How can you reconcile on stolen land?

An illustration in black lines on a yellow background. It shows a hand holding up a sign that says "WE ARE THE LAND DEFENDERS."
Illustration by Meky Ottawa

“It is infuriating for me to hear anybody talk about what reconciliation is in this country”
—Skyler Wiliams

A sheet of snow covered the ground on the morning of Thursday, Oct. 29.

It served as a cold reminder to Haudenosaunee Land Defenders at 1492 Land Back Lane that their plight would have to continue through the approaching winter months.

They’ve been occupying the site stationed at McKenzie Meadows in Caledonia, Ont., for over 100 days, where a permanent injunction was passed a week prior.

“There are only two groups in all of the country that understand what injunctions are, and those are unions and Indians,” said Land Defender Skyler Williams, a Haudenosaunee father and husband who is the delegated spokesperson for the site.

Injunctions are legal decisions that prevent one person or multiple people from committing certain acts or being in certain locations.

The location of the current dispute, McKenzie Meadows, was planned to be the site for a subdivision in the south end of Caledonia on McKenzie Road. The 25 acres of contested farmland would host 218 detached houses and townhouses on the site through a company called Foxgate Developments.

The subdivision would be the first stage of a much larger housing development in the area that would extend to the border of the Six Nations Reserve, the most densely populated Indigenous reserve in Canada.

Land Defenders renamed the site in two parts; 1492, to mark the year Christopher Columbus arrived in America, and Land Back Lane to signify the focus of the Land Defenders—to get their land back.

On Oct. 22, Land Defenders were told by an Ontario judge that they have been permanently banned from 1492 Land Back Lane through an injunction.

Skyler, alongside his wife Kahsenniyo, has been a figurehead of the 1492 Land Back Lane occupation and has had countless experiences with injunctions.

“We get [injuctions] levied against us whenever we stand up for our lands. It’s something that has been a tool for the courts and the cops to settle land disputes,” he said.

“For this particular case, we have [an] overwhelming amount of historical record to document exactly how it is that that particular tract of land was misappropriated by the feds at the time.”

Skyler was presented as the spokesman for Land Back Lane Defenders to protect others from being targeted by court filings and police. Due to his position, he could be held accountable for up to $20 million in damages after an Ontario Superior Court judge found him in contempt of a court order, refused his evidence, and made two injunctions permanent.

Skyler later countered these findings in an affidavit. His reasoning is that the Crown is liable for the damages due to their negligence in failing to ensure that the Duty to Consult was fulfilled on contested lands.

“This isn’t about money, and certainly letting the government dictate that land claims need to be about dollars and cents isn’t for us. It’s the connection to the land and who we are as Haudenosaunee people. We have a deep connection to the land,” said Skyler, who hopes that the memorandums for Six Nations will be respected.

“This is where our teachings come from; this is where we hunt, live, and grow our medicines. There’s a deeper connection to the land that we maintain, and respect for us as a nation is what we’re hoping for besides the land back.”

A wooden sign in Caledonia has "This is Native Land" spray painted on it.
Photo by: Chezney Martin

The occupation of the site by Land Defenders began on July 19, 2020, but the proclamation to the land precedes the 1900s and the Six Nations Elected Council (SNEC).

“There has to be dialogue and the dialogue has to stem from people having genuine knowledge of the history of Six Nations,” said Karl Dockstader, co-host of the One Dish, One Mic podcast and a CBC journalism fellow who has been covering the site.

“We were one of the first media outlets [here], but even as more media came, I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, people here don’t know about the Covenant Chain, they don’t know about the Two Row Wampum, and they don’t know that to this day our people still see our friendship with the Crown as something that is important to our society,’” Dockstader said. “I don’t understand why it’s not something that their society knows about or values.”

The Covenant Chain is the complex system of alliances between the Haudenosaunee and Anglo-American colonies of the 17th century. Haudenosaunee traditional lands were situated across the Finger Lakes Region in New York, where the first alliances were made.

The ancestors of Haudenosaunee communities today were regarded as adept warriors during the 1700s, comprised of Mohawk, Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, and Oneida Nations, making them sought-after allies.

At the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War in 1754, the Haudenosaunee allied with Britain. Twenty years later, during the American Revolutionary War that began in 1773 whereby the British were pushed to make way for the independence of Anglo-American militiamen assisted by the French, Haudenosaunee allies continued to aid the British.

As a consequence of helping to maintain British lines, which later became the boundary for Canada, these Haudenosaunee allies couldn’t return to their homelands in New York. To compensate their allies, the British Crown decreed the Haldimand Tract Deed to the Haudenosaunee with the signature of Sir Frederick Haldimand in 1784.

This offered the Haudenosaunee peoples six miles on either side of the Grand River from mouth to source, which equated to an estimated 950,000 acres.

“As part of that agreement, the British Crown was supposed to hold the land in trust and that if any of the land were to be sold, it was in agreement with Six Nations that they would be part of those negotiations,” said Beverly Jacobs, who is of the Mohawk Nation and Bear Clan, and currently serves as the Associate (Academic) Dean for the Faculty of Law at Windsor University.

Jacobs said there are traditional lands today that were once sold or leased without agreement from the Six Nations. She calls this illegal surrender.

“[The] majority of the land was also leased, [which left the British Crown responsible for keeping track of the lease money],” she said. “There were some surrenders of the land, but there were some illegal surrenders. That is part of what’s happening right now at 1492 Land Back Lane, that the land is subject to one of those illegal surrenders.”

Jacobs, who works to implement teachings about traditional Indigenous legal systems at Windsor University, added that the current legal process for granting legal injunctions against Land Defenders is skewed in the settler’s favour.

“When a developer applies for an injunction, there is nothing in that process that allows for any dispute of a land claim or the legalities of the ownership of the property,” Jacobs said. “They only have to come in with limited information and the judge can make a decision based on provincial [or] municipal law. So, it’s missing the bigger picture of the land dispute and anything that’s involved.”

This, she said, isn’t reflected in how Indigenous nations must approach courts. Typically, they have to come prepared with historical evidence and much more, and they don’t have access to the financial resources that developers do.

In this specific case, Jacobs said that no evidence was allowed during the choice of the permanent injunction from the Indigenous side at all.

The Six Nations reserve is now 45,600 acres, which is five per cent of the original tract with 50 per cent of the remaining land covered by the largest single block of Carolinian forest in Canada—a reminder that the Haudenosaunee are regarded as the region’s earliest environmentalists.

The history of the Haldimand Tract is a part of the evidence used to prove the unprincipled sales, negotiations with conflicts of interest, “squatting,” leases, and surrenders that resulted in the loss of the tract land.

Out of 29 submitted land claims to the government between 1980 and 1995 as a result of questionable land dealings along the Grand River, only one was resolved.

“[Injunctions] are the colonial tool and mechanism that is most used against Indigenous people across the country to dispossess Indigenous people of their lands and resources,” said Land Defender Kahsenniyo Williams, a well-known Haudenosaunee poet, mother, and wife from Six Nations.

“It is the thing that still makes it illegal for us to protect our lands and to stand up for our rights.”

Kahsenniyo added that the lack of evidence needed to grant a permanent injunction is worrying for Indigenous Land Defenders.

“Courts are allowed to extinguish those rights with no evidence being put forward, with no counter arguments, with no perspective from our side, and I think in this particular case that is one of the most alarming things,” she said.

“Land can be removed forever from our people without any consideration or any voice from the people of Six Nations.”

A wooden post with "We Did Not Ask For This You Did," spray painted on it.
Photo by: Chezney Martin

On July 24, when Foxgate pursued the injunction against the 1492 Land Back Lane Land Defenders, they submitted a document to the Ontario Superior Court showing that an elected Six Nations chief and the SNEC council as a whole supported the McKenzie Meadows development.

It was reported that former SNEC chief, Ava Hill, signed these agreements with Foxgate on June 18, 2019. This gave the SNEC $200,000, with $194,000 to be put in a land banking account established by the council.

Foxgate also agreed to offer other benefits to the Six Nations community, including job opportunities. If the elected council were to withdraw its support for the development, the developer could terminate the agreement and the council would have to return the finances.

In exchange, the elected council agreed to not support development protests, to help to extinguish disputes, and to support the development company in any legal actions brought by or against it, as surfaced by an accommodation agreement.

When current SNEC Chief Mark Hill served as a band councilor in 2018, it was reported that he seconded a motion to support Foxgate’s proposed development as long as the developer gave Six Nations 10 acres elsewhere, according to a 2018 council memorandum. The development didn’t receive much public support at meetings held on Six Nations prior to construction, and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy Chiefs Council (HCCC) wasn’t consulted at all.

“It should be a null and void agreement; they had no jurisdiction to do that,” said Jacobs. “The Haldimand Tract wasn’t made with the elected council.”

European-style elected councils were introduced as part of Indigenous enfranchisement in the early 1900s. The imposition of the Indian Act electoral system, as described in the Act’s section 74, undermined traditions of self-governance.

Section 74 decreed that a band council, made up of a chief and councilors, could be elected to represent First Nations, despite the fact that many Indigenous nations had implemented existing governance systems for thousands of years.

Six Nations in particular retained its traditional HCCC governance system into the early 20th century. In this system, Clan mothers assign the role of Chief to men, who then govern through democratic and consensus decision-making.

Later, when federal government officials such as Duncan Campbell Scott, the Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, wanted Six Nations to transition to the elected band council system, the HCCC presented their case of sovereignty to the House of Commons and the Supreme Court of Canada.

Their case was based on the fact that the Haudenosaunee had never been subjects of the Crown, but sovereign allies. When these arguments were not heard by the Government of Canada, Deskaheh (Levi General), a Cayuga, Bear Clan Chief was delegated to take their argument directly to the Crown and League of Nations.

This angered Scott, who, in 1924, had an order approved to allow the RCMP to remove the HCCC from the Council House on Six Nations. Along with local Indian Agent Colonel C.E. Morgan, Scott later facilitated the election of the reserve’s first elected council.

For Six Nations, this created the two standing factions of governance that exist today: the traditional HCCC and the elected SNEC band council. Elected councils generally hold authority over reserve lands, their infrastructure, and funds, while hereditary councils are limited to overseeing the territories that hold ceremonial and historical importance.

Skylar said that because the elected band council is the recognized body used to compromise with settler officials, he wasn’t surprised that they would support the McKenzie Meadows development.

“I [don’t blame the] band council,” Skyler said. “Everybody asks me that all of the time, ‘Well why aren’t you taking this up with band council?’ Well, because band council didn’t have a choice.”

“They were offered this bag of money and the developers say, ‘Either you can take the money and the development will happen, or you can say no to the money and the development is still going to happen.’ There’s not a choice there, so if that’s what negotiations look like or what nation-to-nation relationships look like, I call bulls—t on that.”

For Caledonians and commuters, the dispute at McKenzie Meadows brought back memories. In 2006, a related land dispute brought large amounts of tension when private developer Henco Industries moved to build a subdivision on a piece of land in Caledonia, now called the Douglas Creek Estates.

Douglas Creek Estates, locally known by Plank Road, is stationed alongside Highway 6 just before the intersection in Caledonia. The corporation claimed that Six Nations surrendered the land in 1841 while Land Defenders from Six Nations occupied the land to halt development, pushing that it was not rightfully or lawfully surrendered.

The negotiations for the 2006 dispute included the Haudenosaunee Confederacy Council and continued until 2009 when litigation resumed. Confederacy leaders said that Stephen Harper’s Conservative government “simply walked away” from the negotiation table.

“The reason why the government won’t settle is because they know that they are wrong,” said Matthew Green, the Hamilton Centre NDP MP.

“It’s an expensive and drawn-out process because the government has infinite resources and the game is always to delay and deny Indigenous people their day in court because the government knows inherently what the Haudenosaunee know—that the federal government does not have claim to those lands,” he said.

“Those are unceded treaty territories that have never been adequately accounted for or compensated for.”

It was reported that Green donated over $1,000 to the Land Back Lane Defence Fund on Oct. 27, which he said was the least he could do as a settler ally, knowing that the process will bring justice.

“It’s important for me that these claims, based on law, make their way to court. Because anybody, whether they have a law degree or many years on the bench, versus somebody who is just looking at it from a very introductory perspective, would need to recognize and be compelled to recognize the inherent treaty rights of the Six Nations people,” he said. “The only way that there could be a peaceful de-escalation is if the government actually negotiates in good faith, and they just refuse to do that.”

The Mayor of Haldimand County, Ken Hewitt, allegedly called for Green’s arrest, and pushed for injunction enforcement and action by OPP on Aug. 19.

Hewitt has been incredibly vocal against the dispute. It was reported by the Toronto Star on Oct. 23 that after a question about Hewitt’s personal interest in the planned development at the site, he said he made a down payment on a unit for one of his children.

He added that he didn’t think this was a conflict of interest.

A grey car covered in spraypaint, and the message "land back"
Photo by: Chezney Martin

Since occupation of the 1492 Land Back Lane site began in July—when Land Defenders were pushing for the land to be recognized as unceded territory and for just consultation—police aggression has increased steadily.

On Aug. 5, the camp was raided by the OPP. During the raid, officers reported Land Defenders throwing rocks and the OPP shot a single rubber bullet. Tires were burned and a train was halted. Nine people were arrested then released.

For Land Defenders like Kahsenniyo, these raids show how settler ideas of “reconciliation” can be considered compartmentalized.

“In almost every province, there are Indigenous rights being violently and aggressively violated, and to have that happening while pretending to still participate in reconciliation is reflective, I think, of Canada’s intention of dealing with Indigenous issues,” Kahsenniyo said.

“I think it is foolish on the part of Canada to be discussing reconciliation without discussing land back,” she said. “Because residential schools were fundamentally about removing our connection to the land. It was our culture, our connection to the land that was the thing preventing the economic growth of Canada and that’s still the exact same situation that we’re in now. So, I don’t think you can separate the two.”

On Aug. 18, it was reported that SNEC Chief Mark Hill’s home was set on fire in suspected arson, and in September it was announced that his home would be bulldozed due to the severity of the fire damage. The motive for the arsonist is unknown.

On Oct. 22, another confrontation with the OPP at the site came hours after Justice R.J. Harper granted a permanent injunction against the site occupants, giving law enforcement the ability to remove Land Defenders from the site.

Members of the OPP fired rubber bullets at members of the site, including Haudenosaunee women and clan mothers, which escalated the confrontation and resulted in the upheaval of road asphalt, damaged OPP vehicles, a burned hydro pole, a blue-bird bus blockade, and disrupted and warped railroad tracks.

This time, the site saw over 30 arrests. Occupants of the Land Back Lane site then mirrored the 2006 occupancy with the creation of “6-and-6,” which is a second camp resting at the intersection of Highway 6 and Sixth Line road.

The following day, the Six Nations of the Grand River Elected Council released a statement saying that “unity remains a top priority at Six Nations.”

“The Six Nations Elected Council is calling for calm, peaceful, and respectful relations on all sides,” part of the statement read. “We acknowledge the tensions in our community and are committed to taking actions to repair relations here at Six Nations.”

“We do not condone the violence or the destruction of property, and we are calling for calm to refocus our minds. We are disturbed with the judgement handed down yesterday by Justice Harper, as it proves that systemic racism is alive and well in this country, including in the judicial system. We hope in the days ahead that we can work in unity to focus on the common goal of addressing our Six Nations land claims.”

The previous injunctions were laid by SNEC when communal tensions rose over decisions made by the council last year, when separate protests waged at the administrative building and at the Burtch property.

Marc Kruse, a member of Muscowpetung First Nation and a defence lawyer, is one of the authors of “Injunctions by First Nations: Results of a National Study,” an article published by the Yellowhead Institute that compiled information on different injunctions drawn from over 100 case files.

“Unfortunately, the results did come back unfavourably for First Nations, with only an 18.5 per cent success rate,” Kruse said in an interview with The Pigeon. “Those success rates tended to come when there was already an action before the court, a title, or a rights claim.”

“More typically, injunctions are used against First Nations who are typically trying to fight for their rights and their title.”

Kruse added that most of these legal decisions prioritized settler laws.

“That doesn’t take into account Indigenous law or Indigenous legal positions. It doesn’t contemplate unceeded territory or things like that. It’s always just assumed that it’s Crown land and that Crown jurisdiction is paramount.”

Carrie Robinson, an Anishinaabe member of the Timiskaming First Nation who worked with Kruse to write the article, echoed in an interview with The Pigeon that “Overall in Canada, the courts award corporations injunctions more readily than First Nations people including within land disputes.”

“Without the aid of an injunction remedy, however, our study asserts that the courts’ decisions can result in substantive unfairness because land where First Nations assert rights and title may be disrupted, or consultation can be tilted in favour of the land developing corporation as opposed to the First Nation early on in a land dispute,” she said.

As for ending the dispute, Foxgate and Haldimand County push that the issue of ownership was settled in 1853 when a group of confederacy chiefs surrendered Haudenosaunee title to the land, which was subsequently sold privately until it was purchased by the real estate consortium in 2015.

To Land Defenders, the Haudenosaunee were defrauded of the land just as they had been for most of the original Haldimand Tract—through unscrupulous sales, squatting, leases, and surrenders.

A barricade on the road made up of an abandoned school bus and car.
Photo by: Chezney Martin

As the dispute has continued, perspectives on the term “reconciliation” have been duly impacted.

“We’re living right now behind a barricade because of this reconciliation and its failures,” said Skyler.

“How are fruitful negotiations supposed to happen with a barrel of a gun pointed at you?”

He called reconciliation in Canada “a f—king joke.”

“It should be infuriating for every single Onkwehon:we person across the country to have this government stand up and say, ‘We’re going to do all of these things,’ and say all the pretty words as politicians, seeing Indigenous people come out to vote in record numbers.”

Skyler admitted that he doesn’t know if reconciliation for the genocide of Indigenous people is possible, but there are steps and processes that could be put in place to move in that direction.

For Jacobs, she pointed out that “truth” in TRC has to be addressed first.

“The only way that reconciliation is possible is when Canada accepts the truth. When Canada accepts that is has been violent, that is has been an abuser, and that it’s always been about power and control over Indigenous people,” Jacobs said.

“They need to educate their people and enforce it in their education system because that’s where the racism comes from, lack of education.”

Kahsenniyo explained that the concept of reconciliation will continue to fail if it doesn’t include what’s important.

“I’m hesitant to say that [reconciliation] is possible,” said Kahsenniyo. “I think reconciliation is this really tightly woven ball of complexity, and we can’t separate the over-incarceration from the ’60s scoop, the child welfare system, and addictions.”

“All of these issues are so tightly tied together and, at the end of the day, it all comes back to the land. The dispossession of our lands and the forcible removal from our lands, the lack of economic prosperity from not having land, all of these things, and there is no separating any of them.”

“Without an approach that simultaneously addresses all of those things, reconciliation is going to continue to be a failure and we’re going to continue to see Indigenous uprisings like we’re seeing right now, coast to coast,” she said.

Green said that the only way to see through the “mythology” that reconciliation is surrounded by is to reconcile with the truth.

“Reconciliation looks like honesty, reconciliation looks like a reconciling of the brutal realities of our past while acknowledging the horrific truths of our present,” Green said, adding that his love for Canada recognizes its mistakes.

“The fact that there is a case right now before the courts of a vicious attack on an Indigenous woman […] the fact that a patient of our so-called health care system was mocked and brutalized in her last days before death, the fact that the RCMP within the last year have been involved in numerous […] deaths of Indigenous people, [and the] numerous incidences of police brutality against Indigenous, Inuit, and Métis in this country challenges people to move beyond this mythology that we’re moving past these atrocities.”

“We need to reconcile things today for things that are happening right now, and I think by and large Canadians refuse to acknowledge that,” he said.

As for Dockstader, who has returned as a journalist to the site with renewed limitations after being charged for mischief and failure to comply with the injunction, said the term is hollow without action.

“I’ve been reaching out to [MP] Carolyn Bennett and [MP] Marc Miller’s offices regularly as part of my attempt to mark down coverage and I think the word ‘reconciliation’ makes it into every email response, but that’s it,” he recalled.

“So, if it’s just a word in an email and it’s not followed by action and preceded by action, then it’s kind of empty.”

Chezney Martin is a 24 year old Haudenosaunee woman from the Turtle Clan of the Seneca Nation living on the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve. In 2009, she was the designated Olympic Torchbearer for her nation, and collected the Harvey Longboat Mohawk Language Award the following year at Kawenni:io/Gaweniyo Private School. She graduated from Hagersville Secondary School with honours and received the English Excellence Award, the Aboriginal Education Award and the Senior Academic Writing Award.

She completed one year of a journalism program at Niagara College and began her career early as a reporter for the Two Row Times, where she elevated to become editor, and a radio voice for Jukasa Radio in 2019. She took on the role of Miss Six Nations in 2014, and was awarded first runner up to Miss Indian World in 2016. Currently, she works as a Cultural Interpreter at the Woodland Cultural Centre where she helps to repurpose the Mohawk Institute (the oldest continuously operated Anglican residential school in Canada) as a place for visitors to learn Haudenosaunee culture. 

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