Opinion

1492 Land Back Lane: Cold Handcuffs And Hot Anger For The People Of Six Nations

As I was institutionalized and monitored by strangers, the people of my community, Six Nations, were facing eerily similar treatment.

A sign for the Grand River. The Grand River runs through southern Ontario, Canada.

(Photo: iStock)

In late August, I was involuntarily hospitalized at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto for almost 72 hours. The reason why isn’t important to this story; what’s important to this story is that I was kept away from my community, Six Nations of the Grand River, when we needed one another most.

Even as I was institutionalized and monitored by strangers, the people of my community were facing eerily similar treatment. The Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) have been making numerous arrests at what my people, the Haudenosaunee, are calling 1492 Land Back Lane. It’s land that we’ve been rightfully reclaiming for decades, despite being known as “McKenzie Meadows” by developers who are trying to build a subdivision there. Both my treatment and the treatment of my people are about control. And while it’s isolating enough to be coerced into compliance by a well-funded medical institution like CAMH, the institution desperately trying to control my community is the Canadian government itself.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario Premier Doug Ford have both done their best to side-step any and all serious questions related to #1492LandBackLane (as it’s called on social media), which has been going on for two months now. But the ongoing actions of the OPP have made it clear that their nonchalance is a ruse: Despite appearances, these elected leaders’ attention is finely attuned to my home community. While in office, Trudeau and Ford have both faced accusations of cronyism and illegal activity, not to mention selfish neoliberal leadership that has left many Canadians desperate during a global pandemic. None of these accusations have created so much as a hiccup in their political agendas. The people of Six Nations of the Grand River, meanwhile, have been left to deal with cold handcuffs and hot anger.

If you know anything about the unique history of Six Nations, this adversarial treatment should come as no surprise. As Courtney Skye pointed out in Chatelaine this past February, the Haudenosaunee have a long, storied history of being betrayed by the Crown and its representatives. Right before the American Revolution broke out, Mohawk war chief Joseph Brant went to England to offer my peoples’ assistance in the upcoming war. Well aware that Europeans relied on arbitrary documentation to “prove” the boundaries of their territory, Brant asked for one thing in exchange: a land grant.

This eventually led to the 1784 Haldimand Proclamation, guaranteeing Six Nations the Haldimand Tract, six miles of land on either side of the Grand River. It was understood that this land would be controlled by Haudenosaunee people alone, as my people already had a longstanding treaty with the Crown called the Two Row Wampum, or Guswenta, which established peaceful respect for and noninterference with one another’s territorial and jurisdictional boundaries.

Of course, Canada did not abide by this clearly established agreement. In 1923, Chief Deskaheh, or Levi General, travelled to the League of Nations—the historical predecessor to the UN—to expose the injustice our people faced as a direct result of Canada’s actions. He used his own passport to travel to Geneva, arguing that our people deserved our own seat at the table as allies to the Crown. In 1924, Canada retaliated by staging a coup of my peoples’ traditional Confederacy Chiefs Council, forcing our chiefs and clanmothers out of our council house at gunpoint, stealing our wampum—in essence, our history—then forcing a snap election for a band council (the watered-down Indigenous governance body recognized by the federal government). It garnered a measly 56 ballots from the over 3,000 people living in community at the time, and it’s been speculated that half of those ballots were forged.

Today, 1492 Land Back Lane (i.e. “McKenzie Meadows”) is clearly part of the Haldimand Tract, and whoever sold it to developers did not do so legally. Our ongoing fight for our land includes a 1995 suit that Six Nations brought against both Canada and Ontario for unlawfully dispossessing us of land, including #1492LandBackLane. That suit is still pending, and scheduled for court in 2022.

An 1821 map from the Surveyor General showing the size of the Haldimand Tract.

“Plan shewing the Lands granted to the Six Nation Indians, situated on each side of the Grand River, or Ouse; commencing on Lake Erie, containing about 674,910 Acres,” Thomas Ridout, Office of the Surveyor General, 1821. (Courtesy: Library and Archives Canada)

Another piece of land covered by those suits is one we call “Kanonhstaton,” a Mohawk word which means “Protected Place.” I was there in 2006 when a small group of Haudenosaunee women met to talk about taking Kanonhstaton back.

My father drove my sister and I to the meeting: I was 17, and would have preferred to message friends and download songs, but he forced me to step into history. My sister and I were the youngest women there. We sat quietly while the group went over old maps and land deeds, discussing the piece of land the mainstream media would soon be calling “Douglas Creek Estates.” We listened while the two women in charge—Dawn Maracle and Janie Jamieson—explained the ways Canada gets around inconvenient Indians: by refusing to give back any land that has a single settler living on it. By the time the meeting was over, we were determined that no settlers would ever live on “Douglas Creek Estates.”

In February 2006, a handful of our people went in at 5 a.m. and shut down construction. Back then, neither the elected band council nor the traditional Haudenosaunee Confederacy Chiefs Council officially supported our direct action to get our land back. But on April 20, a major OPP operation resulted in the arrests of 16 of the very few people who were there—which led hundreds of our people to drive over to force the police back. A barricade was put up, battle lines drawn. The action lasted for months and then, amazingly, seemed to garner a response.

The Ontario government bought Kanonhstaton from those developers, putting an end to “Douglas Creek Estates.” And both the federal and provincial governments agreed to sit down and negotiate with my community about various disputed lands. Within Six Nations, the elected band council even agreed to abide by what’s known as the Eight Points of Jurisdiction—guidelines that clearly outline its authority, but also the jurisdiction of the Confederacy Council. For the first time in our community’s history, our elected band council was following the lead of our Confederacy Chiefs.

In June 2006, Ontario agreed to give the Haudenosaunee Confederacy Chiefs Council back a heavily polluted area known as the Burtch lands. Unfortunately, our leaders agreed to take down the barricades at Kanonhstaton as a sign of good faith in return. But once there was no longer a 20-minute detour for non-Indigenous people to drive around, public pressure to find real solutions to our legitimate land issues all but disappeared.

Which is why, with #1492LandBackLane, my community finds itself in the difficult position of trying to force Ontario and Canada to come back to a negotiating table that they’d both prefer to pretend doesn’t exist.

At CAMH, I got talking to a woman I’ll call Paula—“Are the bad cops all gone?” she asked me. Her face, so often creased by fear was briefly, alight with hope. “How many more have to be fired until they’re all gone?”

Paula reminded me of my mother in ways that both comfort and disturb me. She even asked me if I was her daughter. I didn’t have the heart to tell her no—to remind her that we were together in a mental hospital against our will. And I wasn’t sure how to answer her question about police. It was clear to me that she was ready to hang all her hope on whatever figures came out of my mouth next. However, it was also clear to me that she was expecting a precision I could never offer. As she rattled off potential numbers of “bad cops” left—all numbers that ran in the hundreds of thousands—her eyes searched every pore, every freckle on my face for validation.

“I’m not sure, honey,” I say, eventually. Maybe, in another time and place, we could have developed something—not quite a parental-child bond, perhaps, but definitely something resembling friendship. These are the ways that women tend to relate: secretly, softly, but always with a reticence to give too much away. After all, if we don’t protect ourselves, save ourselves, then who will?

It’s strange and sad to me that a white woman with mental health issues inside the best-funded facility for addiction and mental health in Canada was more terrified of the police than I was. When I was arrested, then led crying hysterically into the back seat of a police cruiser, the officers clearly felt bad for me. They were kind, or at least, as kind as I imagine police officers undertaking a task like this can be. But at the end of the day, they were still enforcing a message that Canada has long sent not only Indigenous people and communities, but all who push against comforting nationalistic narratives of passive politeness and sunny ways: that I was too crazy—too dangerous—to have free will.

When I wasn’t talking to Paula in CAMH or refreshing Twitter to see if my people at #1492LandBackLane were okay, I was waiting. I was only allowed to leave the facility if the psychiatrist they had assigned to me said so. It was an incredibly frustrating scenario: A person who only offered me a set amount of time every day—certainly no more than an hour—was the only person who could determine I deserved freedom. If I was agitated with this person, it was proof of my instability. If I complied with this person, exhausted of fighting, it was also proof of my instability. There was no way for me to win. Isn’t that exactly what Canada is doing to my people right now—putting them in impossible situations, pathologizing their every move to look like Indigenous terrorist hysteria?

So far, at least 26 people have been arrested at #1492LandBackLane, including four journalists and one academic researcher. Meanwhile, mainstream news mostly centres the developers and the government in its stories, distracting itself and its audience from Haudenosaunee concerns. It seems like a desperate attempt to avoid looking at themselves in the mirror, recognizing how they are continuing to aid and abet criminal activity against Six Nations and other Indigenous communities, which make up some of the most marginalized, underfunded places in Canada.

I got out of CAMH, thankfully. I’m not sure that my people can get out of the trap so carefully laid by Canada—not without the help of Canadian citizens, anyway. I often think back to the Two Row Wampum, which detailed a policy of non-interference between the Haudenosaunee and Canadians. Canada has never upheld that treaty, unfortunately. Perhaps it’s time we make new treaties—ones between the people of Six Nations and the people of Canada.

Everyday people like you and me are expected to just fold our hands, shrug our shoulders, and hope that an abstract idea called “democracy” will settle over us like a giant weighted blanket with a maple leaf on the front. But some of the most important support for #1492LandBackLane has come from non-Indigenous folks. So many have shown solidarity, care and love on social media, and at the actual site. And with our  legal defense fund at over $140,000, as of this writing, I’d guess that many have sent money, too. I am so grateful. I know the hard times we’re living in. Every day we see more clear evidence that, in Canada and beyond, corporations are prioritized over people, that poverty is treated as an infectious disease and allowed to spread, that marginalized folks are viewed as disposable pawns in billionaires’ get-even-richer-even-quicker schemes. Even in the midst of a global pandemic.

The people of Six Nations and the people of Canada don’t want this pain for one another. We’re neighbours. We’re friends. We’re, yes, family. Our children meet, make friends, fall in love, have children. Those children follow the same beautiful, if difficult, cycle. Whether Canadian politicians and pundits want to recognize it or not: we are in this together. We are all in this together. Canada cannot separate us anymore.