Reclaiming the land at 1492 Land Back Lane
Reclaiming the land at 1492 Land Back Lane
Skyler Williams walked calmly towards several OPP officers before turning his back to them to address a crowd of media gathered to get an update on 1492 Land Back Lane.
He spoke last Friday, November 13, 2020, knowing that the OPP have warrants for his arrest, and that should they take him into custody he would, as a land defender and as the spokesperson for the land reclamation, pay a heavy personal price for the work his people have done to right what they see as a great historical wrong. When he was arrested after an earlier land reclamation in 2006, Williams spent seven months in jail before eventually all charges were dropped and he was released.
The Mohawk boxer from Six Nations shared what was happening at the Indigenous reclamation camp, and talked about the prospects for government negotiations and about the police presence looming large over his people’s efforts.
“To have these flyovers of OPP helicopters and airplanes, it's something that is constant for us,” Williams said as an aircraft flew overhead. “To say this line of cops behind us is not intimidating, for people that come in here to be told that they can’t protect you once you pass that line, that’s something that’s absolutely ridiculous.”
He addressed the press on that day standing closer to the OPP than he had been since they arrested him on August 5. He was on lands that Haudenosaunee people have been fighting for centuries to protect. To the west was Kanonhstaton, reclaimed in 2006 by members of Six Nations, and to the east was 1492 Land Back Lane, a reclamation effort in progress.
These lands are right in the middle of the rural town of Caledonia, spilling residential development onto adjacent farm lands and the most populous reserve in Canada.
Six Nations people thought that they had determined centuries earlier where to live and how to provide for their children when they befriended the British Crown and spilled their blood through seven generations of allegiance alongside their British friends. Today, they find themselves dealing with a Canadian Crown with a shorter memory.
In 1784, the Crown gave Six Nations people six miles on either side of the Grand River, a piece of land called the Haldimand Tract. Over the years, Canadians have acquired more and more of this land -- according to Six Nations people, through questionable means. The land base of Six Nations has dwindled to only 18,000 hectares of the 385,000 hectares promised to them.
Canada’s endless expansion is sprawling around these lands. There is already not enough room for the people of Six Nations on the reserve, and its youth population is exploding.
Ukwehu:we people want the Crown to honor its rhetoric about supporting Indigenous people.
Indigenous people want this land back.
The Reclamation Started Out Quietly Enough
On July 19, a group of Haudenosaunee people moved onto McKenzie Meadows and renamed it 1492 Land Back Lane in an effort to stall development on unceded Six Nations lands that are part of the Haldimand Tract. Land defenders picked a Sunday evening in an effort to avoid a potentially violent conflict with workers or with Foxgate Developments Inc., the company that is attempting to develop the lands. An unsuccessful OPP raid on August 5 and an escalation after an OPP interaction on October 22 have aggravated the path to a peaceful resolution.
In the 120 days since the reclamation began, nine land defenders have been forcibly removed from Indigenous lands by police and 24 other people have been arrested, including Juno award winning musician Tom Wilson and the author of this article. Rubber bullets have been fired on multiple days, and a taser was discharged into a young man. Police cars have been damaged, and now multiple roads connecting Caledonia and Six Nations have been shut down with debris, two metre deep trenches, and a partially crushed school bus spray painted with ‘land back tours’ on it.
Foxgate was able to get a court to issue a temporary injunction to remove the land defenders eleven days into the land reclamation. On August 5, shortly after this first injunction was granted, the police enforced it by arresting the first nine land defenders. Six Nations community members responded by shutting down Argyle Street, a major thoroughfare in Caledonia, turning back a rail car, and keeping the OPP so busy the land defenders were able to just walked back onto 1492 Land Back Lane that evening.
The developer – joined by Haldimand County, which wanted to keep the roads open – continued to press for more permanent injunctions.
Rule of Law in Canada Runs Through the Courts
Injunctions are court orders designed to preserve the status quo until underlying concerns can be addressed. In Canada, individual property rights are considered so central to Canadian values and their sense of wealth that they tend to trump Indigenous land claim rights. This results in a disproportionate number of rulings in favour of the removal of Indigenous people from their lands.
In a statement condemning the arrest of their colleague, researcher Courtney Skye, Indigenous think tank the Yellowhead Institute wrote, “Injunctions are a blunt weapon used to deny Indigenous jurisdiction.” Their research has shown that 81% of injunctions sought by a corporation against an Indigenous land claim are granted.
On August 23, Superior Court Justice R.J. Harper ruled in favour of Foxgate and Haldimand County and upgraded the injunction from temporary to interlocutory, stating that “if the rule of law is not upheld in the circumstances of this case, chaos, mayhem and anarchy would prevail.”
Justice Harper also named Skyler Williams as the leader of the land reclamation and as the defendant against the injunction based solely on Facebook posts. This brought Williams into the court process, where he attempted to make a constitutional argument about the lack of free prior and informed consent before the development at 1492 Land Back Lane was approved.
The Attorneys General of Ontario and Canada attended court for the permanent injunction hearing on October 22, in the event that Williams would call upon them, but the proceedings did not advance far enough for them to be heard.
“I find that it is an abuse of process for Skyler Williams, the leader of those that are occupying the subject lands, to come to this Court and state that he does not belong in this Court, this Colonial Court,” Justice Harper wrote, “and that he will continue to be in open and flagrant defiance of any orders that are made.”
He denied the land defenders their day in court on the grounds that they had already resorted to self help measures in defiance of the court process. He found that since they would not vacate the lands in question to let the court hearings play out that they would get no such opportunity. The fact that development would destroy the lands they sought to protect during the court process was of no concern to this Canadian court.
Justice Harper granted the permanent injunction on October 22 in plenty of time for the court to break for lunch.
For There to be Law, There Must Be Order
Land defenders say that later on October 22, Haudenosaunee women approached a police car on Argyle Street and asked the officers to leave, as they had been doing for several days. The officers refused, and instead attempted to apprehend a land defender. The use of rubber bullets and a taser in the course of the attempted arrest enflamed the situation. A stray rubber bullet entered into the ‘safety zone’ where elders and families were gathered, according to land defenders' accounts.
Police offered a different version of events. OPP Commissioner Thomas Carrique released sixty-five seconds of video showing two young men confronting an OPP cruiser with a lacrosse stick and cracking a windshield with a rock.
When asked about the video, OPP media relations officer Rodney LeClair said, “Once the cruiser was attacked as seen in the video, officers attempted to effect arrests and were met with a larger group of demonstrators throwing rocks and pieces of wood.
“A single round from the Arwen (rubber projectile) was deployed and a single attempt was made to use a conducted energy weapon (TASER) in response to the actions of the protestors,” LeClair continued. “To date our response has been measured and appropriate given the situation.”
Though land defenders and police differ in their descriptions of how things escalated, there is little doubt that escalation occurred.
By nightfall on October 22, the police were driven further from the land defender locations, burning barricades went up, and the roads were blocked. By sunrise the next day, trenches were dug metres deep into roads in front of 1492 Land Back Lane, on Argyle Street, and on a nearby highway bypass. The rail line running through Six Nations was dismantled. A school bus was moved from a nearby church parking lot to the middle of the road and crushed into place.
Will There be a Dialogue Table Set Up?
The first weekend of November was uncharacteristically warm and land defenders took the opportunity to invite people to share food, music, and dialogue. Members of the Caledonia Baptist Church, which is down one school bus and sits right behind the barricaded area, attended with about a hundred other supporters, union members, land defenders, and residents of Caledonia.
At the press conference, Skyler was asked what the people from the town who attended the gathering were talking about.
“They were saying the same thing we are,” Skyler said. “That the province and the feds need to be getting to the table, and they need to be doing that 117 days ago - the fact that they are coming to the table at this late day is a slap to them and us.”
Early in the land defense there was hope that a dialogue table might be set up, but 120 days later it is unclear what a negotiated end to the standoff might look like and whether Indigenous Services Minster Marc Miller or Crown and Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett might be a part of it.
Minister Bennett's office has said, “Federal government officials have been in regular communication with representatives of Six Nations Elected Chief and Council, Haudenosaunee Confederacy Chiefs Council and Ontario throughout this process with regard to our offer to meet.”
No date has been set. While the police are following an Indigenous protocol meant to prevent the loss of Indigenous life, they must do what they are paid to do if no other option presents itself. Which means that eventually they must enforce the injunction and remove the land defenders. Or at least try.
“As settlers on this land, we have an obligation to uphold our treaty commitments,” said Matthew Green, a New Democrat Party Member of Parliament in nearby Hamilton. “This means doing our part to push back against the systemic oppression Indigenous Peoples face.”
Green has been vocally supportive of the land defenders, visited the camp in person, and even pledged $1,492 to support the legal defense fund.
Many other politicians have been critical of the land defenders. Ontario Premier Doug Ford has called the land defenders ‘bad apples’ and condemned their actions, the local police services board has equated the actions of the land defenders to terrorism, and Mayor Ken Hewitt – who told The Toronto Star he had purchased a home in the disputed lands – was cheering for the arrest of family members of Skyler WIlliams.
Haldimand County leaders and the developer point out that the Elected Council of Six Nations offered a support accommodation and took almost 20 hectares and $350,000 to support the development.
This council has the lowest voter turnout of all First Nations in Canada, and many Six Nations people – though not all – back a traditional council of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.
As police-involved violence has unfolded on the doorsteps of Six Nations, the elected council has now asked for a moratorium on developing the rest of the disputed lands. This council also said that the most recent injunction ruling by Justice Harper “proves that systemic racism is alive and well in this country, including in the judicial system.”
Both councils want to talk to resolve the claim that hundreds of thousands of hectares were stolen from the people of Six Nations, and that leased and sold lands were never properly paid for.
“It doesn’t matter what family you come from, or what governance structure you support, everybody understands that these are our lands,” Williams said. “Everybody. It doesn’t matter which side of the fence you sit on.”
Winter is settling in on the reclamation site and land defenders, even in the direct sight line of a constant OPP presence, show no sign of leaving.
It was 15 years ago this past winter that a few young women started to canvas the community to raise awareness about a nearby development site, which was eventually occupied and reclaimed as Kanonhstaton – "the protected place."
The young people who watched their aunties and uncles fight to reclaim Indigenous lands years ago have become the aunties and uncles that are fighting.
As their children watch this conflict unfold, what remains to be seen is how many more generations will have to fight the colonial machine until the Crown understands this message of Haudensosaunee resistance: It is time for land back.
Karl Dockstader is an Oneida Bear Clan journalist who has been covering 1492 Land Back Lane, he can be heard co-hosting his radio show One Dish, One Mic on AM 610 CKTB Sunday mornings from 10am-Noon