OTTAWA—At the main camp beside the railroad tracks in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory this week, it was a marvel to consider how a cluster of parked vehicles and tents could wreak so much economic and political consternation. Canada’s largest railway is shutting down half its network, and its largest passenger carrier cancelled service nationwide.
Meanwhile, the police — armed since last week with a court injunction to clear the way for train traffic — were barely noticeable, parked in a few cruisers several hundred yards back from the Mohawk blockade.
Now, as the federal government takes steps to address the protest movement that has spread across Canada in support of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs opposing a natural gas pipeline in northern British Columbia, Transport Minister Marc Garneau says there is a reason officials are stressing dialogue over forceful intervention.
“Remember they have to take into account some history here,” Garneau told reporters in Toronto Friday, when asked why provincial authorities haven’t enforced the court injunction to clear the blockade.
“We’re talking about what happened at Ipperwash or Caledonia,” he said. “But the injunctions have to be respected because we are a country of the rule of law.”
The government is in a situation with some precedent, in other words — how to uphold a touchstone of modern democracy when a group of people consider its imposition unjustified, even illegitimate. As Cree pipe-carrier Jocelyn Wabano-Iahtail put it this week at the Tyendinaga blockade: “These invaders are coming to us and speaking to us about colonial rule of law. Those are your laws…Those colonial laws have been imposed on us.”
Here is a look at incidents in Canada’s recent history when this tension flared into conflict — sometimes with deadly consequences.
For 78 days in the summer of 1990, the small Quebec town of Oka was the scene of a tense and tragic standoff.
The immediate disagreement involved the Kanesatake Mohawk and the town leadership that wanted to expand a nine-hole golf course and build condos on a tract of disputed land. But the roots of the conflict ran all the way back to the 18th century, when the French government unilaterally awarded a stretch of territory along the Ottawa River to a missionary society.
The golf course was built in 1961, over the objections of local Mohawk who filed an official land claim in 1977. Twelve years later, in 1989, the mayor of Oka announced the course would expand to 18 holes and 60 condominiums by clearing a forest known as “The Pines” and constructing on land that included the Mohawk cemetery.
Beginning in March 1990, a group of Mohawk Warriors from the Kanesatake reserve barricaded the area and were soon joined by others from the Mohawk reserves in Kahnawake and Akwesasne. The mayor of Oka, Jean Ouellette, eventually asked the provincial police force, the Sûreté du Québec, to intervene and clear the protest camp. On July 11, police stormed the barricades with tear gas and concussion grenades. Shots were fired and police Corp. Marcel Lemay was killed.
The skirmish prompted more Indigenous supporters to join the blockade, which spread as police cordoned off roads in the area and nearby Mohawk blocked a major bridge on the Island of Montreal. By the time the standoff ended that September, 2,500 army troops were on standby as hundreds of soldiers took over from provincial police to face down the protesters at the barricades.
Quoted in Maclean’s just days before the standoff ended, George Erasmus, then national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said “This is not the last stand… This could be the first stand.”
In the end, the golf course expansion was cancelled.
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Five years later, another long-standing land dispute burst into conflict. This time it was in near Grand Bend, Ont., on the shores of Lake Huron. The local Stoney Point Ojibway reserve had lost land to non-Indigenous development repeatedly during the early 20th century, including when Ontario created Ipperwash Provincial Park.
In 1942, Ottawa asked the First Nation to agree to give up more reserve land to build a military training camp. When the First Nation refused, the government used the War Measures Act to get the land it wanted, gave the nation $50,000 in compensation and relocated its members to the nearby Kettle Point reserve.
Flash forward to 1994, when the government announced it would close the camp. Months later, in July 1995, military personnel and equipment were still there, so a group of frustrated First Nation members forced their way onto the camp and occupied it. By that September, the occupation moved into Ipperwash Provincial Park. After weeks of tension with Ontario Provincial Police, emergency response and tactical units were called into the park. In the ensuing confrontation with demonstrators, 38-year-old Dudley George was shot and killed. Another protester, Cecil Bernard George, suffered 28 blunt force trauma injuries, a beating so severe that an ambulance attendant could not find his pulse, the Star’s Peter Edwards reported.
A judge ruled in 1997 that the protesters who said they were protecting sacred burial grounds were unarmed when OPP officers fired on them. Years later, a public inquiry concluded some police officers were ignorant of Indigenous history and held racists views. Charles Harnick, the Progressive Conservative attorney general during the crisis, told the inquiry that then-premier Mike Harris had said during the occupation: “I want the f—king Indians out of the park.”
The story of the Caledonia dispute also starts many years ago, in 1784. That’s when Frederick Haldimand, then governor of the British-controlled colony of Quebec signed an agreement to grant Haudenosaunee peoples a tract of land along Ontario’s Grand River. The agreement was meant as compensation for the Haudenosaunee’s alliance with Britain during the American Revolutionary War. There have been disputes over the land ever since.
In February 2006, the long-running dispute flared up in Caledonia, a suburban community southwest of Hamilton. Mohawk from the Six Nations of the Grand River contested the construction of a new subdivision there called the Douglas Creek Estates, which was proposed on land at the centre of a legal dispute between the Mohawk nation and the federal and provincial governments.
After Mohawk demonstrators occupied the construction site for 52 days, the OPP launched a pre-dawn raid and arrested 16 demonstrators, charging them with mischief and assaulting police. The move triggered hours of disorder in which a footpath was lit on fire, a van was toppled from an overpass and three police officers were injured, including one who needed stitches after he was struck in the head with a bag of rocks, the Star reported at the time.
In the following days, supporters at the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory near Belleville blocked the railroad tracks — just like they are this week — in solidarity with the Caledonia protesters. Angry Caledonia residents jeered at police officers and kicked a cruiser as they called for law enforcement to disrupt the Mohawk demonstration, and there were scuffles at the site of barricades in the area over the ensuing weeks. That June, the Ontario government paid the property developer, ended a court injunction to clear the protest site and halted the development.
The dispute still hasn’t been resolved.