Six Nations land defenders remove highway barricades, hope to restart talks with Ottawa

·4 min read

Barricades that blocked the Highway 6 bypass around Caledonia for the past three months came down this week, but traffic is not flowing just yet.

Land defenders from Six Nations carted away construction debris and moved a large dirt pile off the road. But a trench dug just south of Argyle Street needs to be repaired before the bypass can reopen.

Skyler Williams, spokesperson for the land defenders, told The Spectator that Ministry of Transportation inspectors were out assessing the state of the bypass.

“The MTO and OPP have full access,” Williams said. “So it’s just a matter of them fixing the road.”

The bypass has been blocked three times since the dispute over a planned subdivision on McKenzie Road started in mid-July, when land defenders occupied the 25-acre site — which they claim as unceded Haudenosaunee territory — and named it 1492 Land Back Lane.

The most recent barricades started to go up Oct. 22, prompted by a skirmish with police hours after a Superior Court judge made permanent a pair of injunctions barring land defenders from occupying the McKenzie land or blocking roadways in Haldimand County.

Williams said trenches were dug across the bypass, Argyle Street and McKenzie Road that night “to protect our camp from police violence.”

On Monday, the Land Back group announced it would move off the bypass and shrink the occupied zone on Argyle Street in hopes of persuading the federal government to engage in nation-to-nation negotiations.

“In August, barricades were removed in good faith because (federal ministers) Carolyn Bennett and Marc Miller said they would meet with our community, but that hasn’t happened,” Williams said.

“We’re just trying to push the feds and the province to come here with a mandate to make some real changes.”

Haldimand County Mayor Ken Hewitt reacted with tempered enthusiasm to the news.

“This is a step in the right direction, but we’re not breaking out the champagne at this point,” he said.

“We stand behind the process we took with the developer and Six Nations in getting to the point where this particular development was to proceed. We believe there’s still a long way to go for us to get to where we feel we belong.”

Reopening the bypass should relieve pressure on detour routes that have been clogged with transport trucks and plagued by collisions. But access in and out of Caledonia will still be limited.

Land defenders still control roughly one kilometre of Argyle Street south of the town, from the south end of the Caledonia Baptist Church property to just north of a Hydro One transfer station the utility company took offline as a security precaution in October.

Williams said his group moved the school bus that had been blocking access to the church parking lot as a gesture of good faith.

Trenches ring the construction site on McKenzie Road, while the mangled rail line that runs through the community remains out of service.

The barricades serve a tactical purpose, making it harder for the OPP to reach the Land Back camp. Land defenders also hoped to raise public awareness of what they consider an unjust development and put pressure on the government to act.

But Hewitt said talks can’t proceed against a backdrop of blockaded roads and occupied land.

“It all has to start with roads and infrastructure being opened up,” the mayor said. “So if this is the sign of those steps moving forward, then I’m encouraged, and I encourage that to continue.”

The federal ministers have said they are waiting to be invited to a meeting at which Six Nations Elected Council and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy Chiefs Council can speak with one voice. Getting to that point involves overcoming a century of political division on the reserve that Williams said was created by the federal government instituting the band council system to supplant traditional leadership.

“The government and the police, and the Brits before Canada, have tried really hard to divide not just our community, but every (Indigenous) community,” he said.

“So for them to take advantage of that century-old divide in our community and say you need to get over the division of the last 100 years, that reconciliation has to come with some trust-building.”

Hewitt said it only makes sense for Ottawa to want a lasting solution “that’s embraced by all.”

“We can’t continue to have a conversation today with one faction (on Six Nations) and then find out tomorrow that that faction is no longer valid,” he said, calling it “unfortunate” that Caledonia residents and McKenzie homebuyers are stuck in the middle.

“We’re looking forward to not only this road, but every road being open, and a strategy that Haldimand and Six Nations can embrace with respect to land development and opportunities that can benefit both communities,” Hewitt said.

Williams cautioned that the barricades could go up again if the land defenders and their allies feel they are in danger of being forcibly removed by police while political negotiations proceed.

“We know our community supports us and believes in our right to our land,” he said. “We know that if police escalate this situation again, that community will show up for us.”

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