CALEDONIA — If you want to understand why a Caledonia construction site has been the focus of an intense months-long protest, “you have to keep backing up into the story,” says Rick Monture, Six Nations historian and professor in the Indigenous studies program at McMaster University.
Since July, Indigenous protesters have occupied the site of a proposed housing development called McKenzie Meadows, which they say is on unceded Six Nations land. (While the elected council publicly supported the development, Six Nations’ traditional government, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy Council of Chiefs, backs the occupation, and the leadership bodies have been working together to push for negotiations with the provincial and federal governments). The demonstrators, who call themselves land defenders, dubbed the site 1492 Land Back Lane, in reference to the year Columbus reached the Americas, signalling the beginning of European colonization of the continents.
The story begins with the American Revolution, during which the people of Six Nations allied with the British against American rebels and lost territory in what is now New York. In recompense, Quebec governor Frederick Haldimand granted the Six Nations lands bordering the Grand River. The roughly 950,000-acre stretch outlined in the Haldimand Treaty of 1784 curves from north of Orangeville all the way down to south of Dunnville.
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“Their understanding was that the lands on the Grand River, six miles on either side, mouth to source, was to be ours to use as we saw fit and compensation for all those millions of acres we gave up in New York State,” Monture says. But the British authorities had other ideas, he adds, perhaps believing that the people of Six Nations had become subjects of the Crown. “That's kind of the beginning of a point of contention. We always said we never acquiesced to the British having authority over us. These were simply lands that were given to us in compensation for all that we had lost in the service of the British in the revolution.”
Soon, Europeans were settling on the land that had been signed over to the Six Nations. In many cases, they leased land that had already been sold, failed to pay their leases, or settled without permission. “We had no way to stop and control them. And to be honest, I don't think the colonial authorities wanted us to be able to,” Monture says. “It was in their best interest to populate this area with white settlers.”
Booklets produced by the Six Nations Lands and Resources Department state that, for example, between 1829 and 1830, approximately 2,500 acres of Six Nations lands were flooded to allow for the construction of the Welland Canal. No compensation was ever paid.
In 1841, Indian agent Samuel P. Jarvis allegedly brokered a surrender of land along the Plank Road (now Highway 6 outside Caledonia) with several Six Nations officials. While the surrender was immediately disputed by Six Nations leadership — and still is — the Crown honoured it. Land Back Lane sits on some of the disputed territory.
“At the very most, those lands were to be leased,” says Phil Monture, former director of the Six Nations land-claims department, noting that a lease agreement for one half-mile of land on each side of the road was sanctioned by Six Nations chiefs in 1835. Phil (who is Rick Monture’s cousin) spent about 40 years researching the lease, sale, and theft of land in the Haldimand Tract. In 1994, he started a court case outlining Six Nations land claims; it is set to be heard in 2022.
Phil researched and built the case with his team at the land-claims department using records supplied by government and financial institutions. The team also developed a plan for a potential “care and maintenance mechanism” that would “benefit the Six Nations Peoples and their posterity to enjoy forever, while continuing to share the Haldimand Tract lands and resources with our neighbours.”
It wasn’t just land but also years of income that Canada took from the Six Nations, says Phil: an Indian agent allegedly embezzled funds in the 1840s; between 1820 and 1861, money was withdrawn from a Six Nations trust fund and transferred to government bodies, businesses, and institutions including McGill University, the Law Society of Upper Canada, the Welland Canal Company, and the Grand River Navigation Company (there are no records of repayment). “Our money was used to run this country,” Phil says. “They were selling everything we had, left, right, and centre, to benefit everybody else but the Six Nations.”
According to the Six Nations Lands and Resources Department, in 2020 dollars, the total value of repayments owed to Six Nations, including interest, would be more than $11 billion.
But Skyler Williams, who acts as the spokesperson for the group occupying Land Back Lane, believes that money should not be the focus. He says it’s important that Haudenosaunee people have enough land to live on and that the Six Nations reserve be able expand as cities and towns do. “For us to settle for whittling [the Haldimand Tract] down to dollars and cents, I think that’s a huge disrespect to our ancestors who fought and died for this land,” he says, adding that he wants it to stay as natural as possible. “Progress looks like being able to see the deer sometimes.”
Now that winter has arrived, land defenders on the site are collecting supplies and constructing tiny houses for shelter. “It feels amazing” to be on the site, Williams told TVO.org in December. “We've got lots of people, lots of good food, good laughs. It's a good day to be Indigenous.”
Caledonian Kim Wiley, a member of a Facebook group called Caledonia and Six Nations Matter! — which promotes learning the history behind the dispute and calls on elected officials to resolve it — says she didn’t know much about the dispute before November. Now, though, she’s urging government officials to resolve the matter and believes that Caledonia needs to work with Six Nations to build bridges. “We’ve got to deal with this, because if we don't deal with it, our kids are going to have to. Our grandkids are going to have to. That's what's been going on for hundreds of years.”
Rick says Indigenous people are pushed into difficult positions when they try to play by the rules. “We took it to the court system — we raised it to every politician that would listen for the last 200 years or more — but no one ever does anything,” he says.
The Ontario Provincial Police’s role in managing the situation has been criticized by Caledonians, demonstrators, and the company attempting to develop the site. Still, police presence remains heavy around 1492 Land Back Lane, Williams says.
“We don't expect to have anything given to us by Canada. We don't expect to have anything given to us by Ontario, and certainly not by Haldimand County. We had [the deed] for the last 240 years. We're not planning on giving that up today.” The federal government, he says, must become involved in finding a resolution.
In a statement to TVO.org, the Ministry of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada said the government “is committed to continuing to work collaboratively to address Six Nations historical claims and land rights issues,” adding, “Federal government officials have been in regular communication with representatives of Six Nations Elected Chief and Council, Haudenosaunee Confederacy Chiefs Council and Ontario throughout this process with regard to our offer to meet. We look forward to meeting with the community at the earliest opportunity.”
Williams says he’s not yet heard from anyone in the federal government: “Ottawa’s a long way away, so I guess it takes a long time to get here.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Six Nations’ elected council sold the land in 2015; in fact, it publicly supported the development as part of an accommodation deal with the developer. TVO.org regrets the error.
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