When it’s truly alive, memory doesn’t contemplate history, it invites us to make it.
On June 29, 2007, Mohawks from Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory near Belleville, Ontario, erected blockades on the Canadian National rail line, local Highway 2, and Highway 401-the busiest thoroughfare in the country. This marked the second time in six months that the community blocked the rails in defence of their land. In the days before June 29, which had been declared a National Day of Action by the Assembly of First Nations, Mohawk spokesperson Shawn Brant explained to the CBC why the community could no longer wait on distant negotiations. “We bury our children in this country every day,” he said. “We have to force them to drink polluted water. We’re sick and tired of it. It’s going to end-June 29 is going to mark the time when First Nations people are going to be in a different relationship with the rest of the country.”
Native communities in Canada — a “Fourth World” of nations without states — continue to live a colonial legacy that traces a trajectory from the violent European settlement that began 400 years ago, through residential schools, to the colonial present of state surveillance, invasion of traditional lands, poverty, substance abuse, and some of the highest youth suicide rates in the world. According to Health Canada, Native youth are five to seven times more likely to commit suicide than non-Native youth. Canada’s Aboriginal population, particularly its youth, has the highest suicide rate of any culturally identifiable population in the world. Yet some Native communities have largely avoided the tragedy of youth suicide. What sets these communities apart? Evidence is mounting that successful resistance to colonialism may be the antidote.
The antidote to youth suicide
A 2003 academic study by Michael J. Chandler of the University of British Columbia and Christopher E. Lalonde of the University of Victoria cites the fact that on some B.C. reserves, the suicide rate is as much as 800 times the national average, while on others there has not been a single suicide in the past 15 years. The difference, Chandler and Lalonde conclude, is cultural resistance: communities that are actively fighting to preserve traditional lands, culture and the right to self-government are far less likely to see large numbers of youth suicide.
“It is simply an empirical fact,” note Chandler and Lalonde, “that the Aboriginal communities in B.C. that have, for example, achieved a measure of self-government, or were quick off the mark to litigate for Aboriginal title of traditional lands, have lower or absent youth suicide rates.”
Resistance to colonialism, it would seem, is quite literally a question of survival for Native peoples in Canada-not just as communities, but as individuals.
Anecdotally, recent events at Tyendinaga would seem to corroborate the study’s conclusions. “Today, suicide, despair is the farthest thing from their mind,” Brant says of the community’s youth. “They’re focused socially around the Longhouse, politically around the land.” As the community has fought to reclaim its traditional lands, youth have played a key role. These reclamation efforts, and the participation of young people, have sparked a resurgence of Mohawk cultural and political practice, in part through the establishment of the territory’s first functioning longhouse in over a hundred years.
In Tyendinaga, as in many other indigenous communities, this process has been greatly facilitated by the development of an alternative economy that is not dependent on the Canadian state, in this case in the form of a Native tobacco industry. Tobacco, a traditional part of Mohawk culture, is a significant source of income for many families that has enabled them to lift themselves out of serious poverty, and has also directly funded community projects like free meal programs, community gardening and the building of the Tyendinaga Longhouse. The self-sufficiency that the tobacco trade has brought Tyendinaga is also, not coincidentally, something that the Canadian government has identified as a threat to national security.
In the words of the Canadian Army’s Counter-Insurgency Operations Manual, “The rise of radical Native American organizations, such as the Mohawk Warrior Society, can be viewed as insurgencies [that] seek particular political concessions in their relationship with national governments… .” In a joint statement with the RCMP in May 2008, Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day identified three Mohawk communities as targets of ramped up anti-tobacco operations that could include direct police and/or military actions. Those three communities were Kahnawake in Quebec, involved in the 1990 “Oka” crisis; Six Nations, which is currently in the third year of a land reclamation near Caledonia, Ontario; and Tyendinaga.
The gravel quarry
The Tyendinaga Mohawks are currently in negotiations with the federal government over the Culbertson Tract, a 932-acre span of land adjacent to Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory that includes, among other things, a gravel quarry and the town of Deseronto. Clint Brant (no relation to Shawn Brant) has been a regular at the quarry since it was reclaimed by the community in March 2007. Sitting by a large bonfire near the entrance to the quarry late one afternoon this past March, he gives a history lesson to visiting solidarity activists. “This tract of land that we’re talking about here, the Culbertson, is a fraction of the tract of land that we’re supposed to be discussing. It’s 900 acres as opposed to 90,000 acres.”
The 90,000 acres Clint Brant refers to are known as the Simcoe Deed-a grant of land made to the Mohawk nation in 1793 by the British Crown in exchange for their support during the American Revolution, when Mohawk allies of the British were forced to emigrate to Canada. At present, however, negotiations between the Tyendinaga Mohawks and the federal government only cover the Culbertson Tract, a fraction of the total claim.
The federal government accepted the Tyendinaga claim in 2003, acknowledging that the Mohawk nation had been illegally dispossessed of this land. Yet the county government continues to approve developments on the Culbertson Tract and the provincial government has so far refused to revoke a license for quarry operations that are literally tearing up and hauling away Mohawk land. Only the community’s reclamation of the quarry stopped this flagrant theft. “So it doesn’t seem like the talks are very meaningful at this time,” notes Clint Brant, “because we’re still losing land when we’re supposed to be gaining it back.”
Disingenuousness on the government’s part is nothing new. “When we first got here [in the 1700s] and they were talking about the Simcoe Deed in its entirety,” says Clint Brant, “that was the same time that they were putting the railroads through and the major roads.” Like other Native communities across the country, Tyendinaga is criss-crossed by rail lines, power lines, and highways-all illegal incursions onto stolen land. The rail lines in particular have been a focal point for the reassertion of Mohawk sovereignty over the Simcoe lands ever since the early 19th century. They were first blocked by the Mohawks in 1820 while they were still under construction, the first of many protests of a development that was in direct violation of the Mohawks’ legal title to the land.
The stone longhouse
Early in the morning on June 29, 2007, the Mohawks blockading Highway 401 got word that Ontario Provincial Police Commissioner Julian Fantino was personally vowing to open the major highway by any means necessary. “I recall when the young people that were there looked at me after this message was read and we were told it was from Commissioner Fantino,” Shawn Brant told a CBC reporter at the time. “They asked about that: “˜Well, what should we do?’ And the only thing that I could offer was that whatever decision they made, they had to live with that decision the next day and that sometimes people need to stand and fight. And the consequences of turning tail and running, it would be another continuation, perpetuation of the same situation that we’ve been struggling to overcome for 125 years. And when that message was read there wasn’t one person that left.”
Youth from Tyendinaga have been a constant presence at the quarry, as well as at the blockades. They have also played a key role in re-establishing a traditional longhouse in the community. The historical context for this significant move is a familiar one: in 1924, the RCMP violently imposed the Band Council system of governance on Mohawks in Ontario in an attempt to subjugate traditional forms of government. “As for the old longhouses,” recounts Steve Chartrand, a member of the Tyendinaga Men’s Council, “every time one was built they just burnt it down anyways.
“So we got smart, and we built one out of rock,” he adds with a grin.
Surrounded by a modest field, perched on a small hill off of Ridge Road, the new longhouse is breathtakingly beautiful. Its stone walls-raised by the community with rocks dug from neighbouring fields-are capped by a peaked roof of finely hewn cherrywood. Inside, fresh-laid hardwood floors frame a large wood stove that acts as a centerpiece, surrounded by handcrafted benches lining the walls.
When I arrive, members of the Youth Council are drumming and singing traditional Mohawk songs in preparation for an upcoming feast. The Youth Council teaches traditional Mohawk song and drumming to the children of the community, as well as to those adults who never learned the songs. Dan Doreen introduces me to the Youth Council and welcomes me into the longhouse. He is in his mid-30s and belongs to the Men’s Council, but he’s spry enough to be wrestling with a young drummer as I walk up the hill to the entrance. As the two of them tumble down the slope together, each with the other in a firm headlock, Doreen shouts that he is willing to speak on behalf of the Youth Council. After we chat briefly, each member of the Youth Council present that evening listens to the interview and vets it before giving me permission to use it. “The longhouse means everything to the Youth Council,” says Doreen. “As much as the Youth Council means to the longhouse.”
“The Youth Council is our inspiration,” Doreen explains. “They look after the community, they make sure the quarry issue’s done, and they fight issues on their own that they feel are relevant.” The Youth Council teaches traditional drumming, Doreen says proudly, “and they’re going fishing tonight for the longhouse feast, as well as collecting the sap, as well as going to school, as well as protecting our lands at the quarry.”
Born of struggle
The formation of the Youth Council is a very recent development, says Shawn Brant. “These young people came to the quarry, and those songs that you heard, a lot of them didn’t have the words and didn’t have the means, and from sitting at the quarry for the last year, everybody took it upon themselves. An initiative was started to reconstitute the songs, the socials, the singing societies. The Youth Council itself was created on their own initiative. And it came out of the change in politics.”
The Youth Council “is actually something that we don’t control, we don’t try to control,” says Brant. “It’s a new generation of a new ideology and a new political structure that’s emerging from the old one.”
In the midst of this cultural and political struggle for the Simcoe lands-and under the shadow of the serious charges brought against Shawn Brant by Canadian authorities-the Youth Council finds itself at the forefront of a new threat that has the community even more angry and fed up. The OPP recently struck a deal with the Band Council to build a new police station on Tyendinaga territory. The station would ostensibly be for the Tyendinaga Reserve Police force, but community members question why the four-man force needs a bulletproof, 5,000-square-foot facility. An identical structure on Mohawk land on the Akwesasne Reserve in Quebec is now home not only to the local reserve cops, but also to the OPP and the RCMP.
“Fifty per cent of our wells are contaminated,” says Shawn Brant. “We’re talking about people’s day-to-day existence. But the only thing we get when government opens its purse is money for a police station.”
The deal between the Band Council and the OPP, in which the Band will spend $1.2 million on the new station, with an additional $1 million contributed by the Ontario government and Stockwell Day’s Federal Ministry of Public Safety, was made without proper consultation with the community, say Mohawk activists at the quarry and at the longhouse. Now the band and the OPP are scrambling to sell the idea to community members. The Men’s and Youth Councils have openly voiced their opposition to the station, saying the money is needed more urgently elsewhere on the reserve.
For Clint Brant, the community’s opposition is only logical. “While our community is trying to deal with the bigger issue of title to the Simcoe lands,” he says, “they’re trying to build a fort in the middle of our territory.”
Resistance to this project flows from the youth, from the quarry reclamation and from the longhouse. “The longhouse is the mirror image of the people. It’s the place where the people make decisions,” says Clint Brant. Decisions are made on a consensus-based model, in which the entire community has a voice, as individuals, and through the youth, men’s, women’s or elder’s councils. This traditional structure represents a direct threat to the Ottawa-imposed Band Council system.
Sticks on the fire
According to Clint Brant, the longhouse has emerged as a powerful symbol of Mohawk autonomy and self-governance. “It’s in me, it’s in you, it’s in everyone, and when you gather, it’s just like getting sticks from over there and throwing them on that fire: the fire gets bigger and stronger. It’s the basis of our way of life. Every time we try to collect our sticks and build that fire, well, like in 1924, they come in and kill our chief and tell us we’re not allowed to build that fire!”
Last spring, in the lead-up to the June 29 National Aboriginal Day of Action, Shawn Brant called on non-Native people across Canada to throw their own sticks on that fire. But despite the fact that several polls conducted around the time of the highway blockades showed non-Native approval of Native land rights at nearly 80 per cent, and approval of direct action such as rail blockades at a jaw-dropping 41 per cent, non-Native Canadians largely failed to respond to Shawn Brant’s invitation. Polls aside, there has been no widespread outcry by settlers in Canada to demand the government drastically redefine its relationship with Native peoples. As with many things (the war in Afghanistan, for example) public opinion in favour of the just, prompt resolution of Native land claims has not yet translated into public indignation, let alone mass action. Until non-Natives are blocking highways and railways in direct solidarity with their Native brothers and sisters, indigenous struggle will most likely be met with state-sanctioned violence and repression, and Shawn Brant’s call for settlers to establish a new relationship with Native peoples will remain unanswered.
For his part in the events of June 29, Brant is now facing a total of nine charges and a possible 12-year sentence in a federal penitentiary. He is also facing two lawsuits by CN for millions of dollars of lost revenue from the blockades.
Meanwhile, Native communities across Ontario are accelerating their defence of their sovereignty and their land, and the provincial government has consistently responded with violent repression and criminal prosecution. Robert Lovelace, co-Chief of Ardoch Algonquin First Nation, is serving a six-month jail term for opposing uranium mining on his traditional lands in the Ottawa valley, while six members of the community of Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug are similarly serving six-month jail terms for opposing platinum mining on their traditional lands near Thunder Bay. There are currently dozens of Native communities in the north of the province fighting off prospectors.
On April 25, 2008, the Ontario Provincial Police surrounded the quarry that Tyendinaga Mohawks have been occupying for over a year. With guns drawn and assault rifles trained on the unarmed protesters, the OPP came sickeningly close to instigating a violent confrontation. Shawn Brant, who was not at the quarry during the OPP confrontation on April 25, has been arrested again and remains in custody awaiting trial in June. Four other Mohawk leaders were arrested at the quarry, allegedly beaten by police, and are currently facing a slew of charges stemming from their unwillingness to abandon their struggle for the land in the face of police intimidation.
The OPP’s actions in Tyendinaga highlight how little has changed since unarmed protester Dudley George was shot and killed in Ipperwash in 1995. Both provincial and federal governments have refused to intervene to call off the OPP, despite the very real potential for tragedy. There have been a number of solidarity demonstrations by Native and non-Native communities across the country, showing that Tyendinaga is not isolated, that people are watching. Yet the authorities with the power to resolve the conflict in a peaceful, just manner continue to hide behind bureaucratic smokescreens. “It would be inappropriate for me, as Premier, to personally comment or intervene in operational policing matters,” Dalton McGuinty, Premier of Ontario, wrote in a form email sent to anyone seeking comment from his office.
Things cannot be permitted to continue this way, says Shawn Brant. “At the end of day we want a new relationship, and we’re willing to fight for that relationship, and like it or not we’re going to be seen in a different way, and we’re going to see ourselves in a different way.”
Will non-Native Canadians force their governments to reverse their racist, antagonistic policies towards Native peoples? Sue Collis, a long-time anti-poverty and Native-rights activist (and Shawn Brant’s wife) put the challenge directly to non-Native Canadians when she spoke at an event in Toronto last year. “The question is what is the non-Native community going to do, because the government at Queen’s Park and the government in Ottawa-that’s not Mohawk government, that’s not First Nations government. That’s the government of the Canadian people.”
Shawn Brant goes to trial in January 2009, facing a possible 12 years in a federal penitentiary. His most recent arrest on April 25th sparked off police actions that led to the jailing of four other Mohawks, the OPP puling their weapons on community members at the reclaimed quarry site, and a weekend of tense standoffs and road blockades. Among the four other Mohawk leaders arrested that day were Clint Brant and Steve Chartrand, both quoted above. Clint Brant, Matt Kunkel and Shawn Brant have all been denied bail and remain in maximum-security at Quinte Detention Centre until their trials in June.
Jonah Gindin is an activist with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty and the Tyendinaga Support Committee. The published materials and members of both groups have informed the writing of this article, as has the generous input of Stefanie Gude.
What you can do to add your stick to the fire
- Stay informed by checking the Tyendinaga Support website for regular updates, new information and upcoming actions and campaigns.
- Read Sandra Cuffe’s recent article about Shawn Brant’s detention.
- Join the Tyendinaga Support e-mail list: masses.tao.ca/lists/listinfo/tyendinaga_support
- Join the “Free Shawn Brant” Facebook group.
- Invite a trained facilitator from the Tyendinaga Support Committee to give a presentation to your class or workplace on the issues surrounding Shawn Brant’s trial and Tyendinaga’s land reclamation. Write to: [email protected]
- In Toronto, join the Tyendinaga Support Committee: [email protected]
- Sign the petition telling the Ontario government to revoke the quarry license.
- Write a letter to Shawn Brant, Clint Brant or Matt Kunkel, all of whom are in jail awaiting trial.
Send letters to:
Shawn Brant or Clint Brant or Matt Kunkel
c/o Quinte Detention Centre
89 Richmond Blvd
Napanee, ON K7R 3S1
Make a donation:
Tyendinaga Legal Defence Fund
c/o 10 Britain Street
Funds raised will be split between Shawn Brant’s legal costs and the purchase of materials needed to sustain the quarry reclamation in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory.
Readers like you keep Briarpatch alive and thriving. Subscribe today to support fiercely independent journalism.