Mohawk faces 12 years in jail for CN protest
Sue Collis, wife of Mohawk activist Shawn Brant, brings facts and context to McGill students
By Martin Lukacs
The McGill Daily [Montreal, Canada]
Oct 22, 2007
Sue Collis accused the Canadian government of criminalizing her husband, Mohawk activist Shawn Brant, for his involvement in CN Railway blockades, in a talk she gave at McGill Thursday.
After spending two months in pre-trial custody, Brant faces nine charges, including six “mischief” charges from two blockades outside the Tyendinaga community near Kingston, Ontario, the second of which took place on the aboriginal National Day of Action on June 29.
“They want to make an example of him,” Collis said. “Shawn acted as a spokesperson for the community of Tyendinaga, and not only did he give a voice to the suffering that exists [in native communities], but he compelled Canadians to look with a new clarity…at the legacy of the Canadian government.”
When the trial begins in January 2009, the Crown prosecution will seek a minimum sentence of 12 years. Until then, Brant’s bail conditions include curfew, a ban on travel outside Ontario, and a ban from attending any protest. Along with two members of Tyendinaga, Brant is also the subject of a CN Rail lawsuit for damages from the rail stoppage.
“[The railway blockades] find their origins in issues of poverty and suicides on reserves, poisoned drinking water, and the mess that is the land claims [process],” Collis said.
The actions, Collis said, were precipitated by the development of a 140-home sub-division, set to begin construction in November 2006, which Tyendinaga Mohawks asserted was on a parcel of land that is rightfully theirs.
In 1995, Tyendinaga filed a specific claim for the Culberston Tract, a 923-acre parcel near their territory. In 2003, as part of the land claims negotiations, the Federal Government acknowledged that the Culbertson Tract had never been surrendered, but rather than return the land, wanted Tyendinaga to take a cash buy-out.
Meanwhile, the Ontario Ministry of the Natural Resources continued to issue a provincial license to Thurlow Aggregates, a company that was removing thousands of tons of gravel from a quarry within the Culberston Tract.
“Essentially, the very land that was being talked about was being slipped out the back door, through this quarry,” Collis said.
In response, the Tyendinaga community members gave notice to the quarry’s owner in January that he had 60 days to shut down operations. In March, they occupied the quarry and announced that a campaign of railway or highway blockades would commence if the quarry’s license was not revoked.
On April 20, Tyendinaga community members blockaded the CN railway for 30 hours, after which Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) Commissioner Julian Fantino ordered Shawn Brant’s arrest. He was released, but then arrested again after the blockade of the CN railway and highway 401 on June 29.
Railing for justice
For the mischief charges, Brant’s lawyer Peter Rosenthal said they would use a recognized defence known as the “colour of right.”
“If you have an honest belief in a factual situation, it would legally and criminally justify your actions,” Rosenthal said. “We will argue that Shawn Brant had an honest belief that it was Mohawk land, and so he had a right to put a bus on the train tracks.”
For the civil suit, Rosenthal said there are strong defence arguments because of precedents of ill-treatment and bad faith negotiations by the government.
“We will be alleging that given the history of CN’s treatment of native peoples, and the federal and provincial government’s treatment of indigenous peoples, such as the licensing of the quarry, those historical facts justify, criminally and socially, the actions [of Shawn Brant].”
Rosenthal questioned the motivation behind the lawsuit.
“I think they’re not going to specify [the sum] until the trial, but it’s in the millions. You have to ask, why are they bothering?” he asks.
Mark Hallman, a public relations officer for CN Rail, said that the company’s civil law suit relates to damages from the blockades. Hallman says that they lost $100-million in the value of goods, but would not reveal the sum CN would be seeking in the lawsuit.
Despite the lawsuit, Hallman indicated they are interested in good relations with native communities.
“We have a policy of long-standing support for First Nations,” Hallman said. He pointed to their aboriginal program, which includes awards for native students, and a letter sent in 2006 to ex-Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice, encouraging the government to speed up to settle land claims. Hallman said the company would not disclose the letter.
Canadians not on board
The Tyendinaga Support Committee in Toronto has called for the Attorney General of Ontario to drop the criminal charges, for CN Rail to abandon its lawsuit, and for the federal and provincial governments to return all lands that rightfully belong to the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte. The office of the Attorney General of Ontario did not respond to The Daily’s request for an interview.
Collis mentioned an Angus Reid Poll conducted in July that showed 71 per cent of Canadians believe the federal government should speed up the resolution of land claims.
“Whether Canadians agreed or not [with the tactics], they recognized there was a problem. A lot of people have said Canada is going down the path towards a ticking-time bomb,” Collis said, citing a Canadian Senate report published in December 2006. Entitled “Negotiation or Confrontation: It’s Canada’s Choice,” the report argues that if the federal government doesn’t quickly resolve the grievances of indigenous communities and settle land claims, more occupations and blockades can be expected.
“There’s a recognition that things like railways and highways like the 401 fall on Indian land,” Collis said. “There’s a power in that if people choose to use it. I’m sure there’s considerable concern about that.”