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Grassroots movements fight a broken system

For the last 75 days, land defenders from the Kanien’kehá:ka Nation at Kahnawake have been occupying an area at the end of the Old Chateauguay Road (OCR) in the hopes of stopping a proposed housing development project and reclaiming their land.

Just under a year earlier, out in Caledonia, Ontario, members of Six Nations started occupying a development site at 1535 McKenzie Road, which they renamed 1492 Land Back Lane.

With resilience and determination, these community members were able to cancel the housing development and continue to extinguish what they feel is encroachment.

Even today, post-cancellation, the members remain on the occupation.

“We’ve been planting and growing a community. We’ve got a dozen tiny homes and a kitchen set up in the communal space,” said Six Nations spokesperson Skyler Williams. “It’s about building and growing so that we can remain on the land for the foreseeable future.”

As efforts persist to maintain the ancestral land, the parcel remains subject to an unresolved land claim.

In Kahnawake, the current #LandBack grassroots movement was the result of a zoning change approved by the Chateauguay city council on March 15, 2021.

The zoning change allows a private developer, along with the municipality, to build 290 housing units on contested land, part of the ongoing Seigneury of Sault St. Louis land grievance.

Similar to many Kahnawa’kehró: non, for Williams, this fight has been ongoing. “I have been involved in this since I was
knee-high to a grasshopper,” he said.

But unlike the OCR’s ongoing occupation, 1492 Land Back Lane was able to persuade developers to give up, not without the hard and tireless work of the Six Nations community.

Caledonia

So, what set Caledonia apart?

Williams explained that it’s difficult to call any cancellation a complete victory, especially with the years of intergenerational oppression and hostility toward Indigenous lands. Cancelling one development is not the be all, end all.

“After 100 years, if my grandkids or my great-grandkids are building a house there, then we can call it a success. Until that day, we’ll keep fighting the big fight,” he expressed.

With that being said, there are elements of success to be celebrated and examined.

Due to the pandemic keeping everyone locked down during the early months of 2020, members of Six Nations set up the occupation in July. It started with about 15 to 20 people and 10 cars.

“Everything was about maintaining a peaceful occupation,” said Williams. “We went on Sunday evening, around dinnertime, established our camp and had a conversation with the police.”

When the police asked how long he thought they’d be there, the answer was simple: “Our people have been here for the last 10,000 years. We’re planning on being here for 10,000 more.” To which the officer responded: “I take it you’re going to be here a while.”

Williams explained that the cancellation of the development was only possible with the continuous efforts of his cohort. Surrounding himself with intelligent people and continuing to ask for the support of neighbouring communities was their guiding light. He also highlighted the tireless work of Six Nations women who have been combating injustice their entire lives.

After an injunction was issued on August 5, 2020, the Ontario Provincial Police raided the occupation and arrested nine people, Williams included.

Successfully raising half a million dollars through a GoFundMe, the land defenders were able to pay for the cost of any legal fees that came from these arrests.

“Those were the only four hours in the last 400 days that our people were not on that land.” Kahnawa’kehró:non Joe Deom, a representative of the Longhouse on Route 207, said that land defenders learned from watching the Caledonia occupation and knew that they had to move fast before things escalated.

“In Caledonia, construction had already started, and it became a very confrontational issue. We learned about the city of Chateauguay zoning change for this particular parcel two months prior to our occupation,” said Deom. “We decided that July 1 (2021) would be a good day to make an impact on Chateauguay, on Quebec and the federal government, and prior to any construction taking place.”

Here in the community, the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK) expressed concerns related to the OCR development
and had been in communication with the mayor of Chateauguay, Pierre-Paul Routhier, about the project as far back as 2018.

Caledonia

Following news of the occupation, MCK grand chief Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer said that Council was in full support of the actions taken by the Longhouse regarding the occupation.

Furthermore, the MCK criticized the inaction on the part of the federal government vis-à-vis the unresolved Seigneury of Sault St. Louis land claim, which was formally recognized in 2003.

On the topic of inaction, Williams pointed out his grave disappointment for the lack of intervention from the federal government throughout the entire process in Caledonia. “The federal government has dropped the ball in such a huge regard it is absolutely ridiculous,” he said.

Along with the traditional government, the elected council in Caledonia has also been involved, coming out with a moratorium on development.

“They echoed that call for the stopping of development around the Grand River – not just Caledonia – but six miles on either side,” said Williams.

According to the MCK, negotiations for the Seigneury of Sault St. Louis land claim have been at a standstill since 2016. Sky-Deer told The Eastern Door that during a conversation with Crown-Indigenous Relations minister Carolyn Bennett in August, it became apparent that she did not have much knowledge about the ongoing claim or the occupation.

“I told her (Bennett) that she should not be surprised if we start seeing more of these types of occupations,” said Sky-Deer.

The Longhouse previously said that over the years, it had become clear that it could not rely on the governments of Canada and Quebec to give the community its land back, and it is only through acts of self-determination that Onwehón:we people can restore their territorial integrity.

“I think morale is high,” said Deom. “We have a very positive attitude about the occupation.”

He expressed frustration about the history of encroachment in Kahnawake, from the construction of the Seaway to the highways and tower lines that cut through the territory.

“The federal government never cautioned Chateauguay or any of their citizens from avoiding that area because it was
under claim. We looked at that area as a way to set an example as to the incursion of non-Indigenous peoples settling on our territory,” he said.

Williams reiterated that the land claims process in Canada is broken and that it affects all Indigenous communities in similar ways. He explained the importance of acknowledging that it’s the government, the RCMP, and other police forces that have divided communities and created chaos and hostility.

“We need the space and time without our lands being developed to be able to heal from old wounds. There’s lots of people that disagree with one another, but most disagreements are not the fault of our own. It was designed this way.”

The mayor of Caledonia, Ken Hewitt, had bought two houses in the particular development that was being protested.

Over in Kahnawake, mayor Routhier and the Longhouse have met a few times since the occupation started. The mayor has said that he understood their position, but that it is up to the federal government to resolve the dispute.

He suggested that Canada purchase the land and use it as a buffer between both communities – an idea that was heavily disparaged by the Longhouse and the majority of Kahnawa’kehró:non.

“He has come to the site a couple of times, and we are on civil speaking terms with him. But we are not naive to think that he is going to be able to change anything,” said Deom.

“And he has also said to us that as soon as the environmental concerns are cleared up, he has no choice but to issue the permits for the construction.”

Further, Deom explained that the Longhouse is now keeping a close eye on the Seigneury of Sault St. Louis land claim because of the effects it continues to have on the territory.

“As far as the population in Chateauguay adjacent to the land in question, the local residents there are firmly against the project, and some have come to the site to express their support for what we are doing,” he said.

However difficult to compare two multifaceted situations, one can only hope the achievements of the Six Nations community ripples across the St. Lawrence River toward town.

There was never a moment, in these 14 months, that Williams wanted to give up.

“It’s hard. For folks who want to do this stuff, it’s f*kng hard. But if you put yourself together with a good team behind you and are willing to do what it takes to be able to maintain your space on the land, it is achievable.”

Williams hopes that their success at Land Back Lane reverberates across all of Turtle Island. “This is a generational struggle. When we fight, we stick together, and we do it in the spirit of love and unity.”

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