Judge lets Caledonia class-action suit proceed

TheGlobeandMail.com – Opinions
Published on Tuesday, Feb. 09, 2010. Last updated on Tuesday, Feb. 09, 2010.   CHRISTIE BLATCHFORD

The native occupation at Caledonia is the gift that keeps on giving, the OPP and Queen’s Park learned yesterday when an Ontario Superior Court judge certified a class-action lawsuit.

The 21-page decision by Mr. Justice David Crane means the suit will now begin the lengthy process of making its way through the courts.

The judge determined “the core issue is whether there was a failure of the OPP” to provide policing services to residents of the small town south of Hamilton during the occupation of the former housing subdivision called Douglas Creek Estate.

But he put it another way by posing three questions – “whether the defendants surrendered too readily to threats of disruption if the formation of their policing processes … Did [they] allow a state of lawlessness to exist? Did [they] respond reasonably to circumstances that required a balanced approach?”

First filed in 2006, the suit names the OPP, former commissioner Gwen Boniface, Inspector Brian Haggith and the Ontario government (through the aboriginal affairs and solicitor-general’s ministries) as defendants.

Judge Crane approved representatives of four classes of claimants – about 200 businesses located near the site and whose owners suffered financial losses; about 400 property owners who live near or adjacent to the site; a smaller group of contractors who were left without work when the land was seized and then bought by the government; and another 300 businesses located on Highway 6.

Though the claims of business owners are mostly for lost income, the homeowners also claim they were harassed and threatened throughout the occupation. Several cite direct threats to burn their homes down, being forced to show native-issued “passports” to go to and fro and being intimidated by protesters wearing masks or camouflage.

If the suit has a familiar ring to it, it’s because it was only after Christmas last year that the government abruptly reached an out-of-court settlement with Caledonia residents Dave Brown and Dana Chatwell.

The couple, with their teenage son, were suing the OPP and the government for about $7-million, essentially saying they had been abandoned by the police and left to fend for themselves in a lawless no man’s land.

Natives from the nearby Six Nations reserve first seized the property – then under construction, with houses in various state of readiness – on Feb. 28, 2006.

But it was after a failed OPP raid on April 20 that what Judge Crane called the real “blowback” occurred – protesters erected barricades in as many as four locations around the site, torched a wooden bridge, threw a vehicle off an overpass, destroyed a hydro transformer that caused a two-day blackout and on at least a couple of occasions followed or swarmed passing cars that veered too close to the property.

The Ontario government bought DCE later that summer for about $12-million. The protesters retain control of the property still.

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