‘A community that won’t back down’: The battle at Land Back Lane

Unresolved Six Nations’ land claims mean ‘the only way to guarantee the land stays untouched is to put bodies on the ground’
Christopher Curtis
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CALEDONIA, Ont. — Skyler Williams walked out the door that night, wondering if he’d make it back home.

He was there after they shot Dudley George dead at Ipperwash. Just a scrawny teenager in 1995, he skipped school so he could stand shoulder to shoulder with the warriors at Ipperwash Provincial Park, reclaiming land taken by the Canadian government during World War II.

Eleven years later, when the struggle came to his backyard, Williams kissed his baby daughters goodbye to fight land development. When police tried to clear his comrades from Douglas Creek Estates in Caledonia, he defended the land with his body.

During a police raid at the time, Williams was captured and thrown in jail. A judge ordered him to stay there for seven months without so much as a trial. He spent the better part of that year in solitary confinement.

He harboured no illusions about the life of a dissident: you stood your ground, you got arrested and sometimes things went terribly wrong.

But now, in 2020, the situation felt different.

“There’s nothing that the courts, the cops and these politicians can do to dissuade us.”

This time, Williams had a wife and four teenage daughters to think of. There were house payments, college funds and an ironworker job that might not be so understanding if Williams got locked up again.

This time he’d have a target on his back, because this time he had been chosen to speak on behalf of the land defenders.

So he sat the girls down and told them he was about to embark on a dangerous mission. He’d be part of a group of 20 people who would occupy a construction site on contested land, just outside their home on Six Nations territory in Southern Ontario.

“I told them that daddy might not come home,” said Williams. “I told them that sometimes — in the fog of things — police shoot Indigenous people. When you make a stand, you have to be willing to put it all on the line. There are no half measures.

“My youngest cried.”

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It was a sweltering day in July when Williams and the other land defenders drove into the McKenzie Meadows housing development and pitched their tents. Now, nearly four months later, they can feel the winter winds sweeping off Lake Erie.

Soon the rain will make way for sleet and snow.

Most of the 50 or so land defenders who’ve taken part in the occupation so far have either been arrested or have a warrant hanging over their heads.

A few have been shot with rubber bullets, and at least two were hit by Ontario Provincial Police Tasers during raids in August and October.

Last month a judge granted police a permanent injunction against the camp, adding to the court losses and small fortune in legal fees piling up against the defenders.

But the camp is still standing.

“There’s nothing that the courts, the cops and these politicians can do to dissuade us,” Williams said. “We need to make the stands that we need to make. And we need to make them now.”

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Christopher Curtis

A vision on a clay field

McKenzie Meadows is a piece of the Canadian dream on contested land.

Hundreds of future homes just a 20-minute drive from downtown Hamilton, nestled amid some of the finest golf courses south of Toronto.

A sign outside the development once read “Your Kind of Community” in glowing white letters. It depicted a red-haired woman in a dress, standing in a sunsoaked field with her arms outstretched. One day, these tall blades of grass could be the site of her driveway or backyard jacuzzi.

The sign said nothing about the Mohawk, Cayuga, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca or Tuscarora, the nations that make up the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Nor did it mention the reserve territory of Six Nations of the Grand River bordering McKenzie Meadows.

And nothing, not even the sign’s fine print, bothered with another crucial detail — that this future suburb is at the heart of a 46-year-old land claim pitting the Haudenosaunee against the federal government.

That sign is gone now.

It’s been replaced by a piece of plywood with “1492 Landback Lane” painted onto it. That’s the name Haudenosaunee land defenders gave the site after taking it over on July 19.

When the land defenders drove onto the site last summer, Foxgate Developments Inc., the company behind McKenzie Meadows, had only just begun work on the 218-home subdivision.

“We’re still playing out the original injustice of colonization. Land was taken, wealth derived from it and First Nations didn’t receive fair compensation.”

The land had been flattened to make way for paved roads and fiber optic cables. Soon it would be chock-full of swimming pools and freshly sodded lawns. But for now it was still just the skeleton of a suburb. You had to fill in the rest with your imagination.

It isn’t so hard to see the future as the people at Foxgate Developments do. The value of real estate in Hamilton has doubled since 2010, according to the website listings.com.

And while McKenzie Meadows is little more than a vision on a clay field, dozens have already invested their savings to buy a piece of the dream sight unseen.

One of those people is Haldimand County Mayor Ken Hewitt, who told the Toronto Star he put a down payment on a home at the development for one of his children.

Hewitt has called on the OPP to crack down on Williams, and praised them after officers arrested Williams’ wife, Kahsenniyo, on Oct. 14. She visited the camp to read a poem to the land defenders and, in doing so, violated an injunction against 1492 Land Back Lane.

“I will say that the only people criminalizing these protesters are themselves,” Hewitt wrote in a post on his Facebook page. “I will continue to support the OPP in their efforts and applaud them for taking the stand, such as arresting family members of Skyler Williams.

“I look forward to hearing of his arrest shortly.”

Hewitt declined to be interviewed by Ricochet for this article.

Skyler Williams
Christopher Curtis

Land claims languish

Whether Williams is a trespasser, or Foxgate Developments is building on stolen Indigenous territory, depends on who you ask.

The land at the centre of this conflict was paid for by the Haudenosaunee nations who fought alongside England during the Revolutionary War.

As American soldiers began retaking upstate New York from the British in 1779, General George Washington ordered thousands of soldiers to march on Haudenosaunee villages and burn them to the ground.

Outnumbered four to one, the Haudenosaunee came north to what is now Canada, where the Crown repaid their military service with 950,000 acres of land on either side of the Grand River.

What happened over the next few generations is a matter of legal dispute.

The Crown claims most of the Haudenosaunee lands were surrendered back to England in 1841. The Six Nations claim they were duped and that the land sale was negotiated in bad faith, with the wrong authorities.

Less than 5 per cent of the original land grant remains in the possession of the Six Nations and, as the community of roughly 26,000 can attest, it can scarcely serve their needs.

By nightfall, I stood by the glow of burning tires, watching the plumes of black smoke dance into the sky

Between 1974 and 1995, the Six Nations of the Grand River band council submitted 29 separate land claims to the federal government. Only one was resolved. To this day, thousands of acres are still being fought over by legal means but, as the process nears its 50th year, the sprawl of Southern Ontario is swallowing what little is left of Haudenosaunee territory.

If the people of Six Nations have to wait for the courts to rule on their land claim, McKenzie Meadows will likely be a foregone conclusion. In this sense, it may not be bulldozers, injunctions or police that are most threatening to their land but rather the slow, inevitable passage of time.

“Really, the only way to guarantee the land stays untouched is to put bodies on the ground,” said Kirsten Anker, a professor of Indigenous law at McGill University.

“The land may have never been surrendered or surrendered under dodgy circumstances but in an area of law called equity, if you wait too long to make your claim, the court can use its discretion to fight against you.

“In other words, the court doesn’t consider it fair to the other party and, even if your claim is legitimate, it can be invalidated.”

Anker points to the case of a Chippewa nation outside Sarnia that tried to sue the government for damages over a 2,500-acre parcel of land bought by a speculator in the 1800s. The Chippewas filed suit in 1996, and the Supreme Court used the 150-year delay as a justification for ruling against them.

“We’re still playing out the original injustice of colonization. Land was taken, wealth derived from it and First Nations didn’t receive fair compensation,” said Anker.

“That’s why framing the movement as ‘Land Back’ is so powerful. It’s super blunt but it puts its finger on the heart of the matter.”

Christopher Curtis

‘The police couldn’t have done us a bigger favour’

Skyler Williams sat behind the wheel of a white Buick, cruising past a tire fire as it melted into the pavement on Argyle St.

He pulled up to the parking lot of Caledonia Baptist Church, where land defenders were trying to hotwire a school bus and move it onto the country road. The big yellow jalopy would reinforce their barricades nicely, he said.

A few hundred metres to the south, a column of OPP trucks formed a wall between Six Nations and downtown Caledonia. The OPP were chased off the territory on the night of Oct. 22 after trying to arrest a young man for throwing a rock at one of their cruisers.

When I’d arrived at camp that morning, rain and boredom were the order of the day. By nightfall, I stood by the glow of burning tires, watching the plumes of black smoke dance into the sky, wondering how the conflict had escalated so quickly.

“The police couldn’t have done us a bigger favour,” said Williams. “Every time they come in and they try to commit these violent acts, this is our community’s reaction to it.

“To see 300 people out here in the middle of the night after rubber bullets went flying past our ears. They didn’t run away from it, they ran towards it. That speaks to the resolve of land defenders and a community that won’t back down no matter what you throw at them.”

Tensions cooled, but not before the Haudenosaunee redrew the borders of the Land Back conflict.

Williams took a haul of his cigarette and rolled down the car window to let some air in. His eyes were glassy and sunken. He wore the same red t-shirt and army jacket he’d had on the previous day.

He looked hungry.

When Williams says he won’t back down, his words carry weight.

“We’re under no illusions that (Williams) did this on a whim,” said a federal official not authorized to speak to the media. “Communities don’t block roads or impede development haphazardly. They know it’s something that can land them in a jail cell, they know it’s something that will piss off their non-Indigenous neighbours.

“We have no reason to believe this won’t continue to be a peaceful occupation but we know it won’t be an easy one to resolve either.”

Williams knows this too.

When he was taken away by the OPP in 2006, the Crown charged him with assaulting a peace officer, resisting arrest and burglary. He was denied parole and spent months in isolation.

“I spent 24 hours a day alone,” he said. “I was allowed to read the Bible and my court files. I’m not Christian and I’m not a lawyer. So you can imagine it wasn’t always easy. But it sharpened my mind and it sharpened my resolve.”

The charges against Williams were eventually dropped, and he went back to his life as an ironworker.

Christopher Curtis

‘They take and they take and they take’

The battle lines at Land Back Lane were redrawn just before dusk on Oct. 22. That morning, about 20 people were occupying the site.

By late afternoon, the Ontario Superior Court issued a permanent injunction against the camp, allowing police to arrest whoever was at McKenzie Meadows for contempt of court. Simply put, no one at Land Back Lane could leave without risking arrest.

This wasn’t anything new. Injunctions had been granted, renewed and repeatedly violated by the land defenders. If they needed to leave the camp for a warm shower or a night with their children, they would sneak out through a path under the hydro towers that leads back to Six Nations. But the path had been battered by weeks of hard rain, leaving it soaked and muddy. By mid-October, the camp was covered in wet clay.

It wasn’t uncommon to see someone lose their footing and land face first in the cold muck, only to slip a few more times on their way back up. Cars loaded with supplies sometimes had to be abandoned in the sludge until the ground dried up or someone could commandeer a tractor to haul the vehicle back into camp.

Misery had settled over them like a cold fog.

The land defenders had survived OPP raids and traded blows with officers who fired rubber bullets and Tasers at them. Sometimes, it felt like the boredom might actually be worse than the lingering possibility of conflict.

They had a weekly lacrosse game on Saturdays, “solidarity jams” where musicians would drop by and serenade the group with a few tunes and had even invented something called “lagolf” — a golf-lacrosse hybrid — to help pass the time.

Only about 4 per cent of the reserve’s 26,000 residents vote in council elections.

As winter drew closer, though, the fun and games died down. How much longer could the camp hold out if time dragged on and court losses kept piling up?

Had you asked the land defenders that question at 4:30 p.m. that day in October — with even the most hardcore among them looking downtrodden — it’s unclear what their answer would have been.

That’s when things went off.

Just as news of the latest injunction travelled through Six Nations, a masked young man walked up to an OPP cruiser on Argyle St. and hurled a rock at it, cracking its windshield. That triggered a forceful response from police, who descended on him and others, unloading rubber bullets and at least one electrically charged projectile.

And just like that, a few dozen tired land defenders turned into hundreds of Haudenosaunee, chasing police from Six Nations. They reinforced their position with pickup trucks and a pile of smouldering tires.

In the midst of the chaos, someone took a 60-inch tractor tire and lit it ablaze at the base of a hydro pole at the entrance of Caledonia.

“Let it burn,” a man yelled over the crackle of the flames. “They take and they take and they take. And we try to be patient and we try to be good neighbours but they just take and take.

“Now they fire at us, they shoot at us. Well, I say the time for talking is over, we’re going for broke. We have to. How else will we be heard?”

The hydro pole snapped overnight.

Tensions cooled, but not before the Haudenosaunee redrew the borders of the Land Back conflict.

Front-end loaders worked until dawn to carve a six-foot trench into the asphalt on Argyle St. They rolled the yellow school bus into the pit, spray-painting “Landback Tours” onto its side.

The bus lay on the pavement like a crumpled beer can, bleeding coolant into the ground. Still, the bus had enough juice left in it to make the “ding ding ding” sound indicating its side door was ajar.

Over on the other side of camp, machine operators dug two six-foot trenches to block the front entrance to the site. If the OPP wanted to force their way in, they’d need to get creative.

For now, that seemed unlikely.

Christopher Curtis

Who speaks for Six Nations?

Ever since the inquiry into the OPP shooting of unarmed land defender Dudley George at Ipperwash in 1995, the provincial police have adopted what one commander calls a “flexible” approach to Indigenous land disputes.

Last month, OPP commander John Cain told an Ontario Superior Court judge that the police were in Caledonia to keep the peace and enforce court orders. They had a team of negotiators in place to talk to Williams but, as much as possible, their aim was to avoid conflict.

At least, that’s what the official OPP policy is.

While it may not be police procedure to take sides in this dispute, land defenders say justice seems to only go one way in their struggle to retake McKenzie Meadows.

Their argument has some historical basis. A 2019 study by the Yellowhead Institute found that of nearly 100 injunctions sought by corporations against First Nations, 76 per cent were approved by the courts. Meanwhile, 81 per cent of the injunctions sought by First Nations against developers were denied.

“Companies take advantage of a legal system designed to protect property,” the report reads. “However, alienation is not simply a process of straight theft because it often requires the compliance of First Nation governments.”

This is where things get even more complicated.

Last year, the elected government at Six Nations signed an accommodation agreement with Foxgate Developments that awarded the council $352,000, 17 hectares of land and “employment opportunities” for community members in exchange for public support of the McKenzie Meadows project.

While it’s true Hemi wore camouflage pants, combat boots, a tactical vest and a mask, the most dangerous thing I saw on his person was a can of Skoal chewing tobacco.

Now the question becomes, does the elected council really speak for the people of Six Nations of the Grand River? Again, it depends who you ask.

Only about 4 per cent of the reserve’s 26,000 residents vote in council elections because — as is the case with Mohawk communities in Quebec and Ontario — traditionalists believe the elected chief system isn’t a legitimate form of government. Because band councils are a creation of the Indian Act, many see them as merely an extension of the federal government.

“You can’t say that the band council represents the people,” Williams said. “At least not with a straight face. Just because a few hundred people voted for chief and council doesn’t mean they get to decide for the other 25,000 of us.”

In Six Nations, people like Williams adhere to the Haudenosaunee Confederacy — a system of chiefs chosen by clan mothers that goes back a thousand years.

Internal divisions between elected and hereditary chiefs were one of the trickiest issues for federal negotiators during the Wet’suwet’en blockades in B.C. last winter. And sources in the Liberal government say those same tensions make it difficult for federal cabinet ministers to broker a deal that would end the current crisis in Caledonia.

“We can’t just go in and meet with the Confederacy because then we lose all credibility with the elected council,” a federal source said. “We’re working on a deal that would put us at the table with the band council, the Confederacy and the land defenders.”

Tensions became apparent in August after someone burned down the home of Six Nations Grand Chief Mark Hill. The arson came shortly after an OPP raid on Land Back Lane.

Williams immediately condemned the act of violence and described his relationship with Hill as amicable. He said his “heart goes out” to the chief and his family.

Further complicating matters, Ontario Premier Doug Ford has taken a hard tack against the land defenders, calling them “a few rotten apples” who needed to be “straightened out” in a statement released after the hostilities on Oct. 22.

Ford and Hewitt insist there’s a deal to be made but that it won’t happen as long as Williams and the others remain on site.

A land defender named Brian walks his dogs below the hydro lines
Christopher Curtis

‘The townsfolk are not happy about losing their Netflix’

The morning after police were chased off Argyle Rd., townspeople gathered by the OPP barricades to let off some steam.

“Hey Skyler, why don’t you come over here for a chat?” a grey-haired man yelled from the Canadian Tire parking lot.

“Our tax dollars at work,” a woman muttered. “This is terrorism.”

Many of the officers there were called in from nearby detachments to reinforce the Cayuga station in Haldimand County. They looked bored.

The fire from the previous evening cut off power to a few dozen homes near the Canadian Tire on Argyle Rd. Plainclothes negotiators spoke to Williams in hopes that he’d allow a team from Hydro One to enter the area and repair the power lines.

“The townsfolk are not happy about losing their Netflix,” he said. “It was much worse in 2006. Back then you had 200 pissed-off white people screaming and hollering at the Natives. This is tame.”

Just then a reporter from Radio-Canada pointed to a land defender dressed in military fatigues.

“I bet he’s armed to the teeth,” the journalist said.

Kahsenniyo was in high school when she organized her first protest, a march against the Douglas Creek Estates land development.

I’d sat with that same land defender, who goes by “Hemi,” a few hours earlier. While it’s true Hemi wore camouflage pants, combat boots, a tactical vest and a mask, the most dangerous thing I saw on his person was a can of Skoal chewing tobacco — which, over a long enough timeline, can cause mouth cancer.

He’d shared some with me while we stood in the rain the previous afternoon. I remember trying to make conversation, asking him what he’s been watching on television these days.

“Before Land Back Lane?” he asked. “Not much. We got rez internet here. Slow. Unreliable. Rez internet, rez cell reception, rez satellite TV — not much to write home about.”

We mostly just stood in silence and spat.

A young man whom I’ll call Hunter also joined us that day. He said he came to Land Back Lane to be free, so free in fact that the mere fact of his existence would be an act of resistance in and of itself. He spoke softly and sometimes would stop dead in the middle of a sentence to walk away. He was intense. But he also took me for a walk around camp and took the time to explain the Cayuga marking on his vest.

When the police were chased off the territory on Oct. 22, Hunter rubbed his fingers through the ash of burning tires and smeared it across his face. He paced in silence while the other young men traded war stories.

'Hemi'
Christopher Curtis

‘What it is that we’re willing, as a family, to do’

The majority of townspeople I came across expressed a vague sense of solidarity with the land defenders. They agreed that the Haudenosaunee had been wronged and that there had to be some remedy.

But, almost to a person, they disagreed with the tactics used at Land Back Lane.

Williams’ wife says the camp’s loudest critic, Mayor Ken Hewitt, has made life difficult for her family.

“To us, this isn’t personal. We have nothing against the settlers. But Mayor Hewitt has really focused a lot of hate onto the Williams family,” said Kahsenniyo.

“For someone to encourage the police to arrest Skyler’s family members, you’re talking about a mother and four teenage girls.”

Kahsenniyo was sitting on a park bench outside Six Nations when two OPP vans rolled up on her. Within a few moments, she was handcuffed and carted off to Cayuga detachment in Haldimand County.

They released her on a promise to appear in court later this fall.

“I knew that there was a warrant out for my arrest,” she said. “It limits what you can do. I mean, you’re safe as long as you stay on the territory and when you leave to go get groceries or do whatever you know there’s a possibility the police will pick you up.

“That day, I was just sitting on a park bench trying to catch my breath a little bit.”

Essentially, the only way for Williams to fight development in court is by allowing it to continue.

Kahsenniyo was in high school when she organized her first protest, a march against the Douglas Creek Estates land development. And just like Williams, she’s learned that resistance comes at a price.

As her daughters grow older, she realizes that they too carry some of that weight.

“I guess normal families have meetings about dishes and chores. We talk about what’s going to happen when mom and dad get arrested,” said Kahsenniyo. “We discuss capacity, sacrifice and fears. We talk about what it is that we’re willing, as a family, to do.

“They understand our responsibility as parents and they understand our responsibility to the land. They also understand theirs.”

After Hewitt’s comments about their mother’s arrest, three of Kahsenniyo’s daughters wrote an open letter to the mayor.

“Instead of questioning our right to the land, question your own,” wrote 18-year-old Nora. “Instead of trying to understand, you chose force. Instead of reason, you chose underhanded and violent tactics.

“Instead of basic rights, you chose to try to expand what power you have in a shameful attempt to sway OPP officials to target the elderly and children.”

Lola, 14, wrote about seeing the OPP outside her school and about what it’s like for her family to carry the burden of racism directed at them.

“It’s so hard to consistently worry about what will happen next, to worry for my sisters’ safety,” wrote 16-year-old Mikayah. “Our people know how this feels, and our responsibilities will always guide our actions, even when we are afraid.”

Born into the life

Williams parked his Buick in a field along Argyle St. and watched as a storm rolled into Haudenosaunee territory.

He knows he cannot win this battle in court. Williams isn’t allowed to have legal representation or even argue on his own behalf until he surrenders himself to police and abandons the camp once and for all.

By occupying the construction site, Williams is in contempt of an Ontario Superior Court order demanding he leave McKenzie Meadows.

"It is never proper or acceptable to achieve your goals, regardless of how heartfelt they are, in open defiance of the law and in flagrant disregard for the life and property of others," said Judge R.J. Harper in his Oct. 22 ruling.

Essentially, the only way for Williams to fight development in court is by allowing it to continue. Without recourse in the legal system, he’s holding out hope for a political solution, something that might come out of a meeting with Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller.

There is also the possibility that Six Nations eventually gets compensation for its land claims. The band council could use that money to buy land in neighbouring cities when it goes on the market. But that seems unlikely.

“Is there a mayor you can think of that would allow his tax base to shrink, that would allow his city to get smaller so that Haudenosaunee can move into the neighbourhood?” Williams said. “No one would sell us their land. There’s no incentive for them to do that.”

He spoke loudly to be heard over the rain.

If the people of Six Nations have to wait for the courts to rule on their land claim, McKenzie Meadows will likely be a foregone conclusion.

“You see that field? That’s where they tried to build Douglas Creek Estates in ’06,” Williams said. “It’s gone back to what it was: shrub, trees, wildlife. Our connection to that, you can’t describe it in words....

“It’s in our DNA.”

They resisted at Caledonia in 2006, and ultimately the development was abandoned. But a lifetime of resisting, of fighting merely to exist as you’ve always existed, can be exhausting.

When Williams was 14, he hopped in a truck with his friend and his friend’s father and they drove two hours west to Ipperwash. That friend is dead now.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Life happened. Life, drugs, bullshit,” Williams said.

“We didn’t choose this life of resistance, we were born into it. And it’s a lot to carry. There are plenty of Indigenous people who go about their lives, go to work, raise their kids, stay out of the struggle and I can’t blame them for that. There’s a dignity to that.

“But I can’t do it. This is my life. I don’t know if it’s a choice I make, I just do it. I just resist.”

This article was produced through The Rover, Christopher Curtis’s investigative journalism project with Ricochet. Sign up below for `weekly newsletters from the front lines of journalism.
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