Returning land defenders, new faces take up familiar fight in Caledonia, Ont.

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CALEDONIA, Ont. — The more things change in Caledonia, Ont., the more one group of long-standing land defenders says things stay the same.

Tense tableaus played out for months in the southwestern Ontario town in 2006 as Indigenous protesters clashed repeatedly with provincial police over the rights to land located near Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation. Fourteen years later, some of the same protesters are experiencing deja-vu as they take up similar positions to continue the same fight.

“It was very, very similar,” Skyler Williams, 38, recalls, standing by the intersection that divides the scenes of past and present protest sites. “I was much younger (in 2006), and so my back hurts a little bit more some days.”

The present-day dispute is playing out across the road from the scene of the 2006 protests at a proposed housing development known as McKenzie Meadows.

Williams has been acting as a spokesperson for the land reclamation camp known as 1492 Land Back Lane at the site of the project being led by Foxgate Developments Inc.

The 2006 occupation dragged on for months, prompting political mudslinging between the provincial and federal governments. The 2020 iteration passed the 100-day mark last month, with protesters showing no signs of heading home.

Work was underway last Thursday on a wooden shelter at the demonstrators’ tent camp that’s also home to lively pets, works of art in progress, small gardens and a campfire. Funds are being raised to build tiny homes as winter weather approaches.

Central to the Haudenosaunee land defenders’ fight is a 1784 agreement with the British known as the Haldimand Proclamation, promising lands along the Grand River they maintain were never surrendered.

Over his lifetime, Williams has watched housing developments pop up across the farm town of Caledonia, encroaching on the territory he and others are fighting to protect.

“We have to be able to say no,” he said. “If they’re going to continue to push into Six Nations territory and hem us in, you can expect resistance.”

Thirty-three people, including Williams, have been arrested since the protests began in the summer. Most have been charged with violating a court order.

Tensions flared again briefly in recent weeks when an Ontario judge issued a permanent injunction ordering people off the land indefinitely.

Hours after the Oct. 22 ruling, the demonstrators accused police of firing rubber bullets and using a stun gun, injuring two. Police, in turn, alleged protesters damaged a cruiser.

Blockades went up later that day, with portions of road dug up with machinery and a school bus bearing the words “Land Back Tours” parked in the middle of Argyle Street.

Signs of the standoff were still visible one week later. Provincial police cars were stationed near the Argyle Street bus blockade on Thursday and by the main entrance to the camp off McKenzie Road.

Three cruisers were parked a few metres from Nancy Chalmers’ driveway.

“I’m kind of sitting in the middle of this stew,” Chalmers said from her front doorway.

The Caledonia resident of more than 20 years said she sympathizes with her neighbours’ cause, but she’s frustrated with both the predictable cycle and the disruptions to her daily life.

“I just wish this would get resolved peacefully,” she said.

Caledonia mayor Ken Hewitt has taken a harsher line with the demonstrators, calling for their arrests.

He’s also asked the federal government to take a hand in negotiations.

Kahsenniyo Williams, Skyler’s wife, spoke about the aggression her family has faced during a spoken word poetry performance from inside the blockaded area on Thursday.

She performed for a university class via Zoom, with the Grand River as her backdrop, a waterway she calls “the map of the land that we’re responsible for.”

She said online connectivity has been helpful with reaching supporters who can’t make it down to the site.

“Everyone’s been doing the best that they can to manoeuvre through COVID, and it also opens up the opportunity for more creative settings,” she said.

But in-person supporters have trickled in as well, bringing fresh perspectives on the long-time fight along with supplies and companionship.

Jace House from the Quebec Algonquin community of Kitigan Zibi arrived last week. He was part of a community-led action this fall about over-hunting of moose in his area, and dealt with an injunction himself at the time.

He sees similar tactics being used against Indigenous land defenders across the country, and said he’s been welcomed by the people at the Land Back Lane camp.

“We really are in the same boat,” House said.

He said unity across Indigenous communities will be important as people continue advocating for their land, water, hunting and fishing rights.

“I think we’re all coming to the conclusion that the Canadian government’s not going to fix it for us, so we’re trying to do our best with what we have to just assert ourselves,” House said.

Haudenosaunee lawyer Beverly Jacobs said the federal government needs to get involved in resolving the dispute, starting with a moratorium on all developments.

“Canada needs to come to the table with the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and they need to negotiate,” the associate dean at the University of Windsor’s law faculty said by phone.

“The deeper underlying land issues need to be addressed. Otherwise, this is going to continue to be a cycle, because our people are tired of being silent.”

A statement from the office of the minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations said Canada is committed to “continuing to work collaboratively to address Six Nations’ historical claims and land rights issues.”

“We are actively working with the community and look forward to meeting at the earliest opportunity,” the statement said.

Seeds planted at the McKenzie Road camp have sprouted into tomato plants and sunflowers in the months since the occupation began.

When asked what he’d like to see on the land, Williams pointed to the return of natural life at the 2006 protest site which was eventually purchased by the province to end the dispute.

“Fifteen years have passed and all the topsoil has regrown, trees have grown there, animals are coming back,” he said. “If that’s what needs to happen, then that’s what needs to happen. Just to let nature take its course.”

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