Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Native Political Prisoners & the Struggle for their Land

by Sara Falconer
Basics Issue #9 (May 2008)

A recent standoff between First Nations people and the cops has ended in six new arrests, bringing the total number of First Nations people facing charges from land struggles into the double digits. Are they Ontario’s political prisoners?

The storm around First Nations land claims has been brewing over the past several years around several controversial uranium mining and development projects. On April 25, Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) drew guns in a confrontation on Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory near Deseronto. Solidarity blockades and actions took place at Six Nations, Akwesasne, Kahnawake, Guelph, Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver over the following four days. After the OPP withdrew from Tyendinaga on April 29, the other blockades were dismantled.

Mohawk warriors have occupied a quarry on the disputed Culbertson Tract for over a year. The latest conflict began when spokesperson Shawn Brant was arrested on an outstanding weapons charge, less than two weeks after he was acquitted of uttering threats at soldiers at a 2006 demonstration.

During his arrest, which took place in the midst of an interview with the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, Brant offered some pointed criticisms. “This is it, justice for First Nations communities: Lock us up.”

The Supreme Court noted in 1999 that although aboriginals make up only 3 per cent of Canada’s population, they make up 12 per cent of the prison population. Skyler Williams, a Mohawk from the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory, says that more and more it seems to be a case of “Canada settling land claims by arrests.”

Williams was arrested in September along with eight others at a protest against construction of a subdivision in Caledonia and charged with mischief, as well as a previous assault charge.

Robert Lovelace, aboriginal student counsellor at Fleming College in Peterborough, is serving a six-month sentence for contempt of court for protesting Frontenac Ventures’ uranium exploration near Sharbot Lake on traditional Ardoch Algonquin land. Paula Sherman, a Trent University professor and single mother of three children, was arrested along with Lovelace but paid a $15,000 fine to avoid jail time.

In the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation (known as KI) in Northern Ontario, six council members are serving six-month jail sentences for refusing to obey a court order to allow Platinex to resume mineral exploration near Big Trout Lake. The community has rallied for the release of the KI6, as they have become known, including Chief Donny Morris and Cecilia Begg, a community leader and grandmother.

“Solidarity is a big thing for all native people,” Williams says. “It’s something that’s happened throughout our history... Struggle will always bring those nations together.” ∗