Ontario: violence flares at Mohawk blockade

Just as a resolution was in sight in the Mohawk stand-off in Ontario, a re-escalation—due to an angry backlash from Caledonia’s white residents. From the Toronto Globe & Mail, May 23:

Caledonia, Ont. — Violence erupted at the site of an aboriginal land-claim protest Monday as non-aboriginal area residents, frustrated by a roadblock that has divided the community, lashed out.

The aboriginal protesters had briefly dismantled their barricade early in the day, a sign of goodwill after the province pledged last week to indefinitely halt development on a plot of disputed land.

It had been hoped the move would mark the beginning of the end of the divisive dispute, but the blockade was cleared for only a few moments before the situation degenerated into a series of sometimes bloody skirmishes that lasted all day.

“It was a very, very disturbing site. Very disturbing. I’ve never seen anything like it in my entire life,” said Haldimand County Counsellor Buck Sloat.

Provincial negotiator David Peterson said Monday it was “heartbreaking�? to see the sudden turn of events after a positive round of negotiations that he had hoped would bring about a peaceful resolution.

“The behaviour on some of these folks today was not constructive,” said the former Liberal premier. “This situation was settled today. It was settled today, I remind you of that, and the barricade was coming down today.”

“It was a lot of hard work and a lot of blood and sweat and tears went into fixing this situation. And somehow or other, it came apart.”

Town residents had begun barring aboriginal protesters access to the site over the weekend and the scene began to turn ugly at around noon Monday, when an SUV driven by a Six Nations protester tried to force its way through the line of locals, prompting a fist fight. Police intervened in several such clashes throughout the day.

“They’re instigating, [they’re] a bunch of irate radicals,” said Janie Jamieson, a spokeswoman for the aboriginal protesters.

Hundreds of local people had assembled in the area by Monday afternoon, waving Canadian flags and, at one point, bursting into a spontaneous rendition of O Canada.

Aboriginal protesters responded by returning to their blockade, dragging part of a large metal electrical tower across the street with a truck and then using a small steam shovel to tear up pavement across the road.

Even while dozens of police officers stood at the scene, maintaining a tenuous peace between the groups of protesters, frustrated area residents called for more action.

“We’re in a really terrible, terrible time right now,�? said Gayle Pailing, a 20-year resident of the area. “We need help. We don’t know what the answer is here: we need our road open, we need our power back.”

Mr. Sloat said his constituents have told him they have been tested beyond their limits.

“This is a state of lawlessness in Haldimand County and quite frankly, we’ve had enough. The province and the federal government need to step in and do something about this,” he said.

Mr. Peterson said negotiations were supposed to resume Tuesday, but this latest dispute has “complicated the situation by a large measure.” He said it is no longer certain when talks would resume.

“We were on a very constructive track until everything fell apart.”

By evening, aboriginal and non-aboriginal demonstrators had taken up positions on the rural highway, engaged in an uneasy staredown across a row of police officers in riot gear who stood as a large human buffer between them. Some taunting between the groups continued, with shouts of “terrorists” breaking the dark silence.

“I want to join with people across Ontario in calling for calm and goodwill in Caledonia,” Premier Dalton McGuinty said in a statement released by his office on Monday night. “The confrontation we saw today has no place in our society and it does nothing to help resolve this difficult situation.”

Worsening tensions was a power outage early Monday afternoon that plunged thousands of customers in the surrounding area into darkness on a night when temperatures were expected to dropped to near freezing.

Hydro One spokeswoman Laura Cooke said the cause of the outage was clearly vandalism to the local power transformer. She said it will likely be days before service is fully restored.

Municipal officials declared a formal state of emergency at a council meeting that ran late into the night, saying exceptional measures were necessary to help deal with the blackout.

Six Nations spokesman Clyde Powless said aboriginal protesters were only trying to maintain peace in the area when they re-established the blockade earlier in the day.

“We moved our people back,” said Mr. Powless. “Unfortunately, they seem not to want to move, they did not want to allow the road opening, so we’re forced to close it for the safety of our people.”

Some area residents lashed out Monday at their neighbours, angry that they had taken measures into their own hands just as the road was being opened up.

“There were about 50 of us who came out here this morning,” resident Diane McCormac told the Hamilton Spectator. “We were so excited to walk the road.”

Aboriginal demonstrators began blockading the road on April 20 when police attempted to forcibly remove protesters who have been occupying a 40-hectare piece of land since Feb. 28.

The Six Nations protesters say a new development there is being built on land stolen from them more than 200 years ago. Six Nations concede they agreed to lease the property for a road in 1835, but dispute arguments that it was later sold to the Crown.

“Everyone, of course, is frustrated,” said Haldimand County Mayor Marie Trainer. “The public is frustrated, they’ve been showing that at the lines, stopping the natives going through, just as the natives have been stopping us going through, and it’s come to a head.”

Six Nations Confederacy Chief Allen McNaughton said Monday morning that the barricades came down as a goodwill gesture since progress was being made in negotiations. He said the protesters have always acted fairly during the dispute.

“As the world has seen, our protest has been firm but peaceful. Our people are responding without weapons, using only their bodies to assert that we are a sovereign people with a long history and that we cannot be intimidated,” he said. “Justice and reason are on our side.”

Meanwhile in Saskatchewan, more than 30 aboriginal protesters set up a blockade on a major highway near North Battleford to show solidarity with the Ontario blockade.

Traffic backed up for about three kilometres Monday afternoon on a northern section of the Trans-Canada Highway before protesters reached an agreement with the RCMP and the group disbanded.

Blockade organizer Skyler Whitefish said it’s important that aboriginals stand up for their rights to show others that everyone should respect the spirit and intent of land treaties.

“If they hurt my brothers and sisters over there in Caledonia, we’re willing to die for them over here,” Mr. Whitefish told the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix.

See our last post on the Mohawk stand-off.