A few weeks ago, I received an urgent text from my friend, Juno-award winning singer Tom Wilson.
He needed help finding a lawyer. The Ontario Provincial Police had just come to his Hamilton home and handed him an arrest warrant. This was a first for the 61-year-old rocker. His alleged crime? Weeks ago, he went to the 1492 Land Back Lane reclamation camp in Caledonia, Ont., to sing.
The camp is on unceded land that Sir Frederick Haldimand, the British governor of Quebec, gifted to the Haudenosaunee people in 1784, as thanks for siding with the British during the American Revolution. The tract governed by the Haldimand Proclamation originally ran up six miles or almost 10 kilometres on both sides of the Grand River, but it has gradually been whittled away; originally, 950,000 acres were set aside, but just a fraction – 48,000 acres – remains, according to Six Nations.
This was not the first time I’ve been told by an Indigenous artist or a journalist that they’d been arrested at the 1492 site, days or weeks after they had been there. In fact, 33 people have been arrested after they have been on the land since the summer – to sing, to report, to drop off food or to lend support, according to Skyler Williams, a spokesperson for the land defenders, who have occupied the contested construction site for the McKenzie Meadows housing development since June.
Only nine arrests have actually been made on the site itself, Mr. Williams added.
Imagine that: being hunted down in the grocery store parking lot or at your front door for the crime of strumming your guitar or reciting a poem. On the surface, it may seem very un-Canadian, like the actions of a secret police of another time. However, this is how Canada’s police and justice system have long treated Indigenous people.
To arrest people so long after an event, instead of at the site itself, does seem rather unusual, agrees retired Superior Court judge Stephen O’Neill.
“Perhaps the OPP needed more evidence of the identities of the people arrested later,” he told me. “Or, fearing a blowback, the OPP may have strategically decided to let things cool down at the site, and circle back later to people’s homes or workplaces to serve the arrest warrants. The optics of a large-scale arrest of multiple land defenders at the site may have deterred the police from arresting everyone on the site at the time.”
But why are they involved in a nation-to-nation issue at all?
Besides, this dispute should never have elevated to this level. Section 35 of the Constitution affirms and upholds existing First Nations treaty rights.
For Indigenous people, the pace of justice feels purposefully slow. Mr. O’Neill points out that nearly 25 years after filing a claim to compensation for the sale of lands in the Haldimand Tract, that legal action has yet to be finalized. Justice delayed is justice denied.
“For Indigenous peoples, it is a case of a two-tiered justice system, a biased system,” he says.
In October, a provincial judge issued a second court injunction, saying land defenders must move out to make way for construction on McKenzie Meadows to continue – a housing development, it should be noted, that sits across the street from the site of a 2006 dispute over Haldimand land, in the Douglas Creek Estates subdivision. Back then, the Ontario government purchased that land from the developer, in the hopes of negotiating an agreement that has yet to be reached.
The Haldimand Proclamation predates Confederation, but treaties remain the law of the land, the building blocks of the country called Canada – one that allows you to live in a cookie-cutter house in a subdivision on stolen land.
This land must be given back to Six Nations – because it is a nation. If it is not, the violence at the 1492 site will only escalate in the face of police provocation. The people at the camp will not disappear; this is their land. They have promised to use any means necessary to defend it. As Mr. Williams said to me: “We already have a deed to the land. We never surrendered the land. We are asserting our property rights. … Our forefathers fought and died for this land. Who are we to spit on their graves?”
When I spoke to Mr. Williams on Wednesday, he told me he had been at the site for 123 days. He said he’d only leave “in a box or in handcuffs. That’s the only way I am going.”
This must not come to pass.
Do the right thing, Canada. Respect Six Nations and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy – the traditional leaders of the people – as they exercise their true treaty rights.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.