It’s a hot afternoon and the sun beats down on the yellow grass. Smoke drifts from a sacred fire, kept burning 24/7. At the campsite outside of Caledonia, Ontario, a small number of personal tents are set up, as well as larger communal tents for shade. Red and yellow warrior flags hang at the camp entrances, and a 10-foot-high chunk of a toppled hydro-electric tower that cut across the road in 2006 has been pushed back into the middle of the highway.
A group of Six Nations people, who call themselves land defenders, have re-erected a blockade on the road to Caledonia, Ontario. But, unlike a decade ago, only a small number of people have arrived to support the new barricade. Fewer than 10 people were on site when VICE News visited the camp on Tuesday, although organizers said more people have been coming after work to sit around the sacred fire.The small number speaks to division in the community over which government really represents the people of Six Nations. At the heart of the local dispute are two duelling governments — the Six Nations band council, established by the century-old Indian Act, elected in a vote with a paltry three percent participation rate; and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy Chiefs Council, an unelected, hereditary organization that predates colonization.Supporters of both governments had stood together eleven years prior, in 2006, on the same road, when clashes erupted between residents of Caledonia, members of Six Nations, and police over the disputed land. Six Nations members had occupied the land in response to a developer’s construction of a number of houses, dubbed the Douglas Creek Estates, on a property next to the highway — part of an area of land promised to the people of Six Nations in 1784.
To end the conflict, Ontario promised to return both the Douglas Creek Estates and another parcel of land called the Burtch Lands to the people of Six Nations.
But last year, saying it was fulfilling that 2006 promise, Ontario returned the Burtch Lands to the elected band council rather than the hereditary Haudenosaunee Confederacy Chiefs Council — effectively choosing one government over another.The confederacy council had leased the land to a farmer, but when the band council took charge of the land, they evicted her with a court order. It was that move that led confederacy council supporters to erect the barricade again.Ontario’s land transfer has reignited a bitter division between the two First Nations governments.Critics of the band council point out that only about three percent of Six Nations members vote in its elections, and the band council was created in 1924 by the Indian Act. They say the confederacy council is more legitimate because it predates colonization and is made up of representatives of First Nations families. However band council members criticize the confederacy council for being unelected, saying it is not perfect either.***While other media were kept outside the gates of the camp, supporters of the confederacy council invited VICE News behind the barricade.On the wall of a wooden building near the blockade hang neon bristol board signs that explain the history of the 2006 conflict.
Media spokesperson for the land defenders Rhonda Martin was there. Back in 2006, she was five months pregnant with her youngest son. She was a supporter of the Six Nations occupation, in charge of bringing coffee and sandwiches to the people.
“I think they too were amazed at how many people answered that call.”
“I was Big Momma here at the site,” she said. “We had to keep their stamina up because they knew there was a fight coming.”
The piece of land sits within a much larger swath of land that the people of Six Nations contend was granted to them by the British Governor of Quebec, Frederick Haldimand, in 1784, in recognition of the support that several of their member states gave to the British during the American Revolutionary War. Known as the Haldimand Proclamation, the piece of land promised to them stretches from the top of the Grand River to where it meets Lake Erie, and six miles on either side of the river — a huge slice of land.But today, Martin explains, the Six Nations reserve is much smaller than that. The Crown sold off much of the land that was promised to the Six Nations by Haldimand, although Six Nations people maintain they have never ceded those lands.Douglas Creek Estates sat just over the train tracks, where the reserve lands end, and inside the area promised in the Haldimand Proclamation. In October 2005, the chief of Six Nations band council David General wrote a letter to the developer saying the company’s development was on disputed land. But the company pushed forward with its development anyway, saying it bought the land legitimately. In late February 2006, a small group from Six Nations occupied Douglas Creek Estates — and in March, a court injunction sought by the developer ordered them off the land. The situation escalated and on April 20, 2006, Ontario Provincial Police officers raided the construction site, pulling people out of their tents and arresting 16 people.
That’s when the call went out to the people of Six Nations to come to the site because their people were being arrested on land promised to them in the Haldimand Proclamation. Police had set up a roadblock with pylons and flares. There were maybe 200 to 300 officers, with police cars and vans lined up on all sides of the property, Martin remembers.“All I could see around here were just cherries, lights,” she said, making a spinning gesture with her finger.But then cars started flying in from the Six Nations reserve, and people started pouring in over the train tracks. Within three hours, she estimates about 5,000 people from the Six Nations reserve had arrived on site.“I think they too were amazed at how many people answered that call,” she said of police. “They saw they were getting outnumbered.”The epicentre of the standoff happened at a cluster of pine trees near the edge of the property along Six Line Road. Martin remembers the police started backing up because they saw they were outnumbered, and as they retreated the Six Nations people stepped forward, some beating drums.She remembers police grabbed an elder when he stepped forward.“He was attacked and that started the fight,” she said. “You don’t grab one of our elders like that.”“We just all gathered as a group and we walked the OPP off the land that day,” she said, standing on the foundation of a Henco model home, now demolished. “For us, that was history.”
“We just all gathered as a group and we walked the OPP off the land that day.”
“This campsite here, this barricade that’s put in place now, is about Canada not keeping their promises, again.”***
It was supporters of both the confederacy council and the band council that arrived on the Douglas Creek Estates that day — they were united in the effort to win back the land.The day after the police raid, the provincial and federal governments started negotiations with both the band council and the confederacy council. In an important letter dated May 10, 2006 and addressed to the confederacy council, former Ontario premier and appointed negotiator David Peterson wrote that “Ontario is prepared to return title to the Burtch Lands to the Six Nations people,” he wrote. “The land is to be available on an interim basis for the Six Nations people for immediate use while the land rights negotiations continue.“It is the intention that the land title be returned to its original state, its status under the Haldimand Proclamation of 1784.”The letter does not clearly state which government Ontario would transfer the land to.However, last year, Ontario quietly transferred the land to the band council.When asked about its decision, a spokesperson for Ontario’s Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation said the province made a commitment to transfer the Burtch property to the people of Six Nations in 2006. “After a thorough clean-up of the lands, our government honoured that commitment earlier this year by transferring the land to a corporation established by the Six Nations Elected Council.”
The corporation will hold the land on behalf of the Six Nations people, and the band council has invited the confederacy council to select a chief to sit on the corporation’s board, the spokesperson said. The province declined to answer further questions, saying the matter is before the courts.As Martin sees it, the confederacy council were the ones negotiating with Ontario for the return of the Burtch lands, therefore the agreement was to give the land back to the confederacy council, not the band council. She accused the band council of “undermining their own people” and “doing things behind closed doors.”The land defenders have made presentations to both the band council and the confederacy council to explain their position and to ask for support.As for Ontario and Canada, she says they aren’t listening to the people of Six Nations.
“So is this an answer?” she says, gesturing toward the new blockade and camp. “Well, you know what, this is all we got right now.”The story of Six Nations and its two dueling governments is a microcosm for many Indigenous communities across Canada who are stuck between colonial structures and their own way of doing things. At the heart of it all is the Indian Act, a piece of legislation designed to tell Indigenous peoples how to run their government, how to marry, where they can live.The Canadian government has signaled that the end of the Indian Act is coming, but hasn’t said when. It’s not clear what will replace it, and how it will address complex realities on the ground — realities like those in Six Nations.In Six Nations, the land at the centre of the dispute is being held in trust in a corporation until it can be formally added to the reserve, band councillor Mark Hill, who also owns a business that has been blocked by the barricade, told VICE News over the phone last week.Hill believes neither the band council nor the confederacy council are perfect, and that both have to fix things within their own systems. He accused the confederacy council of being “corrupt” — saying there were roughly four or five chiefs running the entire council, when there are a total of 50 or so hereditary chiefs. But he conceded that the band council has suffered from abysmally low voter turnout rates.“I strongly feel there is a role for both governments,” Hill said.“We’re at a state of emergency where our people are fighting each other,” he continued. “We have a crisis at hand, and we have to figure out how we’re going to work together for the benefit of the whole group collectively.”
“I strongly feel there is a role for both governments.”