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The price of neglect

The current flare-up of indigenous anger over disputed land is fuelled by long-standing grievances

Anne Mcilroy
Tuesday, May 2, 2006

[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.]

The government of Ontario has brought in a high-profile mediator in the hope of ending a standoff that began two months ago when indigenous protesters occupied a new housing development, saying that the land is theirs.

David Peterson, a former Liberal premier, has been asked to help defuse a potentially dangerous situation. The blockade in Caledonia, near the city of Hamilton, in the heavily populated southern part of the province became national news last month when police moved in to remove the protesters. Around 200 people from the Six Nations reserve held their ground, overturning cars and burning tyres as police officers withdrew. The police made 16 arrests.

One of the protesters, Hazel Hill, says she struggled with as many as five police officers.

"First nations of the world are rising up. It's time Canada dealt with us nation to nation. They didn't understand how serious we were," protester she told the Hamilton Spectator newspaper.

She also accused the Ontario provincial police of using stun guns and pepper spray.

It could have been much worse. The shadow of earlier confrontations hangs over the standoff in Caledonia. A decade ago, police killed an indigenous protester in a raid in Ipperwash, Ontario. In 1990, in Oka, Quebec, the army was eventually called in to break an armed standoff between Mohawk protesters and police that had lasted 78 days.

The pre-dawn raid in Caledonia prompted sympathy protests by indigenous groups in other parts of the country. Demonstrators blocked a railway line between Toronto and Montreal and a bridge in Montreal itself.

The blockades caused chaos for commuters, and they were a stark reminder that in many parts of the country - both on remote reserves and in heavily populated regions like southern Ontario - indigenous people do not feel their grievances over decades of mistreatment have been addressed, and that some are willing to take militant action.

The disputed land is part of large swath given to the Iroquois in 1783 after they fought with the British in the American revolution and lost their land in New York state. They were given 385,000 hectares, but over the years most of it was sold or taken over by squatters. Only 19,000 hectares remains in indigenous hands, he protesters say the land for the new development was taken from them in the 1840s. The federal and provincial governments say the land was sold to build a road.

The protesters and their supporters filed a land claim 20 years ago, but despite generating 70,000 pages of paperwork, it has yet to be settled. A small developer, Henco Industries, bought the land from a local farmer, and never expected trouble with its project.

Some local residents are supportive and blame the provincial and federal governments for the problem, but others are growing increasingly angry about the blockades, lost business revenue and the heavy police presence.

"We feel it's time that Canadians hear from the tax-paying community of Caledonia whose voice has not been heard," said Ken Hewitt, who organised a counter-protest last week.

The event turned ugly, and police had to stop 500 people from storming the native barricade. Some participants been drinking and a few shouted racist insults. Around 500 people gathered again this weekend and expressed their frustration.

In an effort to lower the temperature, the Ontario government has set up a toll-free line to keep local residents informed of progress in negotiations, and appointed the former premier, who has worked with indigenous groups in the past, to help find a solution.

Like Ipperwash and Oka and many other confrontations between indigenous people and the authorities, the dispute in Caledonia is over land. But the resolve and anger of the protesters - and their supporters across the country - is fuelled by years of mistreatment.

Canada has a shameful history of racism towards its indigenous peoples. The former Liberal government, which was defeated in January, had taken several steps to acknowledge and redress long-standing grievances, including the payment of compensation to 80,000 indigenous students who were forced to attend residential schools where they were separated from their families and forbidden to speak their own languages. Many were sexually or physically abused.

The new Conservative government, led by the prime minister, Stephen Harper, is honouring that settlement, but it hasn't said if it will accept a more extensive agreement aimed at improving the lives of indigenous people across the country with initiatives for better housing and education.

Mr Harper's government delivers its first budget today, and indigenous people across the country will be watching closely to see if once again, they are left out.


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