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Native protesters stand at a housing development near Caledonia, Ont., despite a court order asking them to leave, on March 22, 2006.

Sheryl Nadler/The Canadian Press

Ontario taxpayers will be paying $20-million to residents and businesses for losses suffered during the Caledonia land dispute. The compensation results from a class-action lawsuit against the Ontario government for inaction in the face of first nations "reclaiming" land they say they never surrendered. This land dispute touches on many dimensions of justice.

Many simplistically say Caledonia is only about native protesters and peaceful non-aboriginals. There's more to it than that. Some non-aboriginal protesters say it demonstrates "two-tier justice" in Canada, where first nations get away with mayhem and non-aboriginals are victimized. There's also truth to that, but it's not the whole story.

The Caledonia dispute stems from first nations claims over the Haldimand Tract, a 385,000-hectare piece of land granted by the Crown to Six Nations of the Grand River in 1784 for loyalty during the American Revolution. In 2006, Henco Industries – a private developer – moved to build a subdivision on a piece of land in Caledonia within the land grant. The government claimed, with documentary support, that Six Nations surrendered the land (now called Douglas Creek Estates) in 1841. Things got messy when demonstrators from Six Nations staged a "reclamation" of the land.

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The Canadian state must fulfill its moral and legal duties to first nations who have rightful claims to specific land. The question is: What options did Six Nations have?

Indigenous peoples throughout Canadian history have had to "fight" for their rights. Not through violence mostly, but through persistence and the courts. It was judicial contention, after all, that brought Canada to recognize aboriginal title and develop a modern land-claims policy.

First nations have access to a system of settlement for past treaty infringements by the Crown (the specific land-claims policy). And even if Six Nations are not part of that process, there are the courts. So there's no question the system has access points for justice. This is not 19th-century colonial Canada.

Little known is the standoff that divided Six Nations. Their elected band council initially opposed the reclamation. It was the strident Confederacy Council that pushed for action. Other segments, including Six Nations youth leaders, opposed violence. So the reclamation was not a foregone conclusion. Negotiation and more peaceful means could have prevailed.

Even if one favoured the Six Nations position and could see moral value in occupation, there's never an excuse for violence or intimidation. This is where the indigenous people failed. And when the standoff blew up, Queen's Park and Ottawa failed in accepting responsibility.

So the costs of government inaction are borne by ordinary people inconvenienced by the land reclamation and disruption to their community, and by taxpayers who pay for a victim settlement when police fail to do their job.

The 2006 standing Senate committee on aboriginal peoples released a report on specific claims, Negotiation or Confrontation: It's Canada's Choice. With all due respect to that august body, that's a false choice.

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It's not just "Canada's choice." First nations must choose to work with government in seeking peaceful solutions. Confrontation is never inevitable. And peaceful settlement is good for improving relations and is good economically for everyone involved, as stability permits development.

Six Nations, like all natives, deserve justice, but that comes through fair and independent processes, not mob violence.

In other words, if the government decides the disputed Douglas Creek Estates should go to Six Nations, it should be because an independent adjudicator decided that was legally and historically correct, not to mollify protesters.

Joseph Quesnel is a policy analyst for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

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