The Struggle at Six Nations

History and Context


(purple shows the Six Nations Reserve, the red star marks the Douglas Creek area, and the blue represents the entirety of the disputed area between the Six Nations and the government)

The people of the Six Nations Haudenosaunee Confederacy have now for over three years been occupying the Douglas Creek Estates. The Estates were to be a new suburban development in the town of Caledonia, located about 100 kilometres south west of Toronto. The land on which the housing development is being built is some of the most fertile and productive land in North America and has provided the livelihood for the people of the Six Nations for centuries. As has happened across North America, this valuable land is being paved over and destroyed to build more massive homes and big box stores that are typical of the irrational development of suburbia.

The small piece of land is also one of the few remaining “buffer zones” between the ever expanding suburban sprawl of Caledonia and the remaining territories that are held by the Six Nations. The roots of the current dispute go all the way back to Canada’s early history and centre on a treaty that was signed by British imperialists in the 18th century to thank the Six Nations for their aid in the U.S. Revolutionary War.

In Canada’s early history the Six Nations Confederacy were an important military ally that enabled the British to retain their control of Upper Canada in the face of half a century of conflict with the newly born United States. However one of the consequences of allying themselves with the British was that the  Haudenosaunee Confederacy lost their traditional lands in New York State, many of which were brutally attacked by the colonists of the United States during their of Independence.

Following the war the British General Frederick Haldimand handed over a 20 kilometre-wide strip of land along the Grand River in southern Ontario to the Six Nations – 6 miles along each shore of the Grand River from its mouth to its source. Less than 60 years later, the colonial government was trying to take away that land arguing that the earlier treaty was simply a “licence to occupy the lands” but that legal ownership of the land remained with the Crown. After two centuries of struggle over the land the Six Nations reserve near Caledonia now encompasses a mere 5% of the 950,000 acres originally granted to them.

The modern-day developer of the Douglas Creek Estates, as well as both the federal and provincial governments, claim that the leaders of the Six Nations Confederacy agreed to give away all title to the land in 1841 and therefore have no claim on the land today. The Six Nations, on the other hand, state that the land was illegally stolen from them by the Crown and that the Crown squandered away any benefits that the Six Nations should have received from the land. The Six Nations launched a land claim in the 1980s and in 1995, proceeded to sue the federal and Ontario governments.

Also of quite a bit of importance is the fact that in framing of the issue over the land, the people of the Six Nations insist that they remain an independent nation, unconquered still by Canadian colonialism. This is a position that they say is in accordance to both their own constitution and the principles of international law. Consequently the struggle around the Douglas Creek Estates poses not only the question of a struggle over the possession of a particular piece of land, but also raises the very question of political sovereignty for the Six Nations specifically, and for all Onkwehonwe nations generally.

The Current Struggle Begins

Since its inception the reclamation effort has undergone a number of different stages. The first stage of the struggle can be said to have run roughly from February 28 to April 20 2006. It  was notable for the low-key protest at which a small group of a couple dozen people from Six Nations set up a camp at the entrance of the Douglas Creek Estates to prevent further construction on the subdivision. Tensions between them and the settler residents of Caledonia were low and many locals stopped by to bring supplies and show their support. However on March 10th Henco Industries, the developers of the subdivision, obtained a court injunction against the camp, and tensions began to increase. The Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) stepped up its surveillance, and the site protesters requested the presence of warrior societies from other Haudenosaunee communities to protect their encampment.

This phase of the struggle came to an end during the early morning of April 20th, when under cover of darkness, and after having explicitly promised not to move on the protesters without warning, over one hundred OPP officers raided the encampment with automatic weapons drawn. As the OPP dragged protesters from their tents, they beat, pepper sprayed and tazered those who resisted. However, the OPP had seriously miscalculated the resistance they would face and the level of community outrage that their actions would engender. Within minutes, Warriors who were camped in a dense bush area just beyond the reclaimed land streamed onto the site, and reinforcements soon arrived from the reserve. Outmanoeuvred by all-terrain vehicles and pickup trucks tearing across the rough ground of the construction site, and confronted by a determined group of men, women, and children, the OPP was driven off the site with several officers injured and a number of vehicles damaged. Sixteen indigenous activists were arrested, but the episode was a clear victory for the Haudenosaunee and represented the start of a new phase in the reclamation.

Immediately following the failed OPP raid the reclamation zone expanded and had its perimeter fortified by erection of a barricade along Argyle Street/Highway 6 which fronted the Douglas Creek Estates and from which the OPP had mounted their raid. The Warrior groups established half a dozen security checkpoints around the perimeter of the site, and hundreds of people gathered on the site to defend it from further incursions. As word of the raid spread, hundreds of supporters from both Onkwehonwe and non-native communities arrived at the barricades. The camp which had previously consisted of several tents and a plywood cookhouse began to expand rapidly. It was at this time that the half-dozen partially completed homes on the Douglas Creek Estates were taken over and used for the purposes of the reclamation.

A groundswell of solidarity actions took place in several location over the course of the next several days. In economic terms the most important of these was the action by the Mohawks of Tyendinega, who by closing rail lines running through their territory tied up over $100 million worth of train cargo and forced the diversion of over 6 000 Via Rail passengers. Marches were organized by Onkwehonwe and their supporters in Toronto, Montréal, Vancouver, Sudbury, Calgary, and elsewhere. Additionally, a large level of media coverage brought the Six Nations land struggle to the forefront of national attention.

Six Nations Protest 1The support that poured in for the reclamation from the settler community took a variety of forms. Firstly, a not insignificant number of anti-capitalist activists and radicals, including a number of members of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), became a constant presence at the site, assisting in campsite chores, and contributing to the production of the food. Other supporters created and ran blogs and web sites with news, reports, video and audio covering the reclamation. In another major showing of support the leadership of several major trade unions and labour organizations including the Canadian Auto Workers, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, and the Canadian Labour Congress wrote letters of support of the reclamation efforts and in some cases they even made financial donations. Beyond this official level of support from the labour movement dozens of rank-and-file trade union activists made their way to the site, bringing donations of food, money, and flags from their locals to fly at the site. During this time, a labour and community coalition named “Community Friends for Peace and Understanding with Six Nations” was created with the intention of countering racism in Caledonia by building a network of local residents and nearby rank-and-file union activists.

On the other hand, there has of course been a very vocal opposition to the Six Nations reclamation struggle by a large portion of the local settler population in Caledonia. On April 24th, 2006 a group of over 2,000 Caledonia residents rallied at the local fairgrounds in opposition to the blockade followed by later that evening, 500 Caledonians attempted to break through police lines and forcibly reopen the road. On April 28th, another large gathering of townspeople met to protest the road blockade. they held anti-Native placards while chanting racist slogans. As the opposition by settlers to the reclamation effort has grown its overly racist nature has become ever more apparent as a number of neo-Nazi and white supremacist organizations have leant their hands, feet and voices to the anti-reclamation efforts. Most notably there attempts recently to form an anti-Onkwehonwe militia by some of the more outspoken and extreme efforts of the opposition

Still shaken by its defeat on April 20, the OPP made no further moves to disperse the people at the reclamation site, and acted instead as a buffer between the hundreds of Onkwehonwe and Caledonian residents who gathered each night. The town itself, which used to be relatively integrated, became a virtual no-go zone for people from the Six Nations, and Onkwehonwe residents, both Six Nations and non soon learned that they had to keep their heads down while in town. Racism within the high schools kept many students from school, and a number of local businesses refused to serve Native customers. The Caledonia Citizens Alliance, a group formed by the Chamber of Commerce and made up of property developers, realtors, and local business people with an interest in developing more Haudenosaunee land, claimed to speak on behalf of Caledonia citizens; and with favored access to the local television station, they unleashed a daily barrage of attacks aimed against the reclamation.

Under the impact of both the blockades’ disruption of rail and highway traffic in Caledonia, and solidarity actions taking place elsewhere throughout Canada, national media coverage intensified and the government of Ontario began the process of negotiation with representatives of the traditional leadership of the Haudenosaunee people. For the people of the Six Nation Confederacy this is in itself was a significant victory, since the Canadian government was acknowledging the traditional longhouse leadership of hereditary chiefs and clan mothers for the first time since it had forcibly imposed the band council system at Six Nations in 1924.

Six Nations Protest 2However, as negotiations dragged on, internal debate grew within the ranks of the reclaimers. Because the government refused to negotiate over substantive issues until the barricades came down, on May 22nd it was decided to remove the Argyle Street barricade, a gesture designed to show the good faith of the land reclaimers. Within minutes however, of the barricade coming down, a handful of white Caledonians set up their own barricade, re-blocking the road, and refusing to allow Onkwehonwe through. The result of this A full-scale physical confrontation ensued and the Six Nations barricade went up again. Later that same day a burning vehicle was driven into a power substation within the perimeter controlled by the reclamation, and the region was plunged into darkness as power was knocked out in Caledonia, the Six Nations reserve, and a number of surrounding towns.

The power outage and renewed conflict over the lifting of the blockade brought already tense matters to their boiling point. With the OPP taxed to their limit in its efforts to prevent a direct confrontation between townspeople and supporters of the site, and with a two-day power outage affecting the nearby region, the mayor of Caledonia and other prominent townspeople called for the Canadian Forces to come in. The possibility of the Canadian army arriving on the site brought memories of the Oka stand-off (which involved the Mohawk people of the Six Nations) back and the likelihood that such a move would result Oka type situation intensified rifts both between different sections of the Six Nations community, as well as between some community members and indigenous allies present from elsewhere. While the reclamation had in many ways united the community to an extent unparalleled in recent years, the community retained pre-existing political and social divisions. The potential escalation of the situation into armed conflict, and fears about the long-term effects of such an escalation for residents of the area, brought these divisions into the open. After an acrimonious debate the main blockade on Argyle Street was removed on May 23rd and the barricades on the Highway 6 bypass and the railroad were lifted several days later.

That summer was marked by a series of confrontations between Caledonians and people from Six Nations, although for the most part life in Caledonia returned to normal. However in early June a series of significant incidents occurred. On June 4 two OPP officers were caught trespassing on the Six Nations reserve and were “arrested” and detained by a group of Six Nations people before being marched off the territory. On June 9th matters escalated again when an “elderly couple” taking pictures and driving around the perimeter of the site were involved in a confrontation with people from the reclamation. Later that same day, a fistfight broke out between reclamation supporters and reporters from CHCH – a local TV station which had been harshly critical of the reclamation. This period also saw perhaps the biggest embarrassment for the forces of colonial “law and order” when a U.S. border patrol vehicle lurking around the area was captured and police documents including operational plans were confiscated. Various protests by Caledonia citizens continued over the summer, especially on long weekends and on Friday nights, but despite repeated attempts they were not able to make it past OPP lines.

The removal of the barricades thus marked the commencement of a new stage in the standoff, which has continued to the present day. Support for the reclamation remains strong within the Six Nations community, but many external visitors and supporters have returned home. The number of people at the site on a regular basis has dropped to a level comparable to that which existed before the April 20 OPP raid. After the barricades came down, the Ontario government purchased the disputed lands from Henco at the cost of some $20 million and no longer considers the people of Six Nations to be on the land illegally. But, as was the case at Oka and Ipperwash, the government has refused to turn title of the land over to the indigenous people. While immediate development of the Douglas Creek Estates has stopped, the struggle is not yet over.

Under steady pressure the government of Ontario has been trying to assuage public opinion in the area by dispersing hundreds of thousands of dollars to local businesses which claim to have been negatively impacted by the crisis. The Ontario government has not, however, provided anything for the Six Nations people who have also had to make significant changes to their lives in order to deal with the disruption caused by the reclamation and racism in Caledonia. As it now stands, the government seems to be waiting out the reclamation, hoping that with the immediate threat of development gone, the occupiers will eventually go home or become demoralized by the strain of maintaining the reclamation site. For their part, the people at the reclamation remain committed to bringing political pressure to bear on resolving not only this conflict but the underlying question of Six Nations land rights over the Haldimand tract as a whole.

The Reclamation as Part of the Wider Onkwehonwe Struggle

Unfortunately, the experience of the people at Six Nations is not unique in anyway. Ever since the first arrival of Europeans in Anówarakowa Kawennote, Onkwehonwe have had their land stolen, their way of life destroyed, and have been treated worse than animals. In the modern era several international organizations, including the United Nations and Amnesty International, have come out and condemned the Canadian government for its treatment of Native people, with some of them going as far as to list Canada as a human rights offender. Across Canada and the United States Native people are forced to live on small reserves (usually located on very poor land) which often lack basic sewage or running water. An even greater number now live in the cities where they are persecuted and denied jobs, and far too many are left to die on the streets in the cold of winter.

Throughout the centuries, various levels of colonial government have worked to swindle from Onkwehonwe what was ours. Almost every single treaty signed between us and the Crown has been either broken or manipulated over the years. In some provinces like British Columbia and northern Québec, the Crown didn’t even bother with going through the motions of negotiating a treaty and simply moved indigenous people off their land. In the past 40 years, the Canadian state has now had to face dozens of land claims and occupations from Natives who are fighting back against 500 years of manipulation and oppression.

These land claims pose a serious threat to capitalist profits from land development. In British Columbia, for example, various land claims (often overlapping) total to over 100% of the land area in the province. This also includes valuable real estate in the heart of downtown Vancouver. More often, land claims are seen as blocking development, as is the case with the Douglas Creek Estates.

Over the years the capitalists have devised a number of way to deal with these “challenges”. In 1924 the Canadian State moved to break up the old matrilineal Native governments and imposed “elected” band councils. These band councils frequently became arbiters between the colonial state and Native people rather than true representatives of the people. Council members often gained an elevated position off the administration of Federal funds and in this way the Canadian State created a class division within Native communities However, many working class Natives do not feel that these councils represent their interests. As the Toronto Star states, “To many supporters of the hereditary chiefs, the elected councillors are sellouts and usurpers – puppets of the federal government that created them.”

A second way in which the capitalists have dealt with First Nations land claims is through exercise of brutal state repression. The most infamous example of course was in 1990 when the Canadian government sent in the army to destroy a Mohawk occupation of a golf course in Oka, Québec, an act that was condemned around the world. Particularly notorious in Ontario was Tory Premier Mike Harris’ order to the OPP to “get the fucking Indians” out of Ipperwash Provincial Park in 1995.  An OPP sniper killed Dudley George, an unarmed Native protestor during that raid. Various media have reported that on 21st April, the OPP assaulted and tasered a number of the Native protesters in Caledonia before throwing them on the ground and violently arresting them.

The confrontation in Caledonia is over much more than simply the Douglas Creek Estates. It is about the centuries of oppression that Native peoples have faced and the continued marginalization of Native people by capitalists and the Canadian State.

However, the fight for Onkwehonwe freedom cannot be accomplished along simply racial lines. The Indians, the Métis, and the Inuit only make up about 5% of the population in Canada – a sizeable minority indeed, but not enough to change things alone. As well,  as has been drawn out by the struggle at Caledonia, our communities are not one homogenous group. As can be seen by the examples of the “elected” council of the Six Nations (and repeated hundreds of times across different indigenous nations in Canada), there is a small minority of Natives that have done very well under the current system. Many of these Native bosses are happy to work with and be co-opted by the Canadian government and the capitalists. For instance, after the OPP raid, Ontario Regional Chief Angus Toulouse and Six Nations Chief David General urged other Native people to stay home and not to travel to Caledonia to support the Six Nations protestors there.

What is needed now is real solidarity between the white working class and Onkwehonwe. Natives have much more in common with the white working class than they do with anybody else. Both groups fight to keep their heads above water financially, both groups face a common enemy of big business that wants to steal Native land or, in nearby Hamilton, steal steelworkers pensions, both groups face a capitalist colonial state that attacks occupations and picket lines alike.

It is interesting that the old forms of Six Nations democracy from the period socialists would often describe as “primitive communism” have returned and have been given a class content by the non-Band Council Natives. The system by which the women elect the chief and consult with the wider community is far more democratic and closer to the people than current bourgeois democracy. Some have described the Six Nations as the “oldest living participatory democracy in the world”. Indeed, the treatment of women by the Six Nations is more just than even in the advanced capitalist countries of the world today. By creating a class division on the reserves the Bourgeois State has created their own gravediggers.

The enemy of the Six Nations and other Onkwehonwe is not the white man, but capitalism and the colonial state. As seen in Caledonia, the housing development company is pushing the federal and provincial governments to crush the Six Nations. Failing that, along with other business interests, it is promoting hatred along racial lines. Working people must unite to fight the bosses and make sure that that the police and armed forces do not attempt to destroy the Six Nations occupation.


Posted on November 4, 2009, in Indigenous Struggles and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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