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Gravel and Gold

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Issue: 52 Section: Accounts Geography: Ontario Tyendinega Topics: Mining, Indigenous

June 21, 2008

Gravel and Gold

In the Quinte Detention Centre, Indigenous spokespeople compare stories of resistance

by Sandra Cuffe

The gravel quarry recently reclaimed by Tyendinega Mohawks. Photo: Dru Oja Jay

At noon on Monday, May 19, I walked through several doors of State security into the Quinte Detention Centre in Napanee, Ontario, to visit Shawn Brant, a spokesperson for the Mohawk community of Tyendinaga. I was accompanied by Sergio Campusano, chief of the indigenous Diaguita of the Huasco Valley in northern Chile.

Campusano had spent the last month in Turtle Island (North American) along with Wiradjuri (Australian), Ipili (Papua New Guinean) and Western Shoshone (American) indigenous leaders, all speaking out against the destructive and repressive operations of Toronto-based Barrick Gold, the biggest gold mining company in the world.

The Huasco Valley, in Chile. [cc2.0] Photo: Carolina Velis

Brant, on the other hand, had spent the last month in the Quinte Detention Centre. Shawn was arrested on April 25, 2008 for charges tied to his involvement in resistance to a gravel quarry on Native land. Government prosecutors are seeking a minimum sentence of 12 years in federal prison.

Brant's current circumstance, and recent incidents at Tyendinaga, cannot be fully understood without knowledge of some of the history. In 1832, the Culbertson Tract was stolen from Tyendinaga. In 2003, the federal government acknowledged that the Tract belongs to the Mohawk community, but has yet to give it back. While land negotiations were ongoing, the government granted a mining licence to Thurlow Aggregates, a non-native business that developed a gravel quarry in the Culbertson Tract.

Both before and after Tyendinaga physically reclaimed the gravel quarry in March 2007, the Mohawk community and others have led a series of actions, including economic disruption, in order to raise awareness about the situation and pressure the provincial and federal governments to act. Brant has been repeatedly targeted and arrested for a series of charges.

In late April 2008, after a series of road blockades against Kingston realtor Emile Nibourg in response to plans for construction within the Culbertson Tract, Brant was once again arrested. The charges included various counts of uttering death threats and possession of a dangerous weapon (a fishing spear during fishing season) related to his efforts to protect the women and children of his community from a racist attack on April 21.

Campusano and I approached the prison with some caution, apprehensive of the high fences surrounding the detention centre in the small Ontario city of Napanee, only one highway exit away from Tyendinaga. Having never visited any prison outside of Central America, I had no idea what to expect, especially since we were visiting Brant.

After we identified ourselves over the intercom as visitors, the large fenced gate slowly opened, reminding me of a cattle entrance. The old building and indirect interactions through intercoms, glass and metal reminded me, as do most bureaucratic institutions, of something straight out of Kafka's stories. We filled out a registration form, left behind our passports and belongings, and were instructed to enter the visitors' side of the room, which was separated from the detainees' area by thick plastic, with booths on either side.

Brant had already been escorted in and was calmly waiting for us in his fluorescent orange jumpsuit. Since we were the first visitors to arrive, we had no trouble hearing each other for the first while. When others piled into the booths beside us, however, the telephones generally depicted in prison visit scenes in Hollywood movies would have been extremely helpful. Instead, we had to lean down and press our ears against the metal grating below the plastic windows in order to hear each other.

"We're not prepared to simply stand by," Brant told Campusano through the metal grating. "We feel that our very existence is depending on it."

Before Tyendinaga blockaded and reclaimed what everyone acknowledges is unceded territory, trucks were transporting 10,000 loads of newly crushed gravel from the pit every year--an estimated 100,000 tonnes.

Campusano's community is facing something similar in Chile, where Barrick has fenced off some 50,000 hectares of traditional Diaguita territory and claims it as company private property; off limits to the indigenous people who have lived there herding animals and gathering medicinal plants and firewood in the mountains for centuries.

"They put up a gate..." Campusano began saying as he showed slides from his home community of 1,500 Diaguita at an event held at the Ottawa Public Library a few days before. He broke down in tears and had to take a moment to collect himself before he could continue.

"They don't let us go onto our land," he explained. "This hurts me very much."

The Diaguita community erected their own brightly painted sign at the entrance to Barrick Gold's installations: "Home of the Huasco Altinos since 1903. Private."

"We won't trade this for anything. There is no money in the world to buy this." As Campusano spoke, he showed the audience a series of slides: a mural painted on the church belltower in the town of Alto de Carmen, messages of resistance painted on banners carried in marches and protests, and the faces of some of the 260 Diaguita elders. Most of the Diaguita elders proposed Campusano as a candidate for Chief of the Diaguita community of the Huasco Valley. He has been elected twice with their blessing.

"Why don't they let us be what we want to be?" he asked the Ottawa audience.

At the detention centre, Brant said: "It is about more than mining. Mining is just a symptom. Until we're gone, the miners, developers, governments and others cannot come into indigenous territory and do what they please." Brant's ancestors fought the same struggle for the chance to exist as Peoples and he believes the current generation must make the same sacrifice for future generations.

A few years ago, faced with the onslaught of mining in their territory, the Huasco Valley Diaguita community put out a call for international solidarity and especially for global indigenous solidarity. They received a response from the Manitoba Assembly of First Nations (MAFN). Ron Evans, Grand Chief of the MAFN, flew down to Chile and was welcomed in a ceremony in which the Diaguita and MAFN signed an International Agreement of Mutual Aid.

Later, however, the Diaguita learned that the MAFN had used their agreement to propose a multi-million dollar project to Barrick Gold. The Diaguita community sent word to the MAFN that they were to come immediately to the Huasco Valley to explain themselves to the Diaguita community. When Evans did not return to Chile to clarify the situation, the Diaguita informed all involved that the agreement was null and void.

The visit of the MAFN to Diaguita territory for this pro-mining purpose is not an isolated incident. Evans has reportedly travelled to several Latin American countries on similar missions. The use of First Nations Band Council leaders by Canadian mining corporations and the Canadian government in an effort to convince indigenous communities in other countries to accept mining is not uncommon.

"We consider them traitors in our midst," said Brant, referring to Evans and the Assembly of First Nations in general, explaining that the Mohawk traditional system of governance--founded on values of sovereignty, honesty and integrity--has existed for thousands of years and still exists alongside the Band Council system that was imposed by the Canadian government.

"The Assembly of First Nations is a government of Canada Indian organization that supports the government of Canada and does nothing to support the Mohawk and other nations," Brant explained to Campusano.

Mohawk communities and leaders have long been singled out and targeted by government and mainstream media for their militant resistance and defence of their territory. While many remember the images of armed Mohawks in fatigues and balaclavas defending their territory during the Oka stand-off in 1990, fewer remember the images of heavily armed Canadian soldiers and police forcibly trying to remove blockades and enter sovereign First Nations territory at Oka, Ipperwash, Gustafsen Lake, Grassy Narrows, Six Nations, Tyendinaga and many others.

The Mohawk Warrior Society was the only domestic organization singled out in a 2005 draft version of the Canadian Armed Forces' Counterinsurgency Field Manual, identified along with the Tamil Tigers, Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Taliban.

After Brant's arrest on April 25, the Mohawk community of Tyendinaga responded with blockades and actions. The police crackdown in response to these actions was severe.

"We were at gunpoint for four days. We were not allowed to leave the quarry," said community member Arosen. He explained that for those four days, from April 26-29, the Mohawk occupation of the gravel quarry was effectively under siege by over 300 police officers and no one was allowed to leave or enter for food, water, or any other reason. "It was terrifying," he said.

Another Mohawk community member recalled the siege: "There were rifles, machine guns, snipers, helicopters, undercover police agents sneaking around at night."

A SWAT team even detained a school bus full of Tyendinaga high school students who routinely travelled off the reservation in order to continue their studies after elementary school.

"They were pulled over by a SWAT team and searched," said Mohawk community activist Niki Storms. When a Mohawk youth at the back of the bus asked what they were looking for, a police officer responded: "Terrorists."

"All we ever wanted was a safe and healthy community to raise our babies, and clean drinking water," remarked Brant during our visit. "Sadly, we share the same issues and the same efforts to wipe us out," he told Campusano through the prison glass at the Quinte Detention Centre.

"I came from very far away," said Campusano. "My eyes have been opened here."

In South America, he said, even indigenous leaders have the idea that indigenous peoples are treated very well in Canada. One of his missions upon his return to Chile, said Campusano, would be to spread the word about Brant's case in specific and about repression against First Nations in Canada in general.

For more information, or to get involved, contact the Tyendinaga Support Committee

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You should really do more

You should really do more research on the issue before proclaiming Shawn Brant as such a saviour. Ask whether or not he is supported by his band council, or the majority of his community ... the simple, straight-forward answer is NO.
And, maybe you should look into the incident that he has been charged with, instead of simply saying it has to do with the native land issue.
In fact, it doesn't.

response to anonymous criticism/suggestions

Thanks for your comments, !?Anonymous?!, but I'm not proclaiming Shawn Brant as a saviour. He is a spokesperson for many people in Tyendinaga. I do not say that he is supported by the Band Council. Through visits, interviews and workshops in Tyendinaga, Belleville, Napanee, Toronto & Montreal, it seems clear that the occupation of the gravel quarry and the Culberston Tract was originally supported by the Band Council and both Longhouses, as is stated in the article.
Re the incident: the trial began last week & continues this Thursday...

Understanding complexities

Thank you Sandra for this marvelous article. One of the most powerful ways of understanding what's going on at Tyendinaga is by understanding the links among grassroots indigenous resistance and the complex network of imposed and external structures. The internal situation in Tyendinaga is particularly complicated, but I'm glad that you're pulling the links between corporate exploitation of indigenous peoples at home and abroad. The themes are most definitely the same, even when situations are different.

Links at home & abroad

Thanks for your comments, Lia, & thanks also for all of your great blog news. 'Gravel and Gold' is actually a shortened version of a 16-page article that makes many more links. The longer version can be found at: http://thistidehasnoheartbeat.wordpress.com

Julian Fantino

I am from vancouver and i wanted to say that Julian Fantino should be condemned for what he did.Shawn Brant is taking up for the rights of the native people.He got the majority of the people on his side.The native people will have to fight for their rights.The canadian gov. will always use the police to prevent the native people from getting their land back and other rights.In the end the native people will win the struggle.

Stan Squires

Julian Fantino

If you click the link to the Tyendinaga Support Committee at the very end of the article (or copy and paste: http://www.ocap.ca/supporttmt/index.html), you'll find links to many recent news articles about Tyendinaga, Shawn Brant's case, and notorious OPP Commissioner Julian Fantino.
Shawn was released about a month ago and the publication ban was lifted on the hearings into his case, so there has been a lot of information and evidence coming out into the questionable actions of the OPP and Fantino in particular, including threats uttered over the phone. Transcripts of telephone conversations between Fantino and Brant are also available on the website, thanks to the lifting of the publication ban and to controversial wiretaps on Mohawk activists' cell phones...

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