Glimmer of hope in Caledonia land claims logjam

·4 min read

The roads are dug up, with positions on either side of the barricades that surround Caledonia firmly entrenched.

Police enforcement of court injunctions against the roadblocks and the ongoing occupation of the McKenzie Meadows construction site by Six Nations land defenders has slowed to a halt.

What’s left is what 1492 Land Back Lane spokesperson Skyler Williams says his group has wanted all along — nation-to-nation negotiations between Six Nations and the Government of Canada over the future of the disputed land.

“The ministers sound like they’re starting to get their ducks in a row now to be able to make these negotiations happen,” Williams said, referring to what he described as “back-channel talks” between the two federal ministries responsible for Indigenous issues and the two bodies that hold sway within Six Nations, namely the elected band council and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy Chiefs Council.

Though federal ministers Carolyn Bennett and Marc Miller — who lead the departments of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Indigenous Services, respectively — have not publicly weighed in on the land dispute in weeks, Williams is hopeful that will soon change.

“Marc Miller’s reached out to some folks here, and Carolyn Bennett’s office is reaching out as well, so hopefully we’ll start to see some movement,” Williams said. “It’s discouraging that it’s taken 118 days and roadblocks and all the rest of it, but at the same time, them continuing to drag their feet on this is what’s gotten us to this point that we’re at right now.”

Williams called on Ottawa and Queen’s Park to “come to the table in a real way,” adding that a main point to be negotiated is “a moratorium on development on the doorstep of our community.”

In a statement to The Spectator on Friday, Bennett’s office said the Liberal government is committed to “respectful and collaborative dialogue, which is vital to building stronger relationships and advancing reconciliation with Indigenous partners.”

Spokesperson Emily Williams noted that Bennett and Miller wrote to the Confederacy and elected council in August, “seeking to work together to address these long-standing and unresolved land issues and to better understand the interests and priorities of the community.”

Williams said federal officials have been in “regular communication” with the two councils since, and that the ministers “look forward to meeting with the community at the earliest opportunity.”

That Six Nations elected and hereditary chiefs are finding common ground could be a major step toward resolving the dispute that has ensnarled Caledonia since land defenders first took over the construction site on July 19, halting work on a planned housing development near the reserve.

The two groups have long been at odds about who wields authority on Six Nations, and that rivalry has complicated talks with Ottawa. But Williams said this week that the councils are striving to speak with a unified voice.

“The Confederacy and the band (council) are both having preliminary conversations about what that’s going to look like,” he said. “It seems like it’s moving along — at a snail’s pace, mind you — but at this point I’ll take the small victories where we can get them.”

Internal politics aside, Williams said, “Everybody understands that these are our lands.”

The Confederacy signalled its support for the land defenders back in August and reiterated that stance this week. Confederacy liaison Colin Martin called the occupation “another chapter in the story of resistance against the further encroachment of our lands.”

A sticking point for the land defenders is development not being allowed to proceed on what they consider unceded Haudenosaunee territory. The builders and Haldimand County argue that the McKenzie Road land was legally sold centuries ago and is fair game for development.

“There will always be peaceful demonstrations to reclaim our lands until they are rightfully returned to the true title holders,” Martin said. “Unresolved land claims have been a continuous issue in the country and the first step to true reconciliation is honouring the treaties made with our ancestors.”

Under former chief Ava Hill, the elected council agreed to receive $352,000 in cash and 42.3 acres of land from Foxgate Developments in exchange for not publicly supporting any future protests at McKenzie Meadows.

The council has since acknowledged that the accommodation agreement with Foxgate was not universally appreciated by band members.

At a community meeting Thursday night, Chief Mark Hill said his elected council is “committed to unity and doing all the things we need to do to bridge the gaps between the Confederacy and the elected council.”

J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator