The sun had not yet crested the horizon on a cold Tuesday morning when a group of women from Six Nations crossed into a Caledonia construction site and set up a teepee.
The occupation of the planned Douglas Creek Estates subdivision on Argyle Street started a chain reaction that would lead 15 years later to the ongoing standoff at 1492 Land Back Lane.
“Some parts of it are like déjà vu,” said Dawn Smith, who stepped onto DCE on Feb. 28, 2006, and became a public face of the movement asserting Haudenosaunee land rights along the Grand River.
“They experience what we experienced, but they’ve been there a lot longer than we were,” Smith said of land defenders who have held the McKenzie Meadows construction site since July, indefinitely delaying a 229-unit subdivision planned by Foxgate Developments while blocking key roadways in response to clashes with police.
Within four months of Smith and her compatriots occupying DCE, after violent clashes and failed negotiations, the province bought the land from local developers to hold in trust, essentially surrendering the 99-acre property to Six Nations members who control it to this day as an unofficial extension of the reserve.
How the occupation on McKenzie Road will end remains anyone’s guess, but a look back to 2006 may offer some clues.
Origins of a conflict
It’s easiest to start with what hasn’t changed.
In July 2020, much like 2006 and two centuries before that, who owns the land along the Grand River remains an open question.
Land defenders point to the Haldimand Proclamation of 1784 as the justification for their claims of sovereignty over the DCE and McKenzie sites.
Governor Frederick Haldimand granted approximately 10 kilometres along either side of the entire length of the Grand River — just shy of one million square kilometres in all — to the Haudenosaunee in gratitude for their allyship during the American Revolutionary War.
Depending on who tells the story, the Haldimand Tract land was then legally surrendered by Haudenosaunee chiefs or “stolen fair and square” by corrupt colonial authorities, said Rick Monture, a Mohawk from Six Nations and professor of Indigenous studies at McMaster University.
A land claims lawsuit launched by Six Nations Elected Council in 1995 to settle the question inches toward a November 2022 court date. In the meantime, developers of the Douglas Creek and McKenzie Meadows projects thought they were in the clear since the lawsuit seeks financial compensation and not the return of privately held land.
Monture said the builders, and the governments who approved the land sales, should have known better.
“I can’t believe they would even try to negotiate a land deal in an area that’s hotly contested. That makes no sense,” he said.
The Douglas Creek occupation followed a pattern that has repeated itself at Land Back Lane — builders sought a court injunction to oust the occupiers, who refused to leave, and police tried different approaches to enforce the court order.
“By April 20, the police came in and it was a full-scale raid,” said Smith, recalling the 2006 predawn clash between OPP officers and hundreds of land defenders and supporters who rushed to Douglas Creek.
In response, demonstrators set up roadblocks and lit tire fires on the roads, just as happened after smaller-scale skirmishes between the OPP and those occupying McKenzie Meadows.
“Where it sits right now — the precariousness of the situation, how it’s been this way for how long now — they’re experiencing a lot more than we did,” Smith said of the ongoing stalemate at Land Back Lane.
Skyler Williams of Six Nations was 23 when he fought police on the ground at DCE. Now the spokesperson for 1492 Land Back Lane, Williams says he turns to people like Smith for guidance.
Smith said Williams and others in the camp share her motivation for defending the land.
“It’s my job as a woman to protect Mother Earth for the seven generations that are coming,” she said.
“I feel that if more people sat and spoke with these young men and women, they would get a different understanding. They’re not there just to tear up roads and instigate riots. They’re there for a reason, and that reason I tuck into bed every night.”
Passing the buck
Things moved quickly after Smith and her compatriots stopped work at DCE, which her group calls Kanonhstaton, “the protected place” in Mohawk.
Hundreds of residents and home buyers massed at the barricades to demand an end to the occupation and protest police inaction. Thus began what Haldimand-Norfolk MPP Toby Barrett has described as “15 years of anarchy” in Caledonia.
After the failed police attempt to clear the site, Ottawa and Queen’s Park started negotiating with Six Nations elected and hereditary leaders — a first for the area.
Soon afterward, the province declared an indefinite moratorium on construction on the DCE land.
This time, there have been no federal talks, and Premier Doug Ford has taken a hard line against the occupation.
“What I’m hearing from residents is exactly what I heard 15 years ago,” said Barrett, a Conservative politician who at the time was also the provincial representative for Six Nations.
“One thing has changed. They know it’s a different government now.”
When news of the Douglas Creek occupation reached Queen’s Park, Barrett said he immediately crossed the floor to confer with the Liberal minister in charge of Indigenous affairs. The next day, he visited the site and met with clan mothers and some Confederacy chiefs, who asked for his help to liaise with elected council, the OPP and the federal government.
“There is a bit of a formula here that’s followed,” Barrett said of the land defenders’ strategy of seeking nation-to-nation negotiations.
“The messaging about rights and in this case land back, and the talk about, ‘It’s federal, and we want to meet with the governor general.’ I heard all this in 2006. That stuff just endlessly gets dragged out.”
That’s exactly the problem, Monture said. No leader wants to solve the underlying issue.
“It’s just this endless cycle of punting the ball to the province, the feds, First Nations, back and forth,” he said.
“Meantime, our people grow more and more frustrated with it, and our neighbours grow more and more frustrated with us. So it works out in the best interest of Canada to let it simmer, since you let the next political party deal with it.”
Monture worries what could happen “when that frustration boils over.”
“They have to get serious about it soon,” he said. “We are a peaceful people. We’ve tried and tried and tried to put forward our complaints and our story. We’re just asking for some justice here.”
Growing awareness, lingering frustration
What was a conflagration in 2006 has been a slow burn this time around. Aside from minor clashes, the McKenzie Meadows occupation has not been marked by widespread violence.
Still, there are those in Caledonia virulently opposed to what they consider a kind of urban warfare being waged against their community. Residents decry the vandalism in angry Facebook comments and invective-filled letters to the editor, saying if Canadians tore up roads and rail lines, they would be carted off to jail.
Williams shrugs off such criticism.
“We’re the nicest terrorists you’re ever going to meet,” he says with a laugh, referring to a since-retracted statement from Haldimand’s police services board calling the land defenders domestic terrorists.
Williams said public sentiment feels different now than it did in 2006.
Back then, Caledonia residents marched to the barricades with confrontation on their mind, whether with land defenders or police. This time around, residents organized a protest with Six Nations members, pushing the federal government for action on the land claim file.
“The climate is way different. Way different,” Williams said. “We got people from town here walking across the police line to bring us food and love, and to come sit by the fire and talk and laugh. Gary McHale (a leader of the anti-Indigenous protests at DCE) wasn’t coming across the (barricade).”
Canadians today are better educated about Indigenous issues, he added.
“In 2021, the atrocities that have been committed against Indigenous people across the country aren’t secrets anymore. It is common knowledge now,” Williams said, listing off residential schools, the over-incarceration of Indigenous people, and murdered and missing Indigenous women as examples.
“The government has said, yes, we are guilty of all those things, and so we need to reconcile with Indigenous people on a nation-to-nation basis.”
Haldimand County Mayor Ken Hewitt said opinion regarding Land Back Lane is “mixed” among his constituents, with many upset at seeing quiet detour routes clogged with traffic and having their tax dollars repeatedly go to repair damaged roads.
“They’re frustrated that, once again, the community is the whipping stick of an ongoing dispute between the federal government and Six Nations,” Hewitt said.
“They do not like the idea that if people in Caledonia choose to take a different position on this protest or other protests, that it could result in further closure of roads.”
In 2006, Hewitt was a financial services adviser who headed the Caledonia Citizens’ Alliance, a group that lobbied the province to help the town during the crisis.
“The federal government — whether it was today, 10 years or 100 years ago — has always known that there was a collision course that’s been set between First Nations people and our government,” Hewitt said.
“There’s many opportunities along the way that that collision could’ve been avoided. Yet here we are, having the same conversations over and over again.”
Hewitt contends the DCE occupation “was fully supported by many, if not the majority of those on the territory,” while in his view, the McKenzie standoff is not as broadly popular on Six Nations.
“Fundamentally, they certainly do support a resolution of these outstanding claims that exist within the Haldimand Tract,” Hewitt said.
“But to close roads to and destroy property, those efforts are not supported by most members of Six Nations.”
Monture was quick to point out that he could not speak for the entire community — indeed, the diversity of opinion on the reserve is often cited as a complicating factor in talks with the federal government — but his sense is most residents are “quietly supportive” of the Land Back movement.
“I think most of it is, ‘Here we go again, unfortunately,’” he said. “The mood in the community is, ‘Can’t we just resolve this and move forward?’”
Monture has noticed a sea change in attitudes toward Indigenous grievances among Caledonians, even as the bypass and two key thoroughfares have been closed more often than not since July.
“It’s tricky, because unfortunately the only way we can call attention to these things is when we make those stands that aren’t wildly popular,” he said.
“There are friends and acquaintances of mine (in Caledonia) who kind of silently cheer us on, but they don’t want to do that (publicly) because they’re going to look bad to their white neighbours in town.”
But that sympathy is not universal. Several Caledonia residents told The Spectator they are wary of publicly criticizing the current occupation because they fear retribution from land defenders and their allies.
Some cited the violence and property damage carried out against residents living near DCE in 2006 — and the lack of police response — as the reason they are staying silent this time.
But Bill Stoneman, who has lived in Caledonia for 65 years, said the McKenzie occupation feels less tense.
Stoneman said while the roadblocks are “annoying,” he does not feel personally threatened.
“It’s calmer. In ’06, they were terrorizing the town. It’s a lot calmer now,” he said.
“It’s a safe area. They’re not antagonizing. In ’06, it was unsafe back in that area. This time they’re trying to stick to the issues.”
Tension on the ground
As the political wheels spin, the reality on the ground is dictated by land defenders and the police, who are tasked with enforcing a pair of Superior Court injunctions ordering the roads cleared and the McKenzie site returned to Foxgate Developments.
The altercation between OPP officers and land defenders on the night of Oct. 22 — which saw a failed arrest attempt at the back entrance to 1492 Land Back Lane lead to supporters pelting a police cruiser with rocks and officers deploying a Taser and shooting rubber bullets — brought reinforcements to the scene near Kanonhstaton, Smith among them.
“There’s quite a few people down there I care for a great deal, and I had to make sure everybody was OK,” she said.
“The feeling down there that night, it was exactly the same as when it happened in 2006. It wasn’t the numbers that came out, but the numbers that were needed showed up.”
Barrett has repeatedly encouraged the police to enforce the injunctions, while making it clear governments “do not interfere or direct operational decisions” of the OPP.
“If I’ve been asked once, I’ve been asked several thousand times to tell the police to go in there and clear it,” he said.
“The first reaction is, yes, this has to be nipped in the bud. Because, you know, reinforcements gradually arrive. Then it settles into something much more insidious for people who are living right next door.”
Haldimand OPP Const. Rod LeClair said police “take no position” in land disputes and instead seek “open and peaceful dialogue” with demonstrators, an approached codified by the OPP Framework that guides the force’s reaction to “critical Indigenous incidents.”
Williams said in practice, officers seek to “exploit divisions” within Indigenous communities while laying “nuisance charges” to deter supporters.
“This is something that is playing out exactly the same today as it did 15 years ago,” he said.
Police services board chair Brian Haggith — a retired Haldimand OPP officer who policed the DCE occupation — says the OPP’s Framework is flawed.
“When lawlessness starts, it just doesn’t seem to be able to control it,” he said.
Residents in 2006 criticized the OPP for letting Six Nations members wantonly break the law in plain sight, and Haggith said officers again stood by last fall as streets were torn up using stolen construction equipment.
“Police officers in uniform are watching this occur, and no attempt to stop it. People just don’t understand,” he said.
“When the circumstances change — when the protesters or demonstrators are no longer peaceful — it’s incumbent upon the OPP to change strategies in order to restore order and preserve public safety.”
Ga’nogae, a Seneca chief from the Haudenosaunee Confederacy Chiefs Council, said officers are rightly showing more restraint this time.
“(The government) kept the cattle prod to the OPP’s butt and said, ‘Come on, get those people off that land. Get those roads open,’” the chief said.
“And the OPP, they learned from Ipperwash. They’re handling this with kid gloves, as they should be.”
Beverly Jacobs, a Mohawk lawyer from Six Nations and associate dean of the University of Windsor law faculty, says the onus is on the government to avoid another standoff.
She noted that Queen’s Park committed to “reconciling” Haudenosaunee land claims after the Douglas Creek standoff, but no progress was made, while more than 800 Caledonia residents and business owners wrung a $20-million settlement out of the province to compensate for their losses.
Caledonia lawyer Peter Murray was involved in paying out that class-action lawsuit, and in November, his firm took the lead on organizing another legal action against the province and the OPP, prompted by roadblocks again cutting off access to town.
“It’s fair to say that it’s less confrontational between the residents of Caledonia and the protesters than it was in 2006,” Murray said.
“I’m not seeing the gatherings up at the Canadian Tire parking lot that we saw in 2006 — marching with the Canadian flag, that kind of stuff. It could be social media playing more of a role today. A lot of people are expressing their thoughts on social media as opposed to physically going there. But as far as the businesses are concerned, I’m afraid it could be very similar if it’s not resolved.”
One problem with getting action from Ottawa is the Caledonia disputes, while disruptive locally, can’t compete for national attention with higher-profile conflicts such as the burning of Mi’kmaq fishing boats in Nova Scotia or Wet’suwet’en pipeline protests out west.
“This isn’t that important to the majority of people in the country, which is why these steps these people are taking are counterproductive,” Hewitt said.
“It’s not achieving the goals. Look at ’06. Show me the success as the result of that protest. Sure, you stopped a development, but that land — nothing’s happened, nothing’s changed.”
That criticism misses the point, Williams said.
“The way we live is quite a bit different than covering everything in concrete and asphalt and calling that progress,” he said.
“To let the wildlife come back here, for the earth here to regrow and heal itself — that’s what progress is for us. To let Mother Nature do her bit, and let her take this land back.”
Some residents have questioned the timing of the McKenzie Meadows occupation, wondering why land defenders let contractors clear the former farmland and install sewer lines before moving in.
Williams blamed the pandemic, saying his group was ready to go in when work started in the spring, but that coincided with the arrival of COVID-19 to Six Nations.
“Our entire community was locked down for those three months,” Williams said. “We were very concerned about (the virus) and wanted to make sure that everybody was going to be safe.”
The pandemic didn’t stop some Six Nations members from blockading the Highway 6 bypass and the CN rail line from Feb. 24 to March 19, in solidarity with Wetʼsuwetʼen resistance to the pipeline. The protesters eventually retreated to Kanonhstaton, which has been a safe zone for land defenders throughout the McKenzie occupation.
Monture suspects politicians are too busy managing the pandemic to pay much attention to a relatively low-priority land dispute in rural Ontario.
“I don’t think people have the mental or emotional, or even the physical stamina now to put a lot of good thinking toward this,” he said. “We need to get through the pandemic first, and then go at it.”
Sharing the land
Things have not always been this tense in Caledonia. Locals remember decades, if not centuries, of neighbourly relations between Haldimand County and Six Nations, with residents intermarrying and intermingling at schools, shops, and social events.
Some contend the DCE occupation soured that closeness and created divisions between the two communities.
“The relationships were good. They worked for each other, helped each other out. It was a friendly camaraderie amongst people back then,” said Monture, whose father and grandfather were farmers on the reserve.
They told him that in the 1940s and 1950s, their non-Indigenous neighbours knew the history and understood that the land along Plank Road — better known today as Highway 6 — was Haudenosaunee.
He suspects the residents who massed at the barricades in 2006, some waving Confederate flags, were ignorant of the underlying issues at play.
“I was shocked at the amount of animosity that was hurled at our people from folks in Caledonia,” Monture said.
“Not so much this time — maybe it’s online more — but there was a palpable anger and mob mindset happening around Douglas Creek.”
With the occupation of McKenzie Meadows well into its eighth month and the trenches blocking the roads now repaired, the question of when the police will move in hangs over the camp.
Williams knows McKenzie Road could yet become a battlefield. But, he says, they won in 2006. They may win again.
“The amount of support across the country for our stand here has been amazing,” he said.
“We know that resistance movements from Indigenous communities are growing. Our ally networks are massive and far-reaching across all Turtle Island. I think all of us have a shared struggle.”
Smith sees an emotional parallel to DCE in what is happening on the ground in Caledonia today.
“The way everybody’s come together as a family, that’s the way it was back in 2006,” she said.
“Blood is blood. Whether we’re related by family or just we’re all Onkwehonwe. Just to know that this fight has been happening since day one. From 1492 — or the way our stories go, before that — we have fought to hold onto our way of life.”
To Hewitt’s mind, protests at DCE did not spur political action on land claims, and this time will be no different if violent confrontation is the result.
“What I’ve seen in the last 15 years is we’re more likely to see success for both communities by working together to find common ground than we are working opposed to each other, as we have been,” he said.
“Sitting here blocking a road into a small town of 10,000 people isn’t getting the attention of Ottawa. It’s not getting the attention of Toronto. All it’s done is fan some flames of anger.”
Thus far, Ford has given no indication he plans to follow former premier Dalton McGuinty’s lead and buy out the developers as a way out of the standoff.
Rather than politicians simply waiting out the land defenders, Monture would like to see “a fair and sincere effort” to address land claims.
“True leadership and courage — that’s what it’s going to take,” Monture said.
Barrett said the answer must come from Six Nations, where elected and hereditary leaders have begun to smooth over decades of mistrust — created, Monture noted, by Ottawa supplanting the Confederacy with the band council — in order to negotiate with Ottawa as a united front.
“The question I’ve been asking for 15 years — do you know who’s in charge?” Barrett said.
“It’s really not the role of the provincial or federal government to step into that kind of argument. That’s internal to the community.”
With occupations allowed to continue virtually unchallenged, Barrett sees the rule of law weakening.
“It’s chaos. I really resent the intimidation that’s used to generate fear,” he said. “That’s not how we operate in Ontario or Canada.”
To Smith, each land reclamation moves First Nations peoples one step forward to self-determination.
“My passion is to see my governments sit at the table with your governments — face to face, heart to heart — and really try to come to a compassionate understanding that will benefit everybody,” she said.
J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator