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PRISON NOTES: They Came
First For the Mohawks,
and I Didn’t Speak Up Because I
by Sandra Cuffe, http://thistidehasnoheartbeat.wordpress.com
Queen’s Park, Toronto, Turtle Island, May 29, 2008.
“The hard work and dedication of our officers in protecting the citizens of this community cannot go unnoticed.”
- Julian Fantino, Ontario Provincial Police Commissioner, commenting on Tyendinaga, as quoted in the Mohawk Nation News.
“The school that they closed down for ‘security reasons’ was full of police officers, with snipers all over the roof.”
- a Mohawk community member, describing the police occupation of Tyendinaga after Shawn Brant’s arrest on April 25, 2008.
“The rise of radical Native American organizations, such as the Mohawk Warrior Society, can be viewed as insurgencies…”
- Canadian Armed Forces, Counterinsurgency
Field Manual, draft version, 2005, page 11.
“All we ever wanted was a safe and healthy community to raise our babies, and clean drinking water.”
- Shawn Brant, Tyendinaga Mohawk spokesperson,
imprisoned in the Quinte Detention Centre
At noon last Monday, May 19th, I walked through several doors of State security into the Quinte Detention Centre in Napanee, Ontario, accompanied by Sergio Campusano, chief of the indigenous Diaguita of the Huasco Valley in northern Chile.
Sergio had spent the last month in Turtle Island (“North America”) along with Wiradjuri (“Australia”), Ipili (“Papua New Guinea”) and Western Shoshone (“USA”) indigenous leaders, all speaking out against the destructive and repressive operations of Toronto-based Barrick Gold (http://protestbarrick.net), the biggest gold mining company in the world.
Shawn Brant, on the other hand, had spent the last month in the Quinte Detention Centre. A spokesperson for the Mohawk community of Tyendinaga, Shawn was arrested (again) for a variety of trumped up charges (again) on April 25, 2008. Government prosecutors are seeking a minimum sentence of 12 years in federal prison. Several others were arrested in the ensuing siege of Tyendinaga by provincial and federal police and Mohawk community members Matt Kunkel and Clive Brant (of no relation to Shawn) are still imprisoned in the Quinte Detention Centre.
Although he is continually portrayed in the mainstream media essentially as a violent terrorist who is acting of his own accord, a broad group of elders and community members have continually designated Shawn Brant as their spokesperson. In fact, both Longhouses and even the Band Council have all supported the ongoing occupation of a gravel quarry in the Culberston Tract, an area of land that the Canadian government has publicly recognized belongs to Tyendinaga but has not returned to the Mohawk community. While there is some disagreement regarding the tactics employed to reclaim stolen Mohawk territory and get the government’s attention, there are unified objectives.
“We’re not prepared to simply stand by,” Shawn told indigenous Diaguita leader Sergio Campusano, speaking through the metal grating below the glass window keeping us apart in the visiting room in Quinte. “We feel that our very existence is depending on it.”
“I came from very far away,” Sergio responded. He explained that in South America, even indigenous leaders have the idea that indigenous peoples are treated very well in Canada.
“My eyes have been opened here,” remarked Sergio, who stated that one of his missions upon his return to Chile would be to spread the word about Shawn Brant’s case and more generally about repression against First Nations in Canada.
As the elected leader of the indigenous Diaguita community of the Huasco Valley and a staunch opponent of Barrick Gold’s plan to mine the huge gold deposits found underneath the glaciers in the mounatinous region, Sergio is unsure what the response from the Chilean government and Barrick will be to his public speaking against gold mining in his own territory. Dozens of indigenous Mapuche leaders who have been actively speaking out for their rights to territory, autonomy and freedom have been jailed under Chile’s anti-terrorism laws.
While not recognizing the Diaguita community in the Huasco Valley or its elected leaders, Barrick has already been supporting a small group of city-dwelling Diaguita who are in favour of the mine. This group has received no mandate whatsoever from the Diaguita community of some 1500 people; however, it welcomes Barrick and government officials with costumes and dances that Sergio denounces are not even from the same region. The Barrick Gold website even posted a whole new section about their community relations with “the Diaguita,” part of the company’s public relations image of “Corporate Social Responsibility.”
Thus far, 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 for centuries, herding animals, and gathering medicinal plants and firewood in the mountains.
“They put up a gate…” Sergio began saying as he showed slides from home at an event held at the Ottawa Public Library on May 12th. He broke down in sobs 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, to show the company whose territory they are invading and to express that Barrick is not welcome: ‘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,” affirmed Sergio as his hands traced over projected photographs of a mural painted on the church belltower in the local town of Alto de Carmen, the messages of resistance painted on banners carried in marches and protests, and over the the faces of some of the 260 Diaguita elders. Most of the Diaguita elders proposed Sergio as a candidate for Chief of the Diaguita community of the Huasco Valley, a position to which he has twice been elected with their blessing.
“Why don’t they let us be what we want to be?” he asked the Ottawa audience.
“It is about more than mining,” Shawn reminded Sergio during the visit at the detention centre. “Mining is just a symptom,” said Shawn – a symptom of the eradication of indigenous peoples around the world, along with the dismantling of the Mohawk tobacco distribution, resource extraction, accusations of terrorism, the taking away of our children…
“Until we’re gone,” Shawn explained, the miners, developers, governments, and others cannot come into indigenous territory and do what they please. He explained that their ancestors fought the same struggle for the chance to exist as Peoples and that the current generations must make the same sacrifice for the future generations. He also told of prophecies that speak of the unification of indigenous peoples from north to south and that their struggle will be victorious if people have the courage to stand up and fight.
Faced with the onslaught of mining in their territory, a few years ago 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. 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 Ron 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. Ron Evans has reportedly traveled to several Latin American countries on similar missions. The use of First Nations Band Council leaders by Canadian mining corporations and the Canadian government itself to convince indigenous communities in other countries to accept mining is commonplace these days. Another example occurred in December 2004 in Guatemala, when Tahltan Band Council chief Jerry Asp was an invited speaker on the Community Relations panel of a conference about mining co-sponsored by the Canadian Embassy in Guatemala City, the World Bank, and the Guatemalan Ministry of Energy and Mines.
While Jerry Asp told Guatemalans of the development and riches that mining had brought to the Tahltan Nation in northern British Columbia, Tahltan communities were gathering in assemblies and decreeing community moratoriums against all mining and oil activities in their territory. Fifteen elders were arrested for disobeying a court injunction against their road blockade against a Fortune Coal Ltd, which wanted to develop a massive coal deposit near Dease Lake – a situation strikingly similar to that of the six leaders of the Kitchenumahkoosib Inninuwug Nation in northern Ontario who were jailed this past March for their blockade against Platinex Inc. Tahltan Nation Band Council chief Asp was forced to leave office when Tahltan elders, women, and other community members occupied his office in Telegraph Creek, demanding his resignation.
“We consider them traitors in our midst,” said Shawn, with regards to Evans, Asp, 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 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,” Shawn explained to Sergio.
Albeit perhaps begrudgingly, the Canadian Assembly of First Nations (AFN) has had to support the Kitchenumahkoosib Inninuwug (KI) Nation’s political prisoners because the “KI 6” are the KI Nation’s Band Council leaders and thus members of the AFN. They are also, however, legitimate leaders in their own communities. KI Chief Donny Morris, Deputy Chief Jack McKay, Councillors Samuel McKay and Darry Sainawap, Bruce Sakakeep and grandmother and Head Councillor Cecilia Begg were all jailed in March 2008 because of their refusal – despite a court injunction – to lift the KI blockade against the entry of Platinex into their territory.
“We got a five-day leave from our jail sentence of six months,” Chief Donny Morris explained yesterday in Toronto. “We want to determine our own future, our own destiny.”
There is a longstanding debate about the interpretation of indigenous peoples’ right to ‘consultation’ before any ‘development’ projects begin in their territory. While governments and corporations insist that ‘consultation’ means simply informing communities of their plans, indigenous activists insist on their right to free, prior and informed consent (FPIC). Some, such as the KI 6 and the Tahltan elders, put themselves literally on the line in road blockades in order to fight for that right.
“They said we had no business saying no,” said Sam McKay, KI Councillor on Lands and the Environment. “We want to try to establish our sovereignty over our traditional territory.”
As KI community leader John Cutfeet said to KI Head Councillor and political prisoner Cecilia Begg last year, regarding the fight for the right to say no: “First Nations gained the right to sit at the table, but they don’t have the right to leave the table.”
Concerning the upcoming appeal hearing about their case, Sam McKay insists that they are ready to go back to jail to make their statement: “We’re hoping for the best, but we’re preparing for the worst.”
First Nations activists at the Gathering in Queen’s Park reportedly publicly requested that Phil Fontaine, Grand Chief of the AFN, destroy the agreements he has made with mining companies, and refused to allow him to speak on stage at the opening of the four-day Gathering of Mother Earth Protectors in Queen’s Park, on the lawn in front of the Ontario legislature. They did, however, permit him to take part in a press conference the following day, May 27, in order to voice his support.
“We support the right of First Nations that don’t want development to say no to development. That is their right. There are communities who want development and they ought to be supported as well. We have an obligation and responsibility to this incredibly diverse First Nations community that we represent. This is how we conduct our business. This is how we carry out responsibilities,” explained Fontaine.
While many people in First Nations communities challenge the representation of the Band Council system, the Assembly of First Nations and the right of Phil Fontaine to speak on their behalf, the Ardoch Algonquin Nation does not even have that option. The Ardoch Algonquin are one of several First Nations with no official status in Canada and thus no recognized land base, no reservation, no Band Council, and no recognized representation.
The Ardoch are one of three co-organizers of the May 26-29 Gathering in Queen’s Park, along with the KI Nation and Grassy Narrows, where the First Nation has been actively and militantly struggling against logging for decades. A delegation of approximately 60 community members left Grassy Narrows on April 30th and walked over 1800km on foot in less than a month from their territory near Kenora, Ontario, to Queen’s park.
“Our community is a prime example of what development can do,” a Grassy Narrows leader told the crowd gathered at Queen’s Park on May 27. Thirty years of logging and paper mills have polluted the rivers with mercury and other contaminants, destroying the community’s subsistance and economy.
“When our trappers go to our trap lines, all the trees are gone,” explained the Grassy Narrows representative. “[The government] gave a company a license to do business in our territory without consultation whatsoever.”
“People need to have a say about what goes on in their territory.”
The Ardoch Algonquin don’t have to look far for examples of the negative impacts industries such as logging and mining in First Nations communities. Despite their lack of recognition, status, or treaty, the Ardoch have stood up to voice their resounding opposition to uranium exploration and mining in their territory. Like the Tahltan elders, the KI 6, and Shawn Brant, former Ardoch chief and community leader Robert Lovelace was jailed in February for this opposition and is currently serving a six-month sentence in Peterborough, Ontario.
According to Toronto-based activist Paul York in his written reflections about the opening of the “Mother Earth Protectors” tent city at Queen’s Park, Lovelace “has called for the solidarity of all groups, and for the inclusion of Tyendinaga as an issue.”
While many First Nations leaders, community members and supporters have spoken out in support of Tyendinaga, Shawn Brant and the other jailed Mohawk activists, their voices are not being officially heard at the Gathering in Queen’s Park. This is by no means a criticism of the decisions and strategies of the KI Nation, Ardoch Algonquin, Grassy Narrows or any other sovereign nation. Non-indigenous individuals and organizations in Canada, however, should stand up to support all indigenous political prisoners and all First Nations struggles in defense of their territories.
On the train ride back from the Quinte Detention Centre, I was reminded of Pastor Martin Niemöller’s famous poem about the complicity of Germans in general in the Nazi holocaust. Although it may not be the most appropriate analogy for the situation concerning First Nations, given the involvement of the Churches in genocide through the residential school system, I find it to be a strong condemnation against the complicit apathy of others and a moving call for solidarity that can speak to non-indigenous Canadians:
They came first for the Communists,
And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Catholics,
And I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me,
And by that time there was no one left to speak up.
Thus, first they came for Shawn Brant and the Mohawks. Some people have spoken up: Tyendinaga community leaders, Six Nations, First Nations activists and supporters in Coast Salish Territory, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), the Tyendinaga Support Committee, anarchists in Ontario and Quebec, the International Solidarity Committee of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), and many others.
Many more, however, have spoken out to support the KI 6, Bob Lovelace, and their respective demands, actions and territories. A broad base of First Nations and non-indigenous support has formed, including several municipalities. Even the City of Ottawa has spoken out to support the Ardoch Algonquin and their rejection of uranium mining activities. Many unions, organizations and individuals in Ontario and across Canada have also spoken out. However, when public calls for the freedom of the KI 6 and Bob Lovelace are made, the lack of solidarity with Shawn Brant, Matt Kunkel and Clive Brant is a silence that is audible to anyone who knows that they are also in jail.
Many claim that the militant actions of Shawn Brant, Tyendinaga, and/or the Mohawk First Nations in general have “alienated” white settler support. Others claim that the longstanding solidarity of OCAP and the local anarchist community is the “alienating” factor. Others claim that Tyendinaga’s actions to reclaim the Culberston Tract, which includes majority white settler towns, is “alienating” supporters.
During a direct action in the past, Shawn Brant was asked on video if he thought that the more militant direct action tactics would “alienate” potential supporters. He responded that the majority of people have never supported Tyendinaga or the Mohawk communities; there is therefore no need to worry about alienating their support. He also stated that of those who support them and their position, unconditional support was requested with regards to their actions. Respect for a diversity of tactics is not widely accepted by the majority of activists and organizations, let alone the Canadian public. However, the insistance of many for protest through ‘non-violent’ dialogue, ‘peaceful’ marches and negotiations is not in tune with the reality facing Tyendinaga and many other Mohawk and First Nations communities on a day-to-day basis.
“When the land being negotiated is being sold and developed, what’s the use of talking?” asked Bob Lovelace on a recording played to the over one thousand people gathered at the opening of the Gathering in Queen’s Park on May 26th. “It’s time to fight. The lines have been drawn and there’s no middle ground.”
Regarding the ongoing negotiations with the government over land claims, Lovelace said: “Too much talk and not enough action.”
“Tactics, of course, are contextual,” explained Magaly San Martin of the Tyendinaga Support Committee in a presentation at the International Solidarity Forum the evening of May 22nd during the CUPE Ontario annual convention. “It depends on what you are facing… [The Mohawks have used] economic disruption to bring the attention of the federal government to their plight.”
“What we hear in the media is often not what’s going on,” added San Martin.
The mainstream media, the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP), the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), the Canadian Armed Forces, and the provincial and federal governments have all been sending the same message. As one participant in a Tyendinaga Support Committee workshop put it, they would have us believe that Shawn Brant single-handedly lifts a school bus onto the train tracks. They would also have us believe that Shawn Brant is dangerous, violent, and fearsome. They would have us believe that Mohawk activists and spokespeople from Tyendinaga and Six Nations need to be jailed for a long time. The details of the actual situations and criminal charges matter little in the media.
Mohawk communities and leaders have long been singled out and targeted for their militant resistance and defense of their territory. This focus has also spread to progressive organizations and individuals through conditioning by the media. 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, Grassy Narrows, Six Nations, Tyendinaga, and many other territories.
In fact, 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, the Islamic Jihad, and the Taliban. While the inclusion of some of these groups as insurgencies may also be a matter of debate, the inclusion of the Mohawk is appalling. Written and used as a training tool for the Canadian forces in Afghanistan, the label of a group as ‘insurgents’ implies permission for the use of countersinurgency tactics such as psychological warfare and targeted assassination.
Page 11 of the draft manual reads:
The rise of radical Native American Organizations, such as the Mohawk Warrior Society, can be viewed as insurgencies with specific and limited aims. Although they do not seek complete control of the federal government, they do seek particular political concessions in their relationship with national governments and control (either overt or covert) of political affairs at a local/reserve (“First Nation”) level, through the threat of, or use of, violence.
Given the broad legal definition of ‘violence’ by the police to include property ‘violence’ and any protest activity the police themselves deem as ‘violent’, this definition could place a political graffiti artist or a Council of Canadians march in the category of ‘insurgencies.’ The actual definition of an ‘insurgency’ in the draft version of the manual is: “the actions of a minority group within a state who are intent on forcing political change by means of a mixture of subversion, propaganda and military pressure, aiming to persuade or intimidate the broad mass of people to accept such a change.”
When these and similar quotes were reported by IPS, which obtained a copy, and Mohawk Nation News, there was – appropriately – a public outcry by a wide variety of First Nations and other organizations, including even Phil Fontaine of the AFN. Then Canadian Defence Minister Gordon O’Connor was forced to announce the withdrawal of any mention of the Mohawk Warrior Society or any domestic First Nations organization in the final version of the Counterinsurgency Field Manual. However, the Canadian Armed Forces had already made their position clear through the original inclusion.
A more recent demonstration of the targeting of the Mohawk by Canadian “security” forces is an RCMP report citing the federal government’s decision to dedicate police “to fighting contraband, which [Canadian Minister of Public Safety Stockwell Day] said is funding organized crime and possibly even terrorists.” The “organized crime” and “terrorists” refered to by Stockwell Day, of course, are the same “insurgents” refered to by the RCMP: Mohawk community activists and spokespeople like Shawn Brant.
‘Arosen,’ one of the Tyendinaga community members with a gag order as a bail condition for a previous arrest related to his community activism, commented on the Mohawk tobacco sales: “They call it smuggling. We call it economic development.” With the seven million dollars that were coming in annually as a result of tobacco sales to Tyendinaga, a community of approximately 2200 people, the “terrorists” funded “organized crime” such as the building of a stone Longhouse. In this Longhouse, the Mohawk youth formed a Youth Council and are learning traditional songs from their elders and are singing and drumming at both Longhouses in Tyendinaga.
According to another Tyendinaga community member, even the traditional songs and drums are manipulated by the media to demonize the Mohawk: “They say our drum is a war drum. That is not true. Our drum is a peaceful drum. […] These songs are from our heart. They’re friendship songs.”
Meanwhile, the government would spend its money on “development” such as further policing. A deal has been made between the Ontario Provincial Police and the Tyendinaga Band Council to split the costs of a two million dollar, 5000 square foot, bullet proof police station right next to the elementary school in the community. As there are currently four police officers in Tyendinaga, community members suspect the plans are for the subversion of local reservation policing by building a larger police station so that OPP and RCMP police officers can take over. According to Tyendinaga community activist Niki Storms, this already happened in late April: “They totally undermined our own police forces. They took out our chief of police.”
The recent incidents at Tyendinaga and the gravel quarry have their roots in centuries of history. In 1832, the Culberston 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 license to Thurlow Aggregates, a non-native business that developed a gravel quarry within the Culberston Tract.
“It’s our land, which was stolen 175 years ago,” confirmed ‘Arosen.’ Niki explained that the community tried to halt mining activity while land negotiations were going on, but the government did not listen. Thurlow was hauling away “tons and tons of our land, every day,” while at the same time Tyendinaga was expected to sit through years of land negotiations about the very same land being trucked out of the community – one thousand tons a year, according to the Tyendinaga Support Committee.
In February 2006, the Mohawk community of Six Nations re-occupied a housing project being built on their territory. When the OPP entered the area and attempted to remove and raid the blockade, many Mohawk community members from Tyendinaga blocked the CN railway for twelve hours in solidarity with Six Nations, demanding the withdrawal of the OPP. In November 2006, a similar action was taken near Tyendinaga to highlight the theft of the Culberston Tract. While there may be some disagreement regarding tactics, both Longhouses and the Band Council are united in their goal of reclaiming both the Culberston Tract and the gravel quarry located within it. Charges were laid against Shawn Brant for these actions.
In late 2006, the June 29, 2007 national “Days of Action” were originally proposed by Chief Terrance Nelson and subsequently approved by the AFN and many First Nations communities. The original proposal included a call for economic disruption and blockades of the national rail lines. Later, however, the AFN backtracked and called for peaceful marches and actions without any disruption.
In November 2006, according to an article (Refusing to Be Silent: Economic Disruption in Indian Country) by Shawn Brant’s wife Sue Collis:
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… 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% of Canadians wanting actions on land claims and 41% of Ontarians prepared to acknowledge rail blockades as justified given the current landscape.
There is an apparent contradiction between the media’s portrayal of Shawn Brant as a renegade Mohawk with no real community support. How would one man or even a small group of people simultaneously block two highways and the national rail line, while at the same time maintaining the occupation of the gravel quarry in the Culberston Tract?
On June 29th, during Tyendinaga’s blockades a massive show of force was displayed near Tyendinaga. According to reports, six Canadian Armed Forces’ tanks and hundreds of OPP police officers were ready to be deployed against the Mohawk activists. Luckily, someone had more sense that day than to attack a community that had announced that there would be a response in the event of such an armed attack. However, a few days later, Shawn Brant was the sole target of criminal charges for “mischief” related to the Days of Action and spent four weeks in jail and was later released on bail with a series of conditions.
In late April 2008, Kingston realtor Emile Nibourg announced plans for construction on the Culberston Tract, writing that he would bring “25 to 30 guys” along with him. The Mohawk community response was to shut down the roads adjacent to the planned construction site. Although OPP SWAT teams were sent in and drew their weapons on the blockaders, Nibourg eventually abandoned his plans in the area.
On April 21, 2008, a young child came running to Shawn to tell him that his grandmother and another Mohawk woman were being attacked by racist picketers. Shawn came to the traffic stop where white men holding racist picket signs were threatening and insulting the women and swinging their signs at them. According to Tyendinaga community members present at the time, OPP officers stood by, watching and filming the incident. When confronted by community members about their inaction in the face of the threats and attacks against the women, an OPP officer reportedly told them that it was the picketers’ “right” to protest.
Shawn Brant came to the scene and stood between the women and the picketers and told them to get lost. Although a formal denunciation of the incident was made by the Mohawk community women, no charges were ever laid against the racist picketers. A whole slew of charges, including various counts of uttering death threats and possession of a dangerous weapon (a fishing spear during fishing season) were laid against Shawn Brant for his intervention to protect the women and children of his community.
While the mainstream media and the police have repeatedly reported that Shawn was arrested during a traffic stop, and that “during Mr. Brant’s arrest, two officers were allegedly confonted by a group of people and assaulted.” These are, quite simply, bold-faced lies. Shawn Brant was arrested on April 25th during an interview with the Aboriginal Peoples’ Television Network (APTN) and his entire arrest was caught on video and was aired on the APTN news program.
The Mohawk community of Tyendinaga responded to the arrest with blockades and actions. A tense stand-off with the OPP ensued and lasted for four days. Community witnesses report hundreds of OPP and RCMP officers and SWAT teams from as far away as Peterborough, Niagara Falls, and a number of other Ontarian cities. They estimate that since April 21st, the OPP – ie, tax-payers in Ontario – have spent eight million dollars on police repression. “It’s staggering,” said Tyendinaga activist Niki Storms, adding that this has been “kept away from people.”
“We were at gunpoint for four days. We were not allowed to leave the quarry,” said Arosen, explaining that for those four days from April 26-29, the year-long 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…”
“My rights were totally violated. My son couldn’t sleep for days, knowing that I was in there,” remarked another Tyendinaga community member. “This is hard – very hard, ‘cause it’s just like I’m there now, again.”
“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 must travel off the reservation in order to continue their studies after elementary school.
“They were pulled over by a SWAT team and searched,” denounced Niki Storms. When a Mohawk youth at the back of the bus asked what they were looking for, a police officer responded “terrorists.”
“They’re looking for terrorists on a bus full of kids,” said Storms. “They’re afraid of us. They’re afraid of our power.”
“Don’t underestimate the Mohawks’ resolve and sheer passion,” added Arosen. “Mohawks have never sold their land, or ceded, or given away. Ever!”
“The school that they closed down for ‘security reasons’ was full of police officers, with snipers all over the roof,” added another Tyendinaga community member who was under siege at the quarry, adding that on April 29th, “you couldn’t see anything but police cars.”
At that point, “there were no natives blockading the road,” explained Storms. “There were police blocking the road.”
Several Tyendinaga community members – mostly women – had come down to the road to see what was going on. They peacefully negotiated with the police for permission to cross the police lines to get to their vehicles to move them out of the way and go home.
“They had been given permission to cross the line,” said Storms. However, when the women accompanied by a few men actually crossed the police line to return to their vehicles, “the police jumped our men. I’m talking 4 to 5, 6 cops [taking down each man…] My brother was lifted off the ground, flew into a ditch.”
Niki Storms and others had called her parents to inform them that their youngest son, Matt Kunkel, had been arrested. When her parents arrived and her mother demanded to see her son to make sure he was alive, an OPP officer asked them if they would like to see their son. He led them to a police car, but as soon as they looked inside and started to protest that it was not their son, they were both arrested and shoved into the same police car.
The elder couple was later released, in order to appease the community’s anger over the arrest of a grandmother and grandfather. Niki Storms angrily explained that a photograph of the OPP officer walking alongside her mother was published with the caption: “lady led away to safety,” despite the fact that her mother was led away by the police to jail! The couple was released without charges but with a series of conditions. However, their vehicle had been impounded, but instead of picking it up from the police station or from some other public authority, they were directed to a white farmer’s field, where they had to pay the farmer over $200 in order to get their vehicle back.
“Four of our men were arrested that day,” said Storms, fighting back tears. She explained that even though the men were laying face down at gunpoint with their arms and legs tied, hundreds of police still drew their M-16s and other weapons on the women, children and men of Tyendinaga. She added that a Toronto Star photograph of the scene at the time covers such a small area that the hundreds of police officers with their weapons drawn and the arrested men lying at gunpoint on the ground were all – clearly intentionally – excluded. Police were taking the journalists away from the area, and were attempting to take away people’s cell phones and cameras.
“Our kids were scared. I was scared,” said Niki Storms. The collective trauma became apparent in the Tyendinaga Mohawk community members’ testimonies and the darting eyes of the children listening to the horror they had lived through only a month earlier.
In light of the situation, the comments of OPP Commissioner Julian Fantino, who has been a key figure in the police demonization and repression against the Mohawk and particularly Shawn Brant, speaks for itself: “The hard work and dedication of our officers in protecting the citizens of this community cannot go unnoticed.”
Several Tyendinaga community members have been released with conditions. Shawn Brant, Clive Brant, and Matt Kunkel, however, are still detained in Napanee, pending trial.
When asked by this journalist at the May 27th press conference in Queen’s Park for his position or comments on the three Tyendinaga Mohawk in the Quinte Detention Centre in Napanee, one of whom is facing a minimum of 12 years for his defence of community members from a racist attack, Phil Fontaine of the Canadian Assembly of First Nations responded: “I wasn’t aware of the situation you described. To be fair to all concerned, I’d like to have some details before I can respond to that.”
While hundreds upon hundreds have gathered at Queen’s Park to show support for the KI 6 and demand the freedom of Bob Lovelace, three Mohawk community members remain in detention for their activism on similar issues. It is unclear when any of them may be released. Shawn Brant is being denied bail until his trial, which will likely begin in mid-June.
“All we ever wanted was a safe and healthy community to raise our babies, and clean drinking water,” remarked Shawn to Sergio during the detention centre visit.
After Shawn was denied bail in 2007, his wife Sue Collis wrote the following in her article Refusing to Be Silent:
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 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 carving out a National platform that exposed Canada’s dismal and embarassing 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.
Niki Storms reports that they had trouble getting the Tyendinaga detainees in touch with the lawyers, because the detention centre was neither passing on messages nor allowing the detainees to make any telephone calls. Her letters in Mohawk to her brother Matt Kunkel have been returned from Quinte, with a note saying that if she can’t write in English, then not to bother writing. She also reports that Shawn, Clive and Matt are being held in the maximum-security wing of the detention centre and have not been permitted to smudge, hold a ceremony, or burn sacred tobacco.
On May 28th, as this article was being written, an Ontario appeal court reduced the sentences of Bob Lovelace and the KI 6 from six months to time served. Lovelace spent his first day out of jail since February at the march from Queen’s Park down to a park near the shore of the lake on Thursday, May 29th, the same day that the Assembly of First Nations held this year’s national day of action to raise awareness about aboriginal issues, especially child poverty. Rallies, marches and actions took place in Ottawa, Halifax, Chilliwack, Winnipeg, and many other places.
Not all news was good news, however. On May 27th, in the Quinte Regional Detention Centre, Shawn Brant was put on a 12-day 23 hours-a-day lock-down for a “misconduct”: the ceremonial burning of sage in his cell. The Tyendinaga Support Committee released an update with the news, commenting:
While regular Chapel services and bible study are available, and the med cart rolls around three times daily, Aboriginal inmates are all but denied access to their religious practice and medicine. In the five weeks that Shawn has been at the Detention Centre, he has been permitted yard time to conduct ceremony only three times. Frustrated by the seeming lack of interest by the institution to support a regularized program that would observe the cultural and religious rights of Aboriginal inmates, Shawn notified prison staff that he would undertake to perform the ceremony in his cell. Shortly thereafter, he was brought before a Lieutenant, who informed him that he had no rights while inside, and who termed the burning of sage as a health and safety issue.
“We are complicit, as settlers in Turtle Island,” asserted Magaly San Martin of the Tyendinaga Support Committee. “We are complicit with the government if we don’t take a stand.”
Magaly’s remarks echo those of Pastor Niemöller concerning the complicity of inaction in the face of awareness. It has been a long time since I felt so much simultaneous outrage and sadness. The situation is both incredibly sad and outrageous and it is happening right here, right now. Standing up and speaking out is the least that we can do.
“Colonialism is embedded in our Constitution, the law, and in our minds,” explained Bob Lovelace in his taped message from prison to the ‘Mother Earth Protectors’ tent city supporters at Queen’s Park. “And I say that any political party in Canada that perpetuates colonialism is not fit to govern.”
“I am speaking about the power to transform fear into trust. […] The way of the warrior can be taken up by a little girl at the back of the bus. […] It’s time to fight. The battle lines have been drawn and there’s no middle ground. […] Real warriors must act beyond the barricades to be effective.”
“Sadly, we share the same issues and the same efforts to wipe us out,” Shawn Brant told Sergio Campusano through the prison glass back at the Quinte Detention Centre. “We’re not prepared to simply stand by.”
I have learned that it is important to clarify who we are and where we come from when non-indigenous people speak or write about indigenous people and struggles. I am a white descendant of European settlers and was born in Burnaby, BC – unceded Coast Salish Territory. I have been an activist organizer and writer for almost a decade now. For three of the five years I lived in Central America, I worked alongside the indigenous Lenca communities of Montaña Verde, the tortured and jailed leaders from the Indigenous Communal Council, their lawyer, COPINH – the indigenous organization to which they were affiliated, Rights Action, and other national and international organizations.
While many people in Canada and the United States know about human rights violations in Guatemala, Burma, or the Congo, very few people are aware that many of these same human rights violations occur on an ongoing basis right here at home. Very few cases – such as that of American Indian Movement political prisoner Leonard Peltier – have gained widespread attention. When Peltier was originally arrested on trumped up charges, the media and governmental campaign against him was similar to today’s portrayal of Shawn Brant as a violent terrorist.
The similarities between the cases of Tyendinaga Mohawk spokesperson Shawn Brant and Montaña Verde spokesperson Marcelino Miranda are striking: the intimidation, the trumped up criminal charges, the complete siege of their communities over struggles in defence of territory, their demonization by police and the media as leaders of insurgent, guerrilla or terrorist groups, etc. I have often told people that the most important thing I learned in Honduras was the meaning of true courage, through the example of the Miranda brothers during their long three and a half years in jail. I also said that there are so few examples of courage where I am from. I stand corrected. It has been an honour to meet many very courageous people from the Tyendinaga Mohawk, KI, Ardoch, and other Nations.
I encourage everyone to visit the Tyendinaga Support Committee website to learn more about the issues and about what we can all do to speak out and take action in solidarity with the political prisoners and community: http://www.ocap.ca/supporttmt.html
Freedom For All Political Prisoners And Indigenous Prisoners Of War!
Sandra Cuffe is an independent activist and journalist. For more info and writing, visit her blog: http://thistidehasnoheartbeat.wordpress.com. She can be reached at thistidehasnoheartbeat(at)gmail.com