Coming soon to a land claim near you

Posted on November 20, 2009 in Equality Debates – FullComment – Caledonia — Coming soon to a land claim near you
Posted: November 20, 2009 by Kevin Libin

There can be little doubt that almost everyone saw David Brown’s lawsuit coming a mile away. Any Canadian listening to the Caledonia man’s harrowing, shocking testimony before Ontario superior court judge Thomas Bielby this week, would have done the same in his shoes.

Brown says he was threatened, harassed, vandalized, intimidated, and generally driven to the brink by the Mohawk “warriors” illegally occupying a housing development land near his home. And throughout, according to testimony, the Ontario government and the Ontario Provincial Police allowed it all to happen. By his account, they appeared to know full well they were sacrificing this man’s family’s rights for the sake of avoiding an inevitably ugly conflict with the lawbreaking natives. It was a price, evidently, officials were willing to pay. The predictable $7 million lawsuit against the province and the police force, for failing in their duty to protect the family, was surely another price accounted for in their cold calculus. You can be sure the Ontario government’s lawyers anticipated this. On top of the $12 million of tax funds that Dalton McGuinty’s government paid to the aggrieved landowner — buying peace from the Mohawks with the Danegeld of someone else’s property — this was the bill for not having to actually confront the touchy, dangerous matter of native lawlessness.

This is an increasingly common expense. Cigarette smuggling on native reserves in Ontario and Quebec has thrived to the point where the contraband industry will soon eclipse Imperial Tobacco as the country’s largest marketer of tobacco products, stealing buyers from legal sellers. Police, who won’t enter the reserve without band council permission, rarely even try enforcing the law and when they do, the charged don’t show up to court, and if they’re convicted, simply don’t pay their fines, Ron Turgeon, a Cornwall prosecutor, told the Montreal Gazette in March. “In my four years doing these cases, I have never seen anybody incarcerated for failure to pay a fine,” he said. “Now I’m asking for prison for a second offence, but I’m still not getting it.”

When Canada’s Border Service agents were threatened this past summer by Mohawks, who were reportedly upset that a new policy to arm border guards would risk their smuggling operations, officials simply abandoned the post. There are guns, and drugs moving routinely through the reserves. Quebec’s Kahnawake reserve operates a server farm for on-line gambling businesses not allowed elsewhere in Canada. And, in the last few years, First Nations “warriors” have blockaded uranium projects; quarries; Canada’s most critical transit route, Highway 401; rail lines; and oil and gas projects. Chief Joseph Whitehead Jr. of the Woodland Cree, who admits to interfering with oil and gas exploration in northern Alberta, once explained to me that he knows blockades “are wrong,” but he says they’re the only tool that works in getting corporations to acknowledge his band’s demands. “It’s the only way they listen,” he said.

If this all sounds bad, the Brown family’s experience reminds us that these things have the potential to be so much worse. Caledonia was exceptional for its violence: Mohawk warriors openly patrolled their roadblock brandishing weapons; David Brown says one waved a handgun in his face. The trespassers set fire to a hydro station, and a bridge. The Browns’ house was ransacked. An early attempt by an OPP team to enforce order was aborted when officers confronted an armed and angry mob. Brown witnessed the Mohawks taking a delivery of wooden crates that an OPP officer later guessed contained AK-47s. Native occupations elsewhere may be typically illegal, annoying, and costly, are generally peaceful.

That might someday change. Caledonia may prove a dangerous watershed. First Nations people across Canada appear to favour occupations.  A 2006 Compas survey of aboriginals found that a large majority approving of such illegal tactics, and 61% of aboriginals polled said they predict more of them in the future. Young natives represent one of the fastest growing segments of our population. Nurtured by a culture of grievance (often justified), and frequently denied, by circumstance, many of the opportunities most Canadians have at creating a rewarding life, there is a risk that someday, more natives may take from the Mohawk’s free reign at Caledonia the lesson that violence is their best route to finding a sense of justice. And there is no shortage of critical pressure points where an occupation could take a toll vastly larger than the interruption of one developer’s housing project.

In Canada, “there’s hardly a road, a railroad line, a transmission line or oil pipeline that doesn’t go through some disputed property territory,” former Ontario premier David Peterson pointed out a couple of years back. At the Assembly of First Nations election for national chief this year, 10% of the country’s chiefs cast their vote with candidate Terrance Nelson, who once summed up his philosophy as “there’s only one way to deal with a white man. You either pick up a gun or you stand between him and his money.” That’s a bigger share of the vote than the Green Party got in the last federal election. (Nelson knows what he’s talking about: when he was chief of Manitoba’s Roseau River First Nation, his threats to block rail lines prompted the federal government to hand his band 75 acres of Winnipeg land).

“Your problem is that you’re loyal Canadians,” Nelson told the AFN delegates, explaining that it was their refusal to get tough that had destined their people to such relative poverty and hopelessness. In a way, he’s got a point: recent history shows that more native lawlessness, particularly the violent sort, would almost certainly bring more bribes from politicians terrified of another Ipperwash or Oka — even if that comes with throwing a few families like the Browns under the bus. As outraged as Canadians surely are over what they’ve heard out of Caledonia, we might also thank our lucky stars that  the vast majority of native bands across this country have so far refrained from employing such tactics, despite whatever feelings of resentment and injustice that might understandably linger in the hearts of some First Nations people.

Our good luck may not hold, particularly in light of the unfortunate moral hazard laid down by the McGuinty government. And so it becomes an urgent matter not only for governments to demonstrate that they will not tolerate lawless violence — even if it means a showdown — but to address the underlying issues that feed those impulses. Resolving land claims, if it happens at all, will likely take decades. Long before then, Ottawa must work to give First Nations the opportunity to prosper like the rest of us, by implementing long-stalled, but solidly proven solutions: insisting on proper, democratic and accountable governance for First Nations; granting property rights on reserves; and allowing aboriginal kids to take advantage of the same kind of high-quality schools other Canadian children enjoy.

Healthy, employed and happy people do not rouse to riot. Naturally these things are easier said than done, but they are doable — if Parliament pulls together to properly address, rather than cheaply politicize, the plight of First Nations. But no matter how difficult the effort, it will be nothing compared to the difficulties Canadians will face should the violence of Caledonia become the model for frustrated natives elsewhere.

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