Mohawk activist Shawn Brant speaks on the June 29th National Aboriginal Day of Action blockade that shut down highway 401, brought trade to a standstill and pushed First Native land claims to the forefront.
Basics: Can tell us some of the history of the land claims and the quarry?
Brant: It came from frustration in dealing with the Government of Canada and its agreements that it has made in the past. We felt strongly that this particular claim stood as an example of all the claims that were going on across the country. We shut down a company that was mining on the very lands that we knew to be ours and that the government had admitted was ours and yet it allowed for mining to continue. So we saw it as a basic, simple indignity that people in the broader public could understand. Don’t truck away the land while we are sitting at the table talking about it. What we found was that we had to physically put our people there in order to prevent this from happening. We wanted the process to continue in a way that was fair and dignified at a table that was balanced with justice and people working towards a resolution but that didn’t happen. That indignity of having to sit on our land and prevent it from being strip mined grew and grew and we started a growing campaign of economic destruction and we got into a lot of situations that have culminated recently. This claim went back 170 years and it is typical of every other one. There were agreements; there were broken promises, lies, it was about theft and even the government itself admits it cannot justify theft under these circumstances. Having that admission, though, didn’t mean the issue was resolved.
Basics: Its funny that you mentioned negotiating land while trucking it away. In Chile, that is something the Pinochet government did to Bolivia back in the 80s. Pinochet, with his fascist government said okay we will give you the land while he was trucking away the minerals under it.
Brant: It is something on going for 100s of years and when you see something as simple as this can’t be resolved, it is understood by people that nothing can resolved with the state in terms of land claim recognition. It instills and entrenches in our minds the indignities we face on a constant basis. The land is yours, the government admits it is yours, but that doesn’t mean you are going to get it. When its yours and you know that you are fundamentally obligated to take responsibility and to take whatever action for reclamation. You are there you defend your home like someone was coming to hurt your kids and you take steps to get it recognized internationally to make sure it never happens again.
Basics: This wasn’t the first time the OPP, RCMP, or Armed Forces has engaged in activities over you has it?
Brant: It is not our first contact with them. We are a fighting community. We have engaged the Canadian Military and the OPP in the past. We have had Mohawk nations come out and defend lands where their ancestors were buried from having condominiums placed upon them. When we talk about a gravel quarry, the state has clearly demonstrated it is willing to develop where our ancestors are buried and we have had to come out with arms to defend that. I find people always appeal to compassion and sensibilities. People need to be aware that a different approach has to be taken when the government operates in that way. They are turning over the soil where our ancestors are buried. We are constantly placed in a situation of confrontation and we can’t back down. Gas lines and pipelines are continually being put up in our backyards because non-natives did not want them and our land is cheap. There are 400 native nations across this country where CN touches their land and major highways too. It’s frightening that natives have faced indignities for hundreds of years. If you want to take $1 dollar from us we will cost you $1000 dollars. We have shut the CN mainline down 3 times, we have shut the 401 down and the detour routes, we have closed towns and businesses too. We have shut it all down.
Basics: What has been the estimated cost of it?
Brant: I estimate about half a billion dollars. That’s over the simple matter of the quarry license. That has brought us to the forefront of land claims. Land claims turn nasty when the situation in the communities gives rise to militancy. Maybe you can’t understand that you live in poverty, that you drink polluted water, that your kids kill themselves. But when someone encroaches and tries to put up a development we can see that and we can stop it. Maybe we can’t stop the social issues but we can physically stop that development. That’s why we fight.
Basics: With the increased militancy when the state tries to steal land there has been some news media who denounce what you are doing.
Brant: When we closed the rail line in April, they saw how dirty and messy that is, people saw how far the state is willing to go to further the free flowing economy. My brother who is a lawyer got a call in the middle of the night by someone to talk me out of June 29th or he would be charged with collusion and they will get my body from the morgue. They sent people out to tell us if we don’t leave the highway we will be dead. It isn’t the line of the government or the police to threaten everyone with death but that is how it is in First Nations communities. When Paul Fontaine or the band chiefs stepped down, they did it under duress that they will spend a long time in jail. This shouldn’t diminish their courage. These are simple aspects of life necessary for survival. We want the basics for our kids. It is a struggle for survival.
Basics: In Lawrence Heights, we have been organizing people around the important issue of displacement and the selling of their land to developers. Do you see any parallels in terms of displacement?
Brant: People are aware of Kasheshewan - a modern crisis in Ontario. There was an attempt to displace that community and move them into North Bay. Not because they wanted to fix their water, but because they discovered resource deposits in the shores of James Bay. You are only in a spot until resources are found and then you are moved. The government and systems of capital are designed in order to maintain a degree of suffering and poverty in a segment of society. If can’t make it then you sleep on the streets. If you can’t feed your child on the $100 dollars a month then your child will go to someone who will get $1000 dollars to raise that same child. These are fundamental indignities that go across racial barriers. We are lucky to live in a community that can organize and has strength to do those things. People have to realize that outside of reservations, Lawrence Heights, Regent Park and elsewhere there needs to be strong resistance and mobilization against encroachment on communities. There has to be more than passive resistance and appealing to feelings. I got released on bail a couple days ago after being held because of the “threat of re-offending”. My offense was trying to bring attention to social issues that affect First Nations people on a daily basis, like drinking water and hunger. If that is my threat to re-offend then who is offending who? The government needs to be held responsible for its actions. A community like this is one that can do that.
Basics: How long were you in for?
Brant: A couple months
Basics: Basically as a political prisoner - and you weren’t the only one in jail.
Brant: There are people still in under different circumstances. There are people on the run from outstanding charges in Caledonia. I have never considered the term political or otherwise. When you are in the institution, you are just a prisoner. We were in there because we couldn’t let things keep going the way they are going. We have an obligation as Mohawk men to seek every peaceful solution before we become more aggressive. We have done that up to this point. If nothing happens then there is an obligation to continue. These are survival issues. People are not going to stop.
Basics: Anything you’d like to say to the Lawrence Heights community?
Brant: The message that needs to go to all communities is that they need to stand up to the injustices that are perpetrated by government. Native issues need to be translated to a more common front to bring about a better government. We are concerned about housing issues, and people sleeping on the street or finding enough food. Society at large need to start working together and go beyond the classifications of communities and when things like this emerge they will all stand and bring real justice to everyone. There could have been a large response on June 29th if people were attuned to the political advantages that existed for them at that time. They have to accept that Mohawks are going to stand and fight. We will take the government down until it has real respect and honour for the people it supposedly represents.
Basics: Thank you Shawn Brant.