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(en) Canada, Anarchis journal Linchpin - Building solidarity with Six Nations: An interview with Tom Keefer

Date Thu, 01 Jul 2010 00:05:36 +0300

Tom Keefer is a founding member of Upping the Anti (UTA), a semiannual Canadian publication that describes itself as “a journal of theory and action.” He is a well-known organizer and an enthusiastic advocate for indigenous rights who has written extensively on the ongoing land claims in Six Nations and the reactionary anti-native campaigning of Gary McHale in Caledonia. His most recent article, available in UTA # 10, is entitled: Marxism, Indigenous Struggles, and the Tragedy of “Stagism”. ---- Note: An edited version of this interview appears in the print edition of Linchpin ---- Could you briefly explain the history of the current land dispute taking place in Caledonia/Six Nations? ---- The history of the dispute goes back to 1784 when Governor General Frederick Haldimand, acting on the authority of the British Crown, granted the Haudenosaunee [Six Nations] people the land on 6 miles on each side of the Grand River from its mouth to its source in perpetuity. This constituted almost 1,000,000 acres of land, but under the pressure of increased European migration to Southern Ontario, in the first half of the 19th century this land was whittled down (by a combination of shady business deals, government mismanagement, and outright theft of land by white squatters and the Crown) to the 46,000 acres which form the basis of the Six Nations reserve today. The people of the Six Nations territory of the Grand River have been fighting to reclaim their land ever since.

Many non-native people became familiar with this struggle following the February 2006 reclamation of the Douglas Creek Estates, a housing development that was to be built on the outskirts of Caledonia, a small town to the southwest of Hamilton, Ontario. Despite having been told repeatedly that the land they were trying to build upon was part of an unresolved land claim, the developers continued to work on the site. On February 28, 2006, a group of people from Six Nations, supported by traditional leaders of the community, peacefully occupied the site and shut down construction. They established a campsite at the entrance to the housing development while the developers sought and received an injunction against them from a local judge who also happened to “own” contested land on the Haldimand Tract. Acting without warning, in the early morning on April 20, 2006, over one hundred OPP officers raided the reclamation site, wielding automatic weapons, and using tazer guns and pepper spray as they made arrests. Within hours, hundreds of people from Six Nations had mobilized in response, taking back the land and setting up barricades on Highway 6 -- which passes by the front of the reclamation site and which also happens to be the main street in Caledonia.

The barricades remained up from April 20th until the May 24 weekend in 2006, and the struggle clearly represented a high point of indigenous activism in Canada. In addition to the many indigenous people from different communities that came to support the action, large numbers of non-native solidarity activists also got involved. But the response was not limited to pro-indigenous struggles, as there was also a negative reaction from non-native residents of Caledonia and the surrounding community who opposed the land reclamation. Thousands of residents from Caledonia gathered regularly in protest against the reclamation and the highway blockade and on numerous occasions physical conflict between the two sides broke out. As I argued in an article entitled The Politics of Solidarity: Six Nations, Leadership, and the Settler Left there was a lot of confusion on the non-native left about how to relate to the Six Nations struggle and little willingness on the part of white activists to try and respond to the rallies being organized by Caledonia residents.

How does Gary McHale fit into the picture?

The initial response to the reclamation in Caledonia was coordinated by the town’s business elite, in the form of the Caledonia Citizens Alliance (CCA), an organization established by the Caledonia Chamber of Commerce. This group became the public face of opposition to the Six Nations reclamation and organized a number of protests and public meetings to try and get the barricades taken down and the protesters removed from the reclamation site. Members of the CCA had the ear of the Liberal government in Toronto, and after the provincial government bought out the would-be developers of the "Douglas Creek Estates” and provided funds to other local businesses to cover the costs of economic disruption suffered by local businesses, the CCA rolled up its organization. However, since the underlying issues of land title were not resolved, people from Six Nations continued their presence at the reclamation site, and a number of incidents flared up in the summer of 2006 between Caledonia residents opposed to the reclamation and the people occupying the site.

Into the political vacuum created by the demise of the CCA stepped Gary McHale, a rank-and-file Conservative Party activist who was looking for a way to make a name for himself. He set up a website that soon became the most comprehensive archive of material related to the conflict, and then began to build a broader political movement against the Six Nations reclamation. Unlike the CCA, McHale had no real roots in the community, and he wasn't accountable to residents in the same way that local business people and politicians were. He made links with the more radical anti-native fringe within town, and quickly developed a campaign strategy aimed at provoking tensions with Six Nations. The first public event he organized was a so-called "March for Freedom” on October 15, 2006, in which he announced his intention to rally thousands of people to march across Six Nations lines onto the former Douglas Creek Estates. This would have had the effect of forcing the hand of the OPP to either make mass arrests of non-native people and thereby further radicalizing his base, or to allow those opposed to the Six Nations reclamation to take back the site. In the end, in the face of serious and sustained public criticism from nearly every established politician and community organization in the area, McHale fell short of the numbers he had wished for and chose not to try and enter DCE.

Video clips of the march and interviews with various Caledonia residents

McHale’s strategy has been to create a grassroots community-based organization – CANACE – to put pressure on the OPP to take action in arresting native people peacefully protesting for their land rights. In order to do this, he has resorted to grassroots activist tactics. He has organized a protest outside of Julian Fantino’s Woodbridge home, has posted personal information and details about particular OPP officers he alleged were allowing “landclaim terrorism” to take place, and even went so far as to form a “militia” to carry out “citizen’s arrests” of native people he claimed were breaking the law. McHale has framed the issue in racial terms, claiming that the OPP is engaged in "race-based policing” by not immediately arresting native people stopping construction on their lands – thus making white property owners victims of a "two-tiered justice system.” McHale’s political perspective would be laughable if it was not for the significant amounts of grassroots support he has garnered and for the way that his portrayal of "white victimhood" opens the way for more explicitly white supremacist organizing to take place.

When he ran as a candidate in the 2008 election he received nearly 5000 votes, overwhelmingly from areas in Caledonia and other towns where native land claim protests have happened (he won all but two polls in Caledonia, a town of 10000 people.) He has also held regular protests over the last several years, most of which have drawn between fifty and a hundred people. At a number of these events, organized neo-nazis have attended, seeking to recruit members of a mobilized and angry white community.

Most alarmingly, McHale and other members of his group are planning to run a slate of candidates in the upcoming municipal elections in November of 2010. For an excellent article on the development of right-wing anti-native organizing that looks at the political context of McHale’s movement, see Kate Milley’s article Where is John Wayne when you need him?: Anti-Native Organizing and the Caledonia Crisis.

What role have non-native activists played in the developing situation? What has been their relationship to activists from Six Nations?

While much of the initial support that was mobilized for Six Nations during the blockade has long since faded away, there have been some groups which have remained involved in consistent solidarity organizing with Six Nations since 2006. Activists in Toronto, Hamilton, Brantford, Guelph, London, and Kitchener-Waterloo have formed a Six Nations Solidarity Network which has organized speaking tours, educational meetings, protests against McHale’s mobilizations, and ongoing support for Six Nations in a variety of ways. There have also been very important initiatives by a variety of trade unions including CAW, Steelworkers, and CUPE.

We have worked with a wide variety of different individuals and groups at Six Nations. One of the key things about our approach has been our consistency. Our group, the CUPE 3903 First Nations Solidarity Working Group has been active in doing this work for the past four years, and I think that showing through your actions that you’re going to be around for the long haul is one of the only ways to truly build a basis for meaningful solidarity with a particular community.

Additionally, our regular counter-protests of McHale’s rallies are reducing his ability to claim to be the official voice of non-natives in the area, and are opening political space for other people in Caledonia to put together alternatives to McHale's confrontational approach. An excellent example of this kind of work is the recent May 29th gathering held at the reclamation site between people from Six Nations and Caledonia seeking to build dialogue and open lines of communication.

Ultimately, however, the underlying issues of Six Nations land rights need to be addressed. Otherwise, if developments continue to take place on disputed lands there will be a continual cycle of protests and counter-protests which will give people like McHale an opportunity to mobilize and build their organizations with the support of developers and local politicians who have a stake in the further development of Six Nations territory. It is crucial that we build a larger movement that can force the provincial and federal governments to declare a moratorium of all new construction on contested lands, and begin a process of serious and respectful negotiations with the Six Nations leadership.

What has the reaction of the local residents of Caledonia been to the protests/counter-protests?

Gary McHale definitely has his supporters in the town, and about 50 to 100 people attend his meetings and events on a regular basis. However, there are also a large number of people who are dissatisfied with his strategy of constant escalation and fear mongering and who resent the fact that he has positioned himself as a spokesperson for Caledonia. Since the conflict escalated in 2006 there have been a variety of different low key initiatives in Caledonia seeking to overcome tensions within and between communities. Of course the media has little interest in covering these low key meetings and events and prefers to focus on McHale’s confrontational protests.

We have found through our organizing that one of the best ways to build non-native solidarity for Six Nations is through working within local labor unions. The area around Six Nations is one of the most industrialized and heavily unionized areas in the country, and a key aspect of our strategy has been to work with rank-and-file union activists to develop a politics in support of indigenous land rights and workers’ struggles. As I’ve noted in my article Declaring the Exception: Direct Action, Six Nations, and the Struggle in Brantford local indigenous struggles are helping to radicalize local non-native struggles as people see that collective radical action can bring results -- and this is opening up political space for grassroots environmentalists and trade unionists to think about how they can use similar tactics in their struggles.

How has the issue been portrayed in the mainstream media?

The mainstream media has been just as typically bad as you would expect. They will occasionally run a human interest story from the Six Nations’ side, but they tend to uncritically report material in keeping with their overall ideological perspective, and they tend to focus on conflict as opposed to the positive grassroots organizing that is taking place. One thing that the media doesn't explain very well is that the struggle at Six Nations has bifurcated since about 2007. Generally speaking, things in Caledonia have actually been very quiet, and have largely returned to normal with the exception of efforts by Gary McHale and his followers to inflame regional tensions. There is not a large presence of people from Six Nations at the reclamation site -- there are just a couple people living there to maintain a presence -- and there have been no major land actions in Caledonia over the past few years. The closest issue on this front has been the opening of native-run smokeshops along Highway 6 on land on the Plank Road land claim, but this has only really been made into an issue by the protests being held by McHale and his allies.

Meanwhile, there has been a lot of political activity in Brantford, and there have been several dozen actions which have stopped multiple construction sites, as well as the arrest of a number of native protestors after the city filed an injunction specifically aimed at opening up blocked construction sites. By some estimates, more than $2 billion worth of new construction has been halted, and protests and land occupations are happening on a regular basis. If you live outside the area, you wouldn’t know anything about this from the mainstream media, which hasn’t been covering anything about what’s happening in Brantford.
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