On Friday, August 10, my husband, Shawn Brant, was denied bail for the second time on charges relating to the closure of the CN main line, a provincial highway and the 401. Shawn is a member of the Mohawk Nation of Tyendinaga. The context for all the charges he currently faces include unresolved land claims, poverty, suicides and polluted water throughout First Nations communities across Canada.
In trying to understand how bunk 18, dorm 4 of the Quinte Detention Centre has become my husband’s home, I have had the opportunity to reflect on how this all began.
It was shortly after the election of Mike Harris in Ontario in 1995: Dudley George lay dead and the infamous 22 per cent welfare cut had been imposed. While severe to everyone on fixed income, it was particularly devastating to First Nations communities. Compounded with geographical isolation and the still very prevalent impact of residential school abuses, the cut to welfare was crushing.
But there was hope. Organized labour rallied and kicked off a campaign of rotating economic disruptions. It was a plan designed to target government and private industry, starting small and escalating over time unless government met the movement’s demands. “We can’t have passive resistance,” said Sid Ryan, president of the Ontario division of the Canadian Union of Public Employees. “The safety of kids is at issue. The transportation is going to be shut down, likewise GO trains… There’s going to be chaos in the highways.”
Starting in places like London and Kitchener Waterloo, infrastructure was targeted and the cities systematically shut down.
In October 1996, labour converged in Toronto, and in one massive show of solidarity, some 300 businesses, government buildings and services were completely shut down. The Toronto Transit Commission, which normally carried 2 million riders daily, was completely stationary. The Canada Post facility responsible for sorting 50 per cent of the country’s mail was shut. Pearson International Airport cancelled numerous flights as passengers rearranged their schedules to avoid the chaos of the day. The Canadian Auto Workers disrupted the airport’s cargo terminal for five hours. In short, the single largest municipality in the country came to a grinding halt. Millions of dollars were lost to the economy province-wide.
A decade later, in November 2006, the Mohawk community of Tyendinaga – in response to unresolved land claims, polluted drinking water, overwhelming poverty and suicides in all First Nations communities -launched a campaign similar to those days of action. It announced a plan of rotating economic disruption.
The campaign started with road closures and business disruptions. In March, a quarry on Mohawk land was taken over and permanently closed. The CN main line was closed April 20 for 30 hours and on June 29, the CN main line, Highway 2 and Highway 401 were simultaneously targeted and closed for a 24-hour period. And the message resonated.
Aboriginal issues enjoy enormous support from the Canadian public with Angus Reid showing 71 per cent of Canadians wanting actions on land claims and 41 per cent of Ontarians prepared to acknowledge rail blockades as justified given the current landscape.
It is worth noting the reactions to these two very similar campaigns. The economic repercussions of the labour movement’s rotating and escalating city shut-downs far surpassed June 29, and yet no labour leader was ever jailed, let alone charged. I am left to wonder at the difference in state response. The message appears to be if you are Indian, somehow your grievances do not warrant the same respect or attention. You are to suffer in silence.
If in the year 2007, Shawn is to sit in jail for forcing attention to the national crisis that is the subhuman conditions throughout First Nations communities, when literally centuries of following the “appropriate channels” of redress have utterly failed, then so be it.
My husband is just completing the end of his first season behind bars and says: “I should sit with pride and honour, sit for six more, to equal the sacrifice my ancestors made for us, so that we might have a chance to exist.”