Canadian authorities are trying to silence voices for native land rights. We must all refuse to shut up
Wednesday May 23, 2007
After a group of Mohawks from the Tyendinaga reserve blockaded the railway between Kingston and Toronto two weeks ago, a near unanimous cry rose up from the editorial pages of Ontario newspapers and talk radio: Get Shawn Brant. Earlier this month Brant, a beanpole of a man, walked into a packed courtroom with his wrists and ankles shackled after handing himself over to the Ontario provincial police.
According to court testimony, the arrest warrant - on charges of mischief, disobeying a court order, and breach of recognisance - violated an agreement between police and demonstrators, who were given immunity when they peacefully ended the blockade. But Brant worried that the warrant for him would be used as a pretext for raiding a gravel quarry that he and several other community members from Tyendinaga had been occupying for six weeks. "We don't want to bring that into the camp," he told me.
The court granted Brant bail on condition that he is not allowed to "plan, incite, initiate, encourage or participate in any unlawful protest", including those "that interfere in any way with commercial or non-commercial traffic on all public and private roads, airports, railways or waterways".
Why the determination to get Brant, and Brant alone? On the surface, the broken immunity agreement seems sure to inflame tensions. And whatever crimes Brant may have committed, he had plenty of company. But Brant has a theory. "Right now, I'm the voice. They think if they take away the people's voice, the people will stop. They'll see that they're wrong."
Brant is more than a voice. He has become a symbol for the new militancy that is spreading through first nations communities across Canada. Sitting beside the campfire at the occupied quarry a few days ago, he told me that since his childhood people in his community have been telling him to keep quiet. "It used to be, 'Shawn, shut up, don't say those things about the government, they'll cut off our funding'. Now it's 'Shawn, shut up, they'll walk away from the negotiating table'."
The reason Brant isn't willing to let the negotiations take their course is that these talks are designed to take decades. And as the time passes, the land disappears. Forests are clear-cut, mountains are carved up, suburbs creep outward. Ineffective negotiations do not hold the line on an already unacceptable status quo - they contribute to the losing of very real ground.
At the gravel quarry near Deseronto, the loss of land is painfully, insultingly literal. The quarry is on land never ceded by the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte, a fact the federal government has acknowledged. The only question is what form compensation for the theft will take. The Tyendinaga band council and Ottawa have been negotiating over that question since last November. The problem arose because, as the two parties talked, trucks were carrying 10,000 loads of newly crushed gravel out of the pit every year - an estimated 100,000 tonnes. While they bargained for the land, the land itself was disappearing.
It got worse. There was a pile of wood on the edge of the gravel pit that the people occupying the quarry used to feed their bonfire. As the pile depleted, it became apparent the wood had been covering up a large pile of garbage: old washing machines, leaking industrial batteries, oil filters, hydraulic fluid, bed frames, antifreeze. They explored some more and discovered it was all over the pit: piles of hastily covered junk, some of it half-burned, much of it toxic.
Not surprisingly, the mine has become a powerful metaphor, a vivid illustration of the failures of the negotiation process, and the problems with being patient. While the experts talk, good land is trucked out and toxic junk is trucked in. It's an image with resonance on reservations across the country. It's easy to see why more and more native people are telling Shawn Brant to keep talking.
The final insult came when the federal Tories handed down a budget with next to nothing new in it to address first nations' poverty. It prompted Assembly of First Nations Chief Phil Fontaine to call for a national day of action on June 29. Though Fontaine insists he is not calling for cross-country blockades, many first nations are already planning them, with talk of a coordinated targeting of key infrastructure, from rails to roads. "It's the same notion as a general strike," Brant explains with a smile.
Everything is lining up for June 29 to be a day for natives to act and the rest of us to whine about late trains and traffic jams. But listening to Brant, it struck me that it could be something else: a day of action on native rights for Canada as a whole, one when we all refuse to shut up.
· Naomi Klein is the author of The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, to be published in September.
**Local News *- NAPANEE — The spokesman in a Mohawk protest at a Deserontoquarry is out on bail on the condition he not participate in any unlawful protests.
Shawn Brant has been ordered to keep the peace and not participate in any protests that block roads, railways or other thoroughfares on or off Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory. He will appear in court again June 26.
Brant is charged with mischief, disobeying a court order and breach of recognizance in connection with a 30-hour blockade of a Canadian National rail line April 20. The warrant for his arrest was issued five days later.
Both Crown Attorney Bob Morrison and Brant's lawyer Peter Rosenthal agreed to bail, which was posted by Brant's wife. But Morrison argued for the amendment regarding protesting, citing media articles where Brant "in fact promised" to reoffend by taking the occupation of the Thurlow Aggregates gravel quarry to local highways, railways and the town of Deseronto if the quarry's licence is not suspended.
The blockade caused about 3,500 passengers to make alternate travel arrangements without notice, and Canadian National has said its financial losses are in the millions, Morrison said.
But Rosenthal said Brant was promised immunity from any charges by Ontario Provincial Police officers if the blockade was removed by 6 a.m., which it was. Orders to lay charges anyway, he said, came directly from OPP Commissioner Julian Fantino. Rosenthal read a written account from Napanee OPP Insp. Ron Van Straalen, who said he could see how the conversation would be interpreted as promising immunity.
Rosenthal, a social justice lawyer who represented the family of slain aboriginal Dudley George in the 2004 inquiry in the Ipperwash stand-off, said he will bring that up at the trial. It is "another broken promise to the First Nations community," he said.
"I'm astonished this is taking place at all and that we're before you today," he said.
Brant has been the spokesman for a group of native protesters who have inhabited the quarry since March 22. The quarry is located on the Culbertson Tract, 923.5 acres currently subject to land claim negotiations between the federal government and the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte. The protesters say they will stay until the quarry's licence is revoked.
Brant turned himself in to Napanee OPP Thursday morning in a surrender previously negotiated by Rosenthal and police. The surrender happened without incident, except it was initiated by a detective other than the one Rosenthal had arranged for, to which Rosenthal objected. Brant, Rosenthal and an officer waited about 15 minutes to complete the arrest until the detective was on the scene.
Before turning himself in, Brant said he and fellow quarry occupiers made the decision because they feared the warrant would detract attention from their cause.
"We don't run, we don't hide and we don't want that suggestion to be made," he said.
Brant appeared at the bail hearing later that day, handcuffed and sitting quietly during the proceedings. The audience was filled with Brant supporters, many of them First Nations people.
Jason Maracle, one of the protesters, said the arrest does not impact the occupation. He was, however, quieter about their future plans.
"We'll leave that up to Canada's spy agencies," he said. "We'll leave it to the experts to figure it out."
OCAP Radio interview
Follow this link (1)http://www.radio4all.net/proginfo.php?id=22399
or this link (2)http://www.radio4all.net/proginfo.php?id=22699
to listen to interviews with Shawn Brant, spokesperson, Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory conducted for
OCAP Radio on February 28th and April 5th, 2007