The Mohawk protest at Caledonia, Ontario brought back memories of another incident that is still fresh in the minds of most Aboriginals.
In 1990, a small group of Kanesatake Mohawks set up a non-threatening, side-of-the-road camp to halt the Oka golf club’s proposed expansion onto their land. If plans had proceeded, Kanesatake’s sacred burial ground would have been replaced by another nine holes. It would have been another slap in the face to Canada’s First People and an insult to the many Mohawk generations who lay peacefully beneath the soil.
After a botched Surete du Quebec raid and an unfortunate fatality on the side of the police, the bulldozers were called off and the Mohawks had won.
Ottawa should have learned something from that time, but Caledonia tells us that the government has forgotten the lessons of 1990.
The Mohawks of Six Nations claim a 500-unit construction site as land that was illegally taken from them in the early 1800s. The government says that the Mohawks deeded the land to them under a signed agreement. The land in question was part of a much larger tract awarded to the Mohawks, the Nation most loyal to the British in the war with France. As of 2006, the Six Nations Mohawks are left with little territory and cannot afford to lose anymore.
An old government trick is to allow development on land in question and then if the claim is settled in favour of the Natives, the government will turn around and say, “Sorry, there are people already living there so you can’t.”
Their protest has been met with police force and has resulted in clashes with angry non-native locals. At press time, the protestors had taken down the barricade and were looking forward to “healing the wounds” caused by the three-month protest.
The easiest answer to this problem would be to give the land back to the people and have the government compensate the developer for their loss. Simple, yet it won’t happen.
At one point, the Mohawks owned over nine-and-a-half million square acres of land in what is now New York State and southern Canada. Today, we are left with a tiny fraction of that total.
The Mohawk protestors do not erect barricades to cause trouble; they do it to raise awareness to their plight. Soon they won’t have any land left to live on, then where do they go?
The Mohawk people were hunters and gatherers who lived off the land by farming and fishing and killing big game. These days when they want meat, they go to the butcher. The luxury of hunting on territory they can call their own is gone.
A shrinking land base and lack of true power over that land puts the Mohawks in a precarious situation. They have nothing left to lose, so why not fight for what is rightfully theirs in the first place?
Even after the 1990 crisis, Ottawa and Quebec promised to return the land to Kanesatake Mohawks. To this day the land in question remains “Crown land” where the Mohawks have no real power on it.
Over 60 per cent of Native people are under the age of 25. With the exploding Aboriginal populations comes the need for bigger territory, and if the government won’t keep its promises and negotiate in good faith, they have no alternative but to fight to get back what is and always has been theirs.
Caledonia reminds us that the Canadian government, despite its condemnation of other infamous human rights abusers like China, still has a long way to go before First Nations will fully trust it and before it can be considered fair to Aboriginal peoples.