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Voices of the barricade

Marissa Nelson
Hamilton Spectator
(May 12, 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.]

Clyde Powless

Clyde Powless sits down, takes off his black lacrosse ball cap and rubs the back of his hand across the grey patch at the front his otherwise thick black hair.

The hand is calloused and strong.

He drops into a lawn chair at the main barricade as if he's thankful to be taking a load off the brown workboots that have been his uniform for weeks.

As the smell of the sacred fire wafts past, Powless talks about where he thought he'd be this spring -- in New Jersey working. He was only supposed to be home at Six Nations a few days, between an ironworking job in the Northwest Territories and one south of the border. But the hereditary chiefs asked him to control things at the barricades.

Why him? Why not him? He's calm, he's grounded. Salt of the earth. But he's determined. Forceful. And people listen. He's in charge of keeping things orderly.

His demeanour is understated. But his role behind the barricades is crucial -- he controls things, like a sergeant, without any stereotypical bellowing.

There's no doubt being without the money from New Jersey takes a toll on his family. But you can't think of the short-term, he says.

"I'm looking at the long run. Maybe my grandchildren won't have to do this," he says, in his matter-of-fact style.

It's not so bad, he says. His wife is still working. They're making do.

"When you're an ironworker, you are used to the ups and downs," he says. "We're all giving up a lot."

Like hundreds of other First Nations people in this province, Powless is an ironworker. It was the thing to do when he was young, and 70 per cent of the men took up the trade.

Good pay. A respectable job. Not bad for a father of three.

He says you aren't an ironworker if you haven't almost fallen. "You get good at it. I've been at it a long time."

His eldest boy, now 19, is getting ready to come to work.

Powless has seen most of North America. He helped build the new Detroit airport and the football stadium in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Although he's one of the spokespeople -- one of the public faces of the native occupation of the Douglas Creek Estates -- he's not a man of many words.

He jokes about technology. He's given in and now carries a cellphone.

"I don't know about these things," he says, holding the cellphone up. "I've never seen it climb a column."

But when he's pushed, an anger as steely as his nerve emerges.

Minutes after the OPP retreated from the building site last month, Powless had men cart barricades across the highway. As a dump truck was moved into place, he bellowed at the pack of media that it was for safety.

When someone asked the Mohawk chief Allen MacNaughton how long the road would be closed, Powless barked that the people would decide.

The anger of that day has abated, his customary calmness returned. Now Powless spends a lot of time talking with the OPP.

"We have young fellas, so they let us know when they're moving their men. They've got young fellas, so we let them know when we're moving our men."

While there's an air of politeness, it's clear he's irritated. He'd rather be building the guts of a building than sitting on a highway, making sure all the gates are staffed.

There's a hint of cunning when he admits protesters did "borrow" an archeological report from Henco Industries.

Being at the front line is also a way for Powless, who lost his father when he was young, to show -- not teach -- his kids the right path.

"It's in them. If I was to die tomorrow, I know they are on their way," he says.

His boys understand it. They understand the barricades and the history behind it.

Land claims are just Canada's way of not dealing with an issue, he says.

"I'm waiting for Canada to put a land claim in on my land," he says, grinning.

Then he asks when "your government" plans to go for summer break. "They should call it off until they deal with this," he says.

Powless is clearly not planning to go anywhere this summer. It doesn't matter how many rallies there are, how many obscenities are hurled. They've got a goal, he says. That's why the people at the barricades don't respond to the racial slurs they hear.

"It's not for me," he says, wafting his hand as if he's swatting away a fly. "If I wanted to do that, I'll turn into a kid and go back to the playground. We've got a main goal here and the other stuff is just like a dust storm

Michael Laughing

He has the charm and charisma of a politician.

His thick black hair hangs to the middle of his back. He's handsome and knows it.

Michael Laughing always finds the camera.

His is the image that in just a few moments on April 20 -- the day of the botched OPP raid -- encapsulated the struggle.

As if on cue, the 40-year-old jumped onto a dump truck blocking Argyle Street, just minutes after the OPP were pushed back off Douglas Creek Estates. He stood atop the truck, holding a Two Wampum flag, arms out-stretched as if ready to be martyred, with a cloud of black smoke billowing behind him.

Just a week earlier, he single-handedly ratcheted up tension when he proclaimed on TV and in newspapers that he was ready to die behind the barricades.

So who is Michael Laughing? Is the persona of public rabble- rouser for real? The answer isn't clear. Is he a warrior or an artist? A rebel willing to die for a building site in Caledonia or a father who misses his kids? A leader or a broken man?

Born in Lansing, Michigan, Laughing is in fact from Akwasasne -- a reserve that straddles the U.S.-Canada and Ontario-Quebec borders. The recovering alcoholic has three sisters and six brothers and followed in his father's footsteps to become an ironworker.

He had heard about land claims all his life. This one sounded different. It was a "repossession," not a land claim and Laughing found it too alluring to ignore.

Laughing says he came to Caledonia because his clan mothers told him to. He talks about birth rights, about a cultural genocide. There are rumours he's a warrior -- rumours he isn't quick to correct. He eventually says he isn't and was never at the Oka standoff, but only after persistent questions.

He unsuccessfully fought a land claim in 2004 for the Saint Regis Mohawk tribe, a deal worth $100 million. Laughing fought the deal, which got the nod from the tribe, because he feared it would simply mean more land falling under the state's control.

Laughing believes if they can make this one stick, it will have widespread influence.

That it will help all First Nations on Turtle Island or North America.

You know he's serious, although it's hard to ignore the sunglasses -- reflective lenses made to look like a reptile's eyes.

Laughing says he came to Caledonia to fight for his land, even though it's not his neighbourhood.

"When I got here, I would wake up with six inches of snow on my face," he says, standing in the bright May sunshine.

"I didn't come for nothing else, just to help with the repossession. I'm the repo man of the Confederacy."

He slips from rhetoric to personal at the flip of a switch. Ask him if he's a warrior and he says everyone is a warrior.

"As long as the grasses grow and rivers flow, we have our birthrights," Laughing says, as he paces at the front barricade facing Caledonia.

Minutes later, he talks about missing home and the sons he hasn't seen in nearly two months.

"I'd like to touch my boys," he says.

Laughing spent nine days at Ground Zero sifting through the debris in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, as many other ironworkers did. Those nine days changed his life.

When he talks about Ground Zero, Laughing's tall, angular frame slumps. His broad shoulders fall inward, softening the otherwise warrior-like stature he likes to portray.

"My life was wiped out by that trade centre," he says, still wearing the snake glasses. "I haven't been able to pick up my tools since. I see things I shouldn't be seeing," he says, walking away.

Laughing worked the graveyard shift -- literally. He spent two nights on a "rescue" mission, the next seven nights on "recovery."

People were told the bodies had been incinerated. They weren't.

"It was hell," Laughing says.

"I have a strong heart to help people and look at what those people are doing to my people now."

That quickly, he's back to rhetoric.

He's turned his ironworker's hands to artwork, carving antlers and bone. His last piece sold for nearly $6,000.

Regardless of whether he's an artist or a warrior, a traditionalist or a provocateur, the young men behind the barricade respect him and listen to him.

The day the OPP raided the camp, Laughing shepherded teens who were zipping around residential streets on all-terrain vehicles back onto the building site.

Laughing says he's learned a lot, too.

"I've learned I can lead people."

Hazel Hill

Hazel Hill was sitting on the tailgate of a pickup truck, surrounded by reporters.

Cameras were clicking, videotape rolling.

She held up a pair of spent Taser electrodes for all to see -- proof the OPP had used some force during a botched raid on the Caledonia building site.

She talked about being tackled by OPP officers. She told reporters about the raid. She told them about land rights. She told them about tradition. She told them about the history she's been living for most of her 44 years.

In that brief moment on the tailgate, Hill became one of the central, public figures of this fight -- not by design, but by chance.

To outsiders, Caledonia may seem as if it came out of the blue. It's decades in the making to Hill.

She lit a sacred fire outside her house during the Oka crisis because she couldn't get past the army to lend a hand.

Her husband was at Ipperwash.

She worked behind the scenes to fight a pipeline upstream from the Six Nations reserve she still calls home.

Now she's front and centre, helping organize the barricades and giving regular updates to reporters and websites.

She evolved into the role, one she's ready for now, after more than 20 years of political involvement behind the scenes.

The thread of history runs through Hill. She can recount details from hundreds of years ago as if she is reading from a book -- except it's all neatly lined up in her mind.

"It's too important to let it go," she says of the current struggle. "This is our opportunity to make a change."

With hints of grey peppering her hair, Hill speaks in generalities that can sound like evasions or wisdom. But under her outer serenity is a deep sense of indignation. The latest fight is just another step on a path that's well worn in her life.

To Hill, it isn't just Caledonia -- it's all the years of struggle.

"For me it's a spiritual thing. It comes from within me," she says.

It's not that she wants to be fighting, for she has many other duties to which she'd rather be tending.

Her 82-year-old mother broke her leg, followed by a surgery. When the blockade first went up, Hill had spent a lot of time tending to her mother. Now, her relatives have had to make sacrifices to fill in for Hill.

Her gift-basket and flower arrangement business has been kept afloat by a niece.

Hill has four children of her own and three step-children and 12 grandchildren.

But she's not spending much time at home now.

"This isn't the first time I've been involved in something like this," she says. "My kids know my heart."

What keeps everyone going is the belief that what they are doing is right, she said.

She is fighting not just this claim but what she sees as the pattern of history.

"We could hand out fliers every day and we'd never get any response," she said. "Canada has a history of only responding when action is taken -- peaceful action ... Canada always resorts with guns."

"It's not always something we choose."

First Nations people file a land claim, wait decades, get nowhere.

Then they start to take action and get noticed.

This fight has been years in the making. Hazel Hill is determined to make it count.

"It's a fire within. You carry that fire inside you," she says. "I don't need a weapon -- our sword is the truth."

"You don't forget Oka or Ipperwash, for it's ingrained in your spirit," she says.

"Everything is the same. Things happening here are the same as at Oka -- you can almost tell the story before it happened," she says.

"I don't know if it will end the same way."

Janie Jamieson

Janie Jamieson knows suffering. She's looked it in the nose since she was a toddler.

When she talks about the small parcel of land in Caledonia, her battle is clearly about so much more.

She says the sale of the land was illegal, the appropriation of First Nations land across the country, criminal.

It's not just this piece of land, she says, and Canada knows it.

That's why Canada is so reluctant to talk.

One thing is clear -- Jamieson comes with a legacy of grievances against a system she believes sowed the seeds of a life of suffering.

Perhaps it explains her indignation at Henco Industries' complaint that the native occupiers haven't handed over company files stored in an office at the building site.

"This is the biggest white-collar crime in Canada's history and who is held to account? Office files? Get with the program," she sputters.

She talks about the hundreds of native women who have disappeared or been killed.

There are so many issues -- serious issues -- facing her community that files don't seem important.

What does Henco know of hardship? Do the developers know about her mother? About her grandmother? About her cousin? About her aunt?

"I've been worse off than this. This is nothing," Jamieson says, pacing in front of the main barricade on Argyle Street, where she's spent most days. Her usual steady demeanour has an edge.

Her cousin was found dead behind a casino.

Her mother committed suicide when Jamieson was three years old.

She recently lost her grandmother -- the only living connection she had to her dead mother.

Just last month, her 17-year-old stepson, who she helped raise, was killed in a tragic car crash.

Jamieson's aunt died after being brutally raped.

She had gone home with a man and died in a makeshift bed after she was torn apart by the rape.

She bled to death and her killer didn't call for help for 12 hours.

"I'm not saying, 'Poor me.' I am saying we are real people with real issues trying to maintain our lives.

"He," she says, referring to a news release from Henco Industries, "is after the almighty dollar."

It's the type of personal story which tempers the Caledonia fight.

It's about this piece of land.

But to Jamieson, it's also about the broader issues -- of oppression and of self-determination that she believes will end the tragedies for her community.

Jamieson believes the people she loved might have found a better final chapter if her nation had been running itself without Canada's interference.

"Our whole system, the Great Law, was created for us," she says.

It's the system she wants to live in.

The land in Caledonia is linked to prosperity -- look how much it's already brought Caledonia, she says.

"Once (Canada) loses that title, and it's returned to us, then who will prosper?"

She says reports about bricks being thrown off a bridge are just red herrings.

"It's really easy to be misguided. When you've seen as much as I have and been through as much, you learn to see it for what it is," says the 34-year-old mother of two.

Police talk about public safety, but then don't investigate death threats against her, she charges.

"It's just a farce," she says.

She says police helicopters fly over her house but it will take more than that to scare her off."They don't know what I've endured. They'll have to come up with more than that."

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