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review: non-fiction

Christie BlatchfordFernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

In case you've forgotten, on Feb. 28, 2006, a few protesters from the nearby Six Nations reserve walked on to a construction site in Caledonia, Ontario, and took it over. In the next few months, the protesters - bolstered by supporters from outside - erected barricades, dug a trench across a town street, dropped a van over a bridge on to the highway below and toppled a Hydro One tower. Four and a half years later, the barricades are still up.

Christie Blatchford's Helpless tells the story of Caledonia from the non-native side of the barricades, with visits to a few hapless souls with homes on the wrong side. Do not look here for a balanced view of the conflict. Blatchford, nobody's fool, proclaims at the outset that her book will not examine the validity of the native land claim, nor trace the sorry history of Canada's relations with its First Nations.

Many pundits are going to hate and dismiss this book. For them, the Caledonia occupation is a story of native resistance to Canada's colonial policies and exploitation. They will condemn Blatchford for ignoring the centuries of violence, cultural destruction and discrimination suffered by this country's earliest inhabitants. They will notice her frequent digs at the occupiers' tactics and reasoning, some of them downright snarky.

They'll certainly be right about one thing: Blatchford has scant sympathy for the occupation. The only native protester who really stirs her compassion is Michael Laughing, traumatized by his tireless voluntary rescue and clean-up work at Ground Zero.

Nonetheless, the native activists are not the villains of the piece. That role is reserved for the forces that let the occupation drag on unmolested for so very long: the Government of Ontario, especially Premier Dalton McGuinty, and the senior officers of the Ontario Provincial Police, and above all the OPP's former chief, Julian Fantino. Helpless also gets in some powerful swipes at the province's judicial system and even at the mainstream media, in which Blatchford herself works.

On the bright side, the book constitutes an early Christmas present for a lucky few: the non-native residents of the area who've suffered years of roadblocks, demonstrations and harassment; Tim Hudak, leader of Ontario's Conservative Party; and the yet-unchosen Liberal candidate for Vaughan, where Fantino is running for the Tories.

But none of that matters much here. Blatchford's book may be one-sided but it provides a service for everyone. It shows just how much trouble we're in. Caledonia marks the ultimate failure of the enduring Canadian political strategy inherited from prime minister Mackenzie King: Ignore a crisis as long as possible (or even longer) in the hope that some day it will just go away.

Both Ottawa and Queen's Park sent in consultants and mediators to talk and talk - taking action only if a complainant managed to snag major media attention. Of course, the national media's attention, as Blatchford notes, took a long time to attract - perhaps because Caledonia was too far from the centre of the universe, Toronto.

All that would be bad enough, but Blatchford documents the corollary of that political strategy: the need to go after anyone who draws attention to your own inactivity. Helpless provides example after example of politicians and police targeting critics, using methods both illegal and immoral. Any complaints from the town's residents - never mind the beleaguered outliers nearer the reserve - were treated as racism, if not dangerous threats. One irritating but non-violent activist was arrested on the bizarre charge of "counselling mischief not committed."

It is understandable that Fantino and Queen's Park would be leery of creating a second Ipperwash, where police killed a protester in 1995. But the indifference, even hostility, to the townspeople signals a deep and dangerous breakdown in our systems of government and policing.

There's an irony that Blatchford doesn't mention: The non-native residents of Caledonia developed the same distrust of government and police that the aboriginal protesters feel. Their experience of mistreatment and dishonesty parallels the history of the occupiers who've caused them so much grief. But that explains and excuses nothing in the end. For four and a half years, Ontario's authorities have struggled to mould two wrongs into a right, and the end result remains two wrongs..

Suanne Kelman is the interim chairwoman of Ryerson's School of Journalism.

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