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Standoff at Caledonia

Peter Edwards and Phinjo Gombu, Staff Reporters
Toronto Star
April 21, 2006. 11:56 AM

[SISIS note: The following mainstream news article is provided for reference only, as an example of how mainstream media treats indigenous resistance to genocide. Mainstream media often presents biased and distorted information, lacking pertinent facts and/or context. Inclusion of this article on our site should not be considered an endorsement by SISIS.]

CALEDONIA — Things seem to have calmed down considerably today at the Mohawk barricade on Highway 6, south of Caledonia, after a tense time last night in which some local residents and Mohawks exchanged verbal insulsts.

Hazel Hill, a spokesperson for the Mohawk occupiers, sounded optimistic today that talks to settle the dispute were under way between members of the provincial and federal governments and representatives of the traditional Mohawk Longhouse government.

She said it was historic that the Mohawk-elected band government agreed that the traditional Mohawk Longhouse form of government would take the lead in talks.

"This is monumental," she said.

There are about 75 Mohawks at the barricade on the highway and at the site for the housing development that is at the centre of the dispute.

That's about one-fifth of the size of the contingenet of Mohawk occupiers that was at the scene yesterday.

A pre-dawn raid by OPP early yesterday, aimed at ending a 52-day occupation of a partially built housing development by Six Nations Mohawks had, by late last night, evolved into a tense standoff, potentially with national implications.

The day was filled with the kinds of images common to native land-claim conflicts: gravel blockades and makeshift barriers, protestors wearing bandanas, heaps of burning tires creating plumes of black smoke as police choppers flew overhead.

At one point, protestors toppled a minivan over an overpass. The van was donated by a sympathizer and towed to the bridge for the purpose of throwing it off, an indication that some protestors were keen to play to the growing media spotlight.

The clash centres on a plot of land the protestors say was stolen from the Six Nations nearly two centuries ago.

The developer says the tribe surrendered the land to the government in 1841 on the understanding that it would sell it and invest the money for the benefit of the natives.

Janie Jamieson, a spokeswoman for the protestors, argues it was only meant to be leased.

By sunset, a footbridge over the train tracks in Caledonia was engulfed in flames — police did not know who was responsible — about two kilometres from the area in dispute.

Police cordoned off the area and the bridge continued to burn as darkness fell and more natives from other reserves arrived at the disputed 40-hectare tract, where 250 homes are slated for construction.

There were no reports of injuries, but there were heated exchanges.

"Will you live in peace with us?" shouted a native elder named Karen as a group of natives marched toward a group of area residents. "We have no guns, we have no weapons, we are a peaceful community."

Some residents yelled back, pointing to the two-by-fours carried by several protesters wearing army fatigues and gas masks.

One man carrying a crowbar began to argue with a resident.

"Leave him be," shouted other protestors, who separated the two. "We're against something bigger."

At about 9 p.m., five uniformed OPP officers on foot pushed residents back to create a buffer zone with the protestors.

The disorder was triggered when Ontario Provincial Police officers stormed Douglas Creek Estates at about 5 a.m. yesterday and arrested 16 activists, charging them with mischief and assaulting police. Police said they moved in because they feared for public safety.

Earlier this week, developers John and Don Henning, who own Henco Industries, had threatened to sue the OPP for failing to evict protestors after an Ontario Superior Court judge ruled the occupation illegal.

News of the raid spread quickly and supporters from reserves across Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba converged on the site, slipping behind police lines.

One area resident criticized police for having "abandoned their post."

Officers pulled back and formed a broader perimeter around the construction site in the interest of public safety, according to OPP Deputy Commissioner Maurice Pilon, who appealed for calm at a news conference in nearby Cayuga.

"Violence is certainly not the answer," Pilon said, adding: "We have no immediate plans to go in there again."

Three officers were injured in the raid, including one who needed stitches in his head after being hit with a bag of rocks, Pilon said. He said he believed officers used restraint, although natives complained of pepper spray, Tasers and drawn guns in the hands of officers.

There have been negotiations involving federal and provincial officials to resolve the dispute, but talks apparently broke down Tuesday.

"We are caught in the middle of this situation," Pilon said.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the government was "watching all of these things closely.

"We obviously prefer to have peaceful resolutions, but we gather there has been some attempt at that and the situation is quite complex on the ground," Harper said in Montreal.

In Caledonia, a Manitoba man who appeared to be in his late 20s said: "We think this protest has national implications."

He said he hoped it would not see a repeat of the 1995 Ipperwash confrontation, in which unarmed native protestor Anthony (Dudley) George was shot dead by an OPP sniper.

"I hope they learned something from last time," said the man, his face concealed by a bandana.

Well aware of the political impact Ipperwash had on the Conservative government of Mike Harris, Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty denied yesterday that he knew police were poised to storm the makeshift encampment some 25 kilometres south of Hamilton.

"This police action comes completely independent of me, my office and my government," McGuinty said.

Concerns that the situation could escalate had Ontario Regional Chief Angus Toulouse appealing for all parties to remain calm and urging "continued efforts to work toward a peaceful, negotiated resolution."

In a news release, Toulouse said Six Nations Chief David General, "while appreciative of the support of the other First Nations communities in Canada, is appealing for supporters not to travel down to the Caledonia site, as the situation is at a crisis stage."

Yesterday, residents of the Kahnawake Mohawk Reservation, south of Montreal, raised Warrior flags above the iron girders of the Mercier Bridge, the one that was barricaded for weeks during the 1990 Oka crisis. The flags were placed to show solidarity with those manning the Caledonia blockade.

Carol Van Imp, a local resident and nurse, said the native blockade was causing tremendous harm to residents and businesses in and around Caledonia. Classes at six area schools were cancelled.

"The government needs to come in, bring in the army and clean it up," she said. "This is not going to be solved peacefully."

Another resident, who gave her name only as Shelly, said she had sympathy for the protestors. "These people have been peaceful. They have treated me with respect," she said.

"Give these people the land, compensate the builders, compensate the people who own the houses and leave us alone."

While their tactics might suggest indiscriminate hooliganism, Six Nations members are for the most part young, educated and determined to relentlessly pursue outstanding land claims, a native professor says.

Dawn Martin Hill, director of the Indigenous Studies program at Hamilton's McMaster University, said yesterday those manning the blockade are not troublemakers but rather well versed on treaty rights.

"We have a young population here at Six Nations, the highest employment rate in the country (among natives). We have the highest level of educational achievement and they know the facts," said Hill, who lives on the reserve along with about 8,500 Mohawks. Some 12,500 more live off the reserve.

"Today, you don't have an angry group of young people, you have a thinking group of young who want to act to bring about change they feel is necessary."

With files by Richard Brennan, Rob Ferguson, Sean Gordon.

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