provincial police eventually escorted the military away. In January 2007, Shawn Brant and another Mohawk activist, Mario Baptiste, were arrested. Shawn was charged with ‘uttering death threats’, Mario with ‘assault’ and ‘mischief’, in conjunction with the November 15 2006 incident (7).

On another part of Tyendinaga territory, a gravel quarry owned by Thurlow Aggregates, the corporation busily strived to make off with as much of the land as possible, while the government of Canada took a decade to even sit down to land claim negotiations. Strikingly, the Mohawks had submitted an official land claim in 1995, after the claims process was finally created by Canada, and in 2003, this claim had been acknowledged as legitimate by the Canadian government – in many land claim disputes, achieving this recognition of legitimacy from the colonial government is in and of itself a huge battle. Negotiations around the Mohawk’s claim did not begin for several years after that, during which time the Government of Ontario continued to renew the license to Thurlow Aggregates to ravage the now-recognized Mohawk land. So, on March 22, 2007, 125 members of Tyendinaga took control of the quarry. Shawn Brant explained the reclamation: “it’s very difficult to have negotiations at a time when they’re taking out 10,000 truckloads of our land. It’s an affront to our process.” (8). The Mohawks announced a campaign of blockades if the quarry’s license was not revoked. On April 20, 2007, they blocked the CN Rail line again. The Mohawks held the line for 30 hours and packed up, having negotiated with the police that no one would be charged. The Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) Commissioner, an aggressive and militaristic former chief of Toronto’s police named Julian Fantino, ordered the arrest of Shawn Brant for mischief, disobeying a court order, and breach of recognizance – ignoring the agreement made on April 21 2007. On May 9, CN Rail announced a civil suit for damages for the rail stoppage – the authors of the essay “What Landed Shawn Brant in Jail” said the following about CN’s lawsuit:

“The civil case will likely bring to light some of the checkered history of railway construction in Canada, from forced expropriations to illegal seizures of land; CN’s lawyers may find themselves arguing a case that does the company more harm than good.” (9) The rail line CN is suing over runs through both the Culbertson Tract and what is called “Surrender 24″, a 33,000 acre tract that was stolen from the Mohawks in 1820 by force, and despite much resistance (10).

The final set of charges against Shawn Brant stem from June 29, 2007, which was planned as a national aboriginal day of action. Originally conceived and presented as a day of militant action to show that indigenous communities would not be shunted aside or disappeared, the day of action was weakened by Canada’s threats and successful isolation of communities from one another. Tyendinaga took the call to action seriously. Via Rail cancelled its rail service, anticipating a shut down. The Tyendinaga Mohawks blocked Highway 2. The OPP blocked the Highway 401 pre-emptively, and the Tyendinaga Mohawks moved on to the highway and the CN tracks. The blockades were all lifted by the end of the 29th, and no one was hurt. Shawn Brant, however, was charged with mischief and breach of bail, and turned himself in on July 5 (11).

Shawn Brant’s trial, and the civil suit by CN Rail, could indeed prove counterproductive to the Canadian state and corporations. At a public event on August 29, 2007 in support of Shawn Brant, author Naomi Klein suggested that part of why the Canadian establishment, from Ontario’s police commissioner to the mainstream media, seems to be so vindictive against him is because he has had some success raising indigenous issues not only inside, but also outside of native communities. Sue Collis, an activist who has been instrumental in building this bridge between native and non-native activists (and who is also Shawn Brant’s wife), noted that the colonial relationship between settler and indigenous in Canada could not occur without the participation and complicity of the citizens. Racist myths about native people being “lazy” or “lawless” can’t hold up to reality, and the indigenous actions have been about confronting Canadians with the reality. If the myths collapse, could the whole project of dispossessing the indigenous be at risk?

The colonial playbook is a limited one. In 1990 and 1994, Canada used the military and the police against the Mohawks. It also mobilized racist whites to press a counter-claim against indigenous people, and then presented itself as an honest broker between the two extremes, allowing the racists plenty of leeway and persecuting indigenous people whenever possible. This strategy also allowed plausible deniability. The same thing occurred in 2006 on Six Nations land, with “residents of Caledonia” rallying to demand action against the indigenous (12). Other standard plays include attempts to sow divisions in the community, arming some indigenous people against others, offering money in exchange for land, and presenting small sacrifices as immense in order to create obstacles for future negotiations. The repetitiveness of these standard tactics is frustrating, but it could also make them more transparent, for those who wish to see. If there were enough such people (13), Canada would have to back off, and perhaps actually change its relationship with indigenous people.

Notes

1) See my “Kanehsatake”, 2004, ZNet, for a discussion of what was going on at the time: http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=5556. See also the following leaflet: http://arab.sa.utoronto.ca/preparing.for.invasion.pdf
2) See chapter 2 of Bruce E. Johansen (1993), “Life and Death in Mohawk Country”, North American Press, Colorado. See also the work of Boyce Richardson, including “The People of Terra Nullius” and “Drumbeat: Anger and Renewal in Indian Country”.
3) CBC Interview, April 23, 2006.
4) CBC Interview, April 23, 2006.
5) For an overview of the Six Nations reclamation, see my “Six Nations Does Not Stand Alone”, 2006, ZNet. http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=10152
6) See the excellent pamphlet, “In Support of the Mohawks of Tyendinaga”, from which much of this article was drawn. See specifically two essays: “What Landed Shawn Brant in Jail?”, and “Surrender 24 and the Culbertson Tract: How Tyendinaga’s Land Was Stolen”. The PDF of the pamphlet is here: http://www.ocap.ca/files/fsb-rgb-final.pdf
7) “What Landed Shawn Brant in Jail?” – http://www.ocap.ca/files/fsb-rgb-final.pdf
8) “What Landed Shawn Brant in Jail?” – http://www.ocap.ca/files/fsb-rgb-final.pdf
9) “What Landed Shawn Brant in Jail?” – http://www.ocap.ca/files/fsb-rgb-final.pdf
10) “Surrender 24 and the Culbertson Tract: How Tyendinaga’s Land Was Stolen”. http://www.ocap.ca/files/fsb-rgb-final.pdf
11) “What Landed Shawn Brant in Jail?” – http://www.ocap.ca/files/fsb-rgb-final.pdf
12)  See my “In whose interests are the ‘residents’ rallies’ in Caledonia?” ZNet, 2006, http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=10313
13)  There are people working on this, and there should be many more. Join the Tyendinaga support committee, visit their site, sign the petition, work wherever you are on this. http://www.ocap.ca/supporttmt.html

 

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