First Nations issues are local issues

First published: September 22, 2007

Are are terrorist in Northumberland County?

No, these are not the ones Canadian soldiers are fighting in Afghanistan. Nor are these the same group of Al Qaeda terrorist American President George Bush is fighting in Iraq.

These are native terrorist, members of the Six Nations, who are maintaining a blockade along the Grand River in southwestern Ontario, protesting against a housing development that they say is on land they own. Sam Gaultieri, a 52-year old man, was seriously injured in a confrontation. It is Gaultieri’s brother who is calling the Natives terrorists.

According to reports, Gaultieri allegedly found a First Nations flag attached to the roof of a home being built for his daughter. Later, he returned to the site and clashed with First Nations protesters he found inside. Allegations abound, as one report says the beating was so severe, the individuals did not stop beating him after Gaultieri lost unconsciousness. OPP are investigating.

Gaultieri’s brother held a press conference holding up a picture of the bloodied face. He is saying Premier Dalton McGuinty must shoulder some of the responsibility for the native protests. Besides the one in Grand Falls, another housing site is being targeted in Caledonia, where a Six Nations occupation has gone on for more than a year-and-a-half.

The premier responded Saturday by naming former Toronto Mayor and MP David Crombie as a community liaison to help facilitate communications between various groups.

But, these protests are not isolated. Tyendinaga First Nations protests over a land claim related to another development ended up shutting down Highway 401 and the railway line east of Belleville over the Labour Day weekend, which was organized by protester Shawn Brant. He is currently facing charges related to the incident.

There are many reasons voters in Northumberland need to pay attention to this controversy. While we enjoy a fairly peaceful relationship with the First Nations people in Alderville, this kind of rhetoric being espoused around the beating is worrisome. There are several blogs that have used the term terrorists in describing the protesters. But, this is the first time the term has risen into the mainstream news. It is hateful and it grossly misrepresents the situation. Sadly, it will not only smear the First Nations in Caledonia and Grand Fall, but also insinuate all First Nations people are terrorists. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Still, with the provincial election currently underway, it is vital candidates in Northumberland address the pressing issue of First Nations land claims. Both the Liberals and Conservatives have grossly mismanaged this portfolio. The Liberals have allowed the protests in Caledonia to go on for far too long. Every time there is a flare up within the community, another envoy is named to carry on talks. Meanwhile, federal and provincial governments blame each other for the lack of progress like two children in a schoolyard spat.

Lou Rinaldi need to make his record on Native issues clear. Besides spouting his governments record, he needs to say what he has done locally to address the land claims issue.

Conservative candidate Cathy Galt is in the same position. Her party played a crucial role in escalating this problem after former Premier Mike Harris’ government mismanaged the conflict at Ipperwash.

Both the NDP and the Green Party candidates should not go unchallenged. Their platforms must be made public, too.

It is far too easy to separate this latest horrific incident from a long history of violence. Besides Ipperwash, there was the death of Neil Stonechild, a 17-year old aboriginal youth, whose frozen body was found on the outskirts of Saskatoon in 1990. A decade later, two more First Nations men were found frozen to death in roughly the same place. An inquiry was held and the police investigation was found to be shoddy and inadequate.

The Ipperwash inquiry found similar faults with the police handling of standoff that ended in the death of Dudley George in 1995. The inquiry found in May 2007 that the OPP, the government of former Ontario premier Mike Harris and the federal government all bear responsibility for events that led to his death

Northumberland residents must count themselves lucky. Past protests have been relatively peaceful. Alderville First Nations have chosen a different path, a non-violent one, to seek redress. However, this may not last forever. Delays only add to frustration that could one day boil over. To say the land claims issue is not a local one is to stick ones head in the sand.

There is one hope. Brant’s upcoming trial over his protests shutting down the railway and highway could lead to some groundbreaking legal decisions. If Brant is able to argue the lands the highway and railway are situated on are owned by the First Nations, then he could take his case to the Supreme Court of Canada. This would allow the land ownership issue to be placed at the foot of the courts as a legal issue and take it out of the hands of politicians, who seem unable to deal with it.

A decision by the courts in favour of the First Nations would be a historic victory and expedite the process by decades. Other social movements have successfully used the courts to avoid getting sucked up into an ugly political debate and establish their rights. The gay and lesbian movement has done a brilliant job using this strategy.

It is time to bear down on the local candidates on the crucial issue of land claims. And, like so many issues in this election, it must not be left up to the campaigns to set the agenda, but voters to identify what is most important to our community.

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