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Refusing to be Silent

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Issue: 49 Section: Opinion Geography: Ontario Tyendinega Topics: Indigenous

August 22, 2007

Refusing to be Silent

Economic Disruption in Indian Country

by Sue Collis

A sign shows support for economic disruptions in support of addressing native rights and land claims.

Photo: OCAP

On Friday, August 10th my husband, Shawn Brant, was denied bail for the second time on charges relating to the closure of the CN main line, a provincial highway and the 401. Shawn is a member of the Mohawk Nation, from the community of Tyendinaga. The context for all the charges he currently faces include unresolved land claims, poverty, suicides and polluted water throughout First Nations communities across Canada.

It would certainly be nice if, by 2007 the Canadian justice system had become a bastion of tolerance, devoid of bias. Unfortunately, what I saw on August 10th was a few isolated snippets from newspaper reports being treated as determining factors in whether another First Nations person was locked up or returned to his family.

As I drove home, I found myself contemplating the best way to tell my children that they would have to wait an unknown period of time before seeing their Dad, and wondering how to explain (to a seven and five year old) why that this was the case.

As the reality of our severed family hit me, I reminded myself how much worse it is for the thousands of families in First Nations communities who lose their babies to CAS (the Children's Aid Society) because they don't have enough money to feed them. Or for the mothers who bathe their babies in water that is just as likely to make them sick as it is to clean them. Or for the families who face the horrible grief of burying their children after they take their own lives rather than live on without hope for anything better.

And thinking about that, I was of course reminded about why Shawn is in jail to begin with: because the Canadian Government recognizes that my husband is a person who can put a voice to that suffering. Shawn has been at the forefront of a process of carving out a National platform that exposed Canada's dismal and embarrassing record towards First Nations peoples. For perhaps the first time, an environment was being created where Canadians at large cared whether First Nations children lived or died.

In trying to understand how bunk 18, dorm 4 of the Quinte Detention Centre has become my husband's home, I have had the opportunity to reflect on how this all began.

It was shortly after the election of Mike Harris in Ontario in 1995: Dudley George lay dead and the infamous 21.6% welfare cut had been imposed. While severe to everyone on fixed income, it was particularly devastating to First Nations communities. In the absence of economic opportunities, compounded with geographical isolation and the still very prevalent impact of residential school abuses, the cut to welfare was crushing. But there was hope. Organized labour rallied and kicked off a campaign of rotating economic disruptions. It was a plan designed to target government and private industry, starting small and escalating over time unless Government met the movement's demands. "We can't have passive resistance," said Sid Ryan, president of the Ontario division of the Canadian Union of Public Employees. "We have to send a strong message to Mike Harris and the business community that if they want to change the social network it's going to be one hell of a fight."

"The safety of kids is at issue," Ryan said. "The transportation is going to be shut down, likewise GO trains... There's going to be chaos in the highways."

Starting in places like London and Kitchener Waterloo, infrastructure was targeted and the cities systematically shut down. In October 1996, labour converged in Toronto, and in one massive show of solidarity, some 300 businesses, Government buildings and services were completely shut down. The Toronto Transit Commission, which normally carried two million riders daily, was completely stationary. The Canada Post facility responsible for sorting 50% of the country's mail was shut. Pearson International Airport cancelled numerous flights as passengers rearranged their schedules to avoid the chaos of the day. The Canadian Auto Workers disrupted the airport's cargo terminal for five hours. Libraries were closed, marriage licences unavailable and garbage pick-up cancelled. Essentially all municipal services were either shut down or curtailed. Hospitals across Toronto cancelled all non-essential surgery and rescheduled chemotherapy sessions. In short, the single largest municipality in the country came to a grinding halt. Millions of dollars were lost to the economy province-wide. United Steelworkers representative Carolyn Egan described the day as, "...only one battle. We haven't won the war." And Ryan warned at the time, "If we don't see the language, if we don't see the promised changes... in 48 hours, we'll be calling a province-wide strike."

A decade later, in November 2006, the Mohawk community of Tyendinaga--in response to unresolved land claims, polluted drinking water, overwhelming poverty and suicides in all First Nations communities--launched a campaign similar to those days of action. It announced a plan of rotating economic disruption. The campaign started with road closures and business disruptions. In March, a quarry on Mohawk land was taken over and permanently closed. April 20th the CN main line was closed for 30 hours and on June 29th, the CN main line, highway 2 and Highway 401 were simultaneously targeted and closed for a 24-hour period. And the message resonated. In the lead up and wake of June 29th, Aboriginal issues enjoyed enormous support from the Canadian public with Angus Reid showing 71 per cent of Canadians wanting actions on land claims and 41 per cent of Ontarians prepared to acknowledge rail blockades as justified given the current landscape.

It is worth noting the reactions to these two very similar campaigns. The economic repercussions of the labour movement's rotating and escalating city shut-downs far surpassed June 29th, and yet no labour leader was ever jailed, let alone charged. I am left to wonder at the difference in State response. The message appears to be if you are Indian, somehow your grievances do not warrant the same respect or attention. You are to suffer in silence.

As lawyer Howard Morton said at Shawn's bail review, "There is not a right that exists in this country that was not achieved through varying degrees of struggle and civil unrest."

If in the year 2007, Shawn is to sit in jail for forcing attention to the National crisis that is the subhuman conditions throughout First Nations communities, when literally centuries of following the "appropriate channels" of redress have utterly failed, then so be it.

Locking up Aboriginal people who are not prepared to ignore the atrocities of the state or suffer silently is certainly not without precedent in this country. In 1924 the Canadian Government employed the military to kill one Mohawk traditional Chief in an effort to break the Iroquois Confederacy and bring the Mohawks under the control of the current Indian Act Band Council system. Many others Chiefs were imprisoned for a total of seven seasons without valid charges. My husband is just completing the end of his first season behind bars and says: "I should sit with pride and honour sit for six more to equal the sacrifice my ancestors made for us, so that we might have a chance to exist."

The events of June 29th inspired pride and hope across Indian country. Perhaps that is what the Government considers most dangerous.

Sue Collis is the wife of Shawn Brant, and mother of two children. She lives in Tyendinaga, Mohawk Territory.

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Refusing to Be Silent

Dear Sue,

It is with great empathy that I read your article and my deepest support goes out to you, your family, and your community...in fact to the broader Aboriginal community of what is known as Canada. As a mother, Aboriginal community leader, and a proud descendent of the First People I can share with you the questions that you ponder.

My family has endured terrible economic and emotional hardship during the recent years as we attempt to gain recognition for our community's inherent Aboriginal rights against the insidious machinations known as Canada's Aboriginal policies, designed specifically to minimize or completely erode the actual legal rights and contracts held by the Aboriginal people. As the elected leader, and descendent of the traditional hereditary leaders of the Kichesipirini Algonquin First Nation, rightful political and economic centre of the Algonquin Nation, I have been discriminated against, through the application of Canada's Comprehensive Claim Policy and the Indian Act to the point of financial ruin and homelessness, while those with less legitimate claims benefit, prosper, and negotiate away our broadest Aboriginal rights under the pretence of the "Algonquins of Ontario" Land Claim Negotiations currently underway.

This situation, the Algonquin Land Claim, is a blatant contemporary example of the many issues you, your husband, and community have been attempting to draw attention to for years. Let me affirm for you that the issues you address, although distinct to your particular situation, are consistent with the concerns and realities faced by thousands of persons of Aboriginal descent throughout Canada, and that the sources of such social and personal mayhem trace their way back to Canada's severely flawed and devious Aboriginal policy and practices.

Few Canadians realize the severity of layers of complex injustices woven into Canada's official relationship with the Original People of the Land. It has been my contention, as a result of direct experience with the Algonquin situation that the people, all people, have not been adequately or objectively educated or informed about the actual Aboriginal situation in Canada and the strange parodies imposed on the people in the name of reconciliation, Treaty, negotiations, consultation or de-colonization. The process is fraudulent, manipulative, intimidating and fraught with corruption...as it is designed to be...because the Canada that many call home has been built on a false foundation.

I find myself and my family physically coming full circle...homeless within our own territory....."stragglers" and "squatters" again as we were administratively referred to when the Canadian government needed to eliminate the Kichesipirini so that they could gain control of our great river, currently known as the Ottawa, and exploit the vast natural forest resources of the Algonquin Nation. By eliminating the political centre and dispersing the people to Indian Act or mission reserves any collective resistance or legal obligation could be avoided....temporarily. More than 150 years later, within a process hyped to bring compensation and reconciliation, the Kichesipirini are still being denied rightful recognition. Will the oppression of Aboriginal people continue....from without as well as within? That is really a question individuals will have to decide and act upon.

Like your community the Algonquins have had boarders imposed, traditional governance interfered with, families separated and sabotaged. For centuries the Algonquin people, all Aboriginal people, have endured the policies, disruptions and humiliations imposed on us, adapting or just existing in whatever means were available.....but the time has come that the truth must be told. Canada has not acted honourably. Canada has upheld the honour of the Crown as it promised. Canada has perverted the legal and moral obligations owed the Original titleholders of the land and the time for genuine reconciliation has come. But we cannot reconcile those differences alone. We are equally dependent on all other Canadians to participate in the process. Thanks to people such as your husband the difficult facts and the ugly realities are gradually making their way into the homes and conversations of the Canadian people. Refusing to be silent is a valuable gift being given. Thank you.

Canada cannot hide or afford the corruption any longer. Bureaucrats, native and non-native alike, and businessmen, native and non-native, have illegitimately profited for far too long. The false information, the scapegoating, the criminalization of resisters has gone on for too long and average Canadians are beginning to get suspicious that they have been manipulated and used as pawns in an agenda that they did not give informed consent to.

Thank goodness for us all that there are individuals as brave as Shawn Brant, Dudley George, Leonard Peletier, Anthony Hall, David Clarke, ......countless others, that have attempted to draw attention to the terrible injustices regarding the Original People of Turtle Island....Sadly, the persons of Aboriginal descent, trying to fulfill their obligations to ancestors, communities and descendents, are forced to pay an inflated price for rights and human dignities others can glibly take for granted. This is a social rights movement. It is a social rights movement that is far more threatening than any previous because human rights, social rights, racial rights, civil rights are not only at stake here....but the very foundations of political entities positioned atop mountains of legal complicity...and the very title to the land and resources itself. How extremely brave those individuals must be that attempt to challenge such powerhouses!!!!!! They will in due time be recognized as heroes and rightfully honoured. Explain that Sue to your young children, and take comfort in the difficult hours. This is only the beginning.

But beware of false prophets; leaders and resistance movements just as corrupt as what we are trying to escape. Many abound initiating class action suits, organizing new age traditional governments, resurrecting myth and legend. Demand facts, legitimacy, truthfulness and historical integrity. Rely on the assistance and expertise of those willing to provide....and rely on the wisdom and patience of our ancestors. What is right is worth doing right.

It is my hope, and the hope of my community, that a genuine path can be forged that will honour the legal and moral commitments of the past, preserve the resources of today, and provide for the needs of the future....sanely and responsibly. Although diverse, and also vulnerable to conflicts and divisions amongst us, the Aboriginal people, as tribal people, contrary to industrialized societies, for the most part shared a common awareness of their inherent dependence on this natural world bestowed us. If we can nurture and expand on that great intuition and again exercise responsibility and integrity in that area, in our role as stewards, we can move in confidence. If we can act as advocates for sustainability and justice our time should come sooner.

While many, in ignorance, continue to criminalize those that are attempting to initiate positive social change, and address the injustices of the past it is often difficult to discern the legitimate from the facsimile. Hopefully situations such as what you find yourself in will draw attention to the issues....for the benefit of many.

So I hope to offer you and your family encouragement. Please know that many are watching, and many are learning. And thank goodness for all of those that refuse to be silent!!!!!! It is the beginning of our real education.

Be proud.


Paula LaPierre
Kichesipirini Algonquin First Nation

Violence in aboriginal territory

I am the grandaughter of an American Indian Women from New York.
My grandmother and her sisters were removed and placed in
residential school,then fostercare.
At 11 and 8 yrears of age,they were working as servants for foster parents in New York,then Connecticut.
My grandmother did'nt speak much of this time in her life,
only to say she had to sleep in the barn,and once a nice family let them sleep in the house.
She eventially married my grandfather had 10 children.
My husband is a Mohawk from the Tyendinaga Territory.
We live on the reserve.
We believe that justice can, and will prevail in a non- violent negotiations,by our Chief and Council.
We understand the frustrations of the younger generation,
for we too have carried the weight of suffering and rejection,on our shoulders.
Let's resolve our issues productively,so we can begin the healing of our people.

Gayle Brock

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