In Conversation with Haudenosaunee Land Defenders: 1492 Land Back Lane

Photo by Binish Ahmed at the 1492 Land Back Lane

A housing developer began construction without the consent of Six Nations on a part of their territories of the Haldimand Track, space formerly known as ‘McKenzie Meadows.’ On July 19th, 2020, land defenders from Six Nations stopped this development, reclaimed their territory, and named it 1492 Land Back Lane. This land space, and Kanonstaton (the site of dispute in 2006) are still part of 28 unresolved land claims made by the Six Nations. Despite federal, provincial and municipal governments’ (of the Canadian settler-colonial state) knowledge of the unresolved status of this land, Canadian developers continue to be allowed to purchase and construct on them.

Two injunctions have been issued to stop peaceful reclamation efforts by land defenders. On August 5th, 2020, the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) violently invaded and enforced the first injunction, arrested 9 land defenders, and shot rubber bullets. In response, land defenders and Six Nations community members blocked roads, and parts of railways and highways around the reservation and Caledonia. A second court injunction order was issued to illegalize all peaceful protests by land defenders across Halidman county.

The following interview was conducted at the 1492 Land Back Lane, Six Nations, with Haudenosaunee community members and land defenders Myka and Dex Whitlow. The interview was originally recorded for Azaadi Now, and has been revised for print publishing.

BINISH: Can you both introduce yourselves?

MYKA: My name is Myka, I’m a Six Nations community member. I’m an Onondaga, Deer.

DEX: My name is Dex, I’m also from Six Nations, and I am Mohawk, Bear.

BINISH: How did you and some of the land defenders here find out about the housing development that was happening on your territory and what was your reaction?

MYKA: They have been hosting community meetings and been in negotiations for quite a few years now. For us, it was just a matter of keeping an eye on the site and watching the progress of the development.

BINISH: Can you tell us why this land is important for you to protect?

MYKA: For me, I feel it’s important because when you look at Indigenous communities all across Canada, we have a very static amount of room. As much as our population grows, our land base doesn’t grow. I think it is very important for us to be able to secure more of our homelands to be able to grow.

BINISH: How do you feel about the Indian Act designating only certain reserve lands for the ‘official’ use of Indigenous people, even though all of Canada is actually Indigenous territory?

MYKA: It’s very inequitable because settlers are allowed to obtain more land and keep growing, making their land base bigger.

BINISH: What has your response been to those who say the housing developers purchased the land “legally” from the Indian Act Elected Band Council?

MYKA: If you’re not doing your due diligence to understand the treaties and how the elected system versus the traditional council system works, then they are just fraudulent agreements.

BINISH: What is the relationship of the Six Nations community with the Indian Act Elected Band Council government?

MYKA: The Band Council system is an imposed system by the colonial government that has been in effect since1924. As it currently stands, they only have about a four percent voter turnout that even participates in that system. Realistically, they are nowhere near representational of the collective voice of Six Nations people.

BINISH: You have been at 1492 Land Back Lane reclamation since July 19th. You have had tremendous support from the Six Nations community and from allies. You have also faced aggression from racist passersby, some of whom I have seen myself. On August 5th, 2020, the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) invaded the reclamation site, and violently removed and arrested nine land defenders. They also shot rubber bullets at the Six Nations community and land defenders. How do you see this in the context of Canada’s stated intention of “reconciliation” with Indigenous nations of Turtle Island?

MYKA: It shows that they are not interested in reconciliation whatsoever. When you come in with such violence and aggression against peaceful people, I don’t see how reconciliation falls into that whatsoever. Further to that, from what I understand, the police have the ability to choose how they’re going to enforce an injunction, with mediation existing as an alternative to just coming in and arresting, and it’s clear that they chose to take the more aggressive route instead of the more peaceable route.

DEX: As to my knowledge, Canada has apologized for and recognized what they have done. At the same time, they have done no footwork to put in place any kind of system that treats us any differently than they have before. There has been no footwork, just an apology made national, as they were told to do, without recognizance. So, they’ve done the minimum as to announce to the public that basically they’ve been caught red-handed and been told to apologize. To date, they have yet to do anything about the apology or about reconciliation.

BINISH: How does this remind you of what happened at Kanonstaton in 2006?

MYKA: As Dex was saying, instead of taking the route of looking at their racist policies and the colonial systems that are criminalizing us and keeping us oppressed, they’ve actually made no steps forward. They are just looking to criminalize us and throw us in jail, as opposed to looking at the root causes of the racist policies.

BINISH: You’ve been presented injunctions here by the OPP on two occasions. Can you explain them and their impact?

DEX: The first injunction ordered us to leave this area that we have now called 1492 Land Back Lane, ‘McKenzie Meadows’ as it was formerly called. Those who were opposed to leaving would be charged with mischief. The second injunction was for many more places instead of just 1492 Land Back Lane; the second was about the roads, the highways, and the train tracks that exist on our lands that we currently occupy.

The purpose of not developing this and other land on our territory is that some of our people’s food-base and food sources are from the bush, or the forest, as you may call it. It is animals that live there and grow. They need room too. In order for us to grow, we can’t just take over our food sources, or else we’re just digging ourselves a deeper hole.

MYKA: Just to give a little bit of context, when they came to read the first injunction, what the OPP told us was that they were just coming to read the injunction, but as you can see, they proceeded to use violence against our peaceful camp here. There was an instant and very large reaction from the Six Nations community, which ended up blocking Argyle Street, the train tracks, and the Bypass. For the community, the blockades were a reaction to our brothers and sisters being taken into jail. It was a collective stance that they needed to be let out of jail. Those barricades were up for a long time. The second injunction is specifically for the removal of the barricades from the road, the train tracks, and the Bypass. Entailed in that injunction, however, is every single road that lies within Haldiman county even though only the three are currently blocked. The second one is a permanent injunction.

BINISH: There is no time-cap on the second injunction? It’s indefinite?

MYKA: Yes. Currently, the entirety of Haldimand County essentially has an injunction on it. Again, it’s just a means of criminalizing our people. They are trying to prevent peaceful protests and demonstrations.

BINISH: What has the land defenders and communities’ response being to those injunctions? Are they seen as valid? Do those issuing the injunction have the authority to do so on sovereign Haudenosaunee territories?

MYKA: For us as the Haudenosaunee, we know that we and Canada are supposed to be on a nation to nation relationship. For us, the court systems, the legal systems, all those things do not apply to us. We have our own laws that we follow. In treaty agreements and even the Indian Act, the government has agreed to respect and recognize our laws versus theirs. Realistically, they should be respecting those and not trying to force their system over our people.

BINISH: What does that mean for the injunctions being ordered by a system that’s not yours?

MYKA: It’s not valid. We feel they don’t have the authority to do such things. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to stop the police from coming in and bringing violence to our people and trying to force their system on us.

BINISH: In spite of violent aggressions, land defenders have kept peaceful channels of communication open with the Canadian police and other officials. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy Council recently released a public statement in support of 1492 Land back Lane. Tell us why this letter is significant and what it means to you.

DEX: It means that the Confederacy has done their own research and have found that most of our community supports what we are doing, why we are doing it, and that is an important part of what we need to do as a community to be able to expand. Not only for our community, but for all the 500 other reserves that lie within Canada and the United States. It’s a precedent to be set. We hope others follow that precedent. To have our Confederate Chiefs show us that the community has our support as well as theirs means that we are on the right path, or doing the correct amount of footwork to be liable and accountable for actions that we take. We don’t feel like there’s only a group of people here. Our entire community is willing to support us.

BINISH: What are some of the ways well-intentioned allies can support you here?

MYKA: They can come, show up to the camp, bring people. Bodies on the ground as always helpful. We have our email where you can send funds - that’s .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). We have Paypal for people from the United States or other countries. We also have a GoFundMe page specifically for legal support. Donations are always welcome: the staples such as food, water, firewood are always really helpful here. Our Facebook page has an updated list of what we need.

DEX: The influx of allies that come and the supplies that are dropped off is very overwhelming, all while doing ‘land-backing’ and organizing everything that’s happening here. Space runs out in areas, as more and more supplies are dropped off. Spatially, help with reorganization of supplies is needed continually. Be mindful that there is always something we’re trying to accomplish here that we need help with.

BINISH: You recommend always checking-in with folks on the site, and recheck just to be sure?

MYKA: Yes. We consistently try to update our supply list to reflect the current needs. Email and check with us. We are pretty astute on updating that on the Facebook page as well. If you email us, we can just email back the most recent list.

BINISH: Despite best of intentions, allies can cause harm when trying to help. What should allies and friends of Six Nations not do when trying to support the reclamation efforts, even if they’re well intentioned.

MYKA: If they come here, just being mindful of not taking up too much space. There’s a lot of work that we have to do on the ground and behind the scenes which really monopolizes our time. We do have an ally guide that they can look at when they get here, it’s beneficial for them to read that, and understand what their role is in the parameters of the space. Give the main organizers their space. Usually we do have designated ally supports; those people would probably be best for them to go to and find out what needs to be done. Essentially, they should just look at it as if they were at home - what would you do at home? You would be cleaning, cooking, doing those sorts of tasks.

DEX: To add to what Myka says, we also have a lot of women and children around, and we try to keep safe. We ask everyone who comes here, who maybe is not in a good state of mind (if they have animosity with anyone else who also chooses to participate in assisting us) to leave all bad feelings bad intentions at the gate, and to come in and be mindful that everyone’s here to unify and to help. Nobody is looking to have an argument or looking to kick anybody out, or be removed. That’s not the energy we try to create or have here. So, “everybody, love everybody” has kind of been the saying that goes around to maintain a friendly atmosphere. We try to keep it like that as best as possible.

MYKA: It is also a drug-free and alcohol-free space here. If anybody does show up intoxicated in any way, they will be asked to leave.

BINISH: Myka, you mentioned not taking up too much space – can you give examples of what kinds of behaviors you are referring to, to help us understand what they look like?

MYKA: We do have a main fire in the camp. The intent is for people to sit around and talk and relax. We also have specifically designated an ally camp, and they do have a fire over there, to leave that space at the main fire available for members of the community, people who are doing the work here, just to have that space to be able to sit and relax. After doing the work all day, to go to the fire and just have all allies sitting around can be problematic. For example, some allies may decide: I’m going to go in there and help, but then they come here and don’t. It’s important to consistently keep checking in, to make sure that you’re doing something that the camp wants or that organizers are okay with.

BINISH: Indigenous people globally face the ongoing genocidal dispossession and displacement by various colonizers from their territories. What is your message to those who are watching you defend and protect your land, and perhaps doing the same thing on their own territories today?

DEX: For most Indigenous people, the mindset they’re expected to follow is to be under colonizers’ laws, rules, etc., and to follow the colonizers paper game, and their way of sorting out things. Traditionally, all Indigenous people have their own way of dealing with things, and there’s not a set amount of time to put on somebody’s thought process. It’s important to do things as peacefully as possible as well as communicating with whomever that is oppressing or attacking them. And to keep a peaceful mind and do it in a good state to prevent themselves from having backlash, or, as you would say, accountability held for their actions so that they no longer take the steps that the colonizers take, to take a different role and to take it in a different direction than it always has been, rather than just following suit in the ways that have not worked before, the decision making processes that have been rushed in fear. There’s too much social media to have that fear anymore. You can broadcast and get the global help that you need that wasn’t always there, so you can take a more peaceful approach than we have been able to in the past and to exploit that as well as you can.

MYKA: I feel like people just need to do it. I know it’s scary and I know it’s hard, and in systems of oppression it’s really hard to think out of the box. When you look at oppressive systems, usually they are structured to oppress and criminalize people who go against the grain, but I think we all know as Indigenous people that our battles are not going to be won in court systems. They’re going to be won on the ground, they’re going to be won practicing our own laws and doing what we need to do for our own cultures. I think people just need to do it. I know it’s scary, I know we’re accustomed to just being locked into the system and following the colonial rules, but I think all Indigenous people know that our battles are not going to be won in the courts or under colonial systems. We have to have faith in who we are as people and we have to have faith in our Indigenous ways. Feet on the ground is the only way that these battles are going to be won.

BINISH: Is there anything else you want to add?

MYKA: Yes. People need to understand that when we decided to come in here, it has always been our purpose to be peaceful and to get our land back. That’s our mantra. So, when we came in, we set up camp, there was no fighting or arguing, the site was empty when we came in. We’ve never blocked the roads, we’ve never blocked the driveway, the driveway is open. We have people that are there by the laneway as you see just for security purposes, and to monitor what’s going on, but we’ve never blocked anything. We’ve been very astute about that. We are committed to being peaceful and doing this in a good way. We get a lot of questions like, “Well, what about band council? What about Confederacy? Under whose name is it going to be? Whose title?” At this point, that is not really what we’re concerned about hashing out. Right now, we are solely concerned about securing land back, making sure that the development stops and that it comes back to the table, and that we as Six Nations are the people who decide what happens on our land.

One of the things we’ve done is lobbying. We’ve sent out letters to the Ministers to ask them to come back to the table with the elected council and confederacy council, to sort out the root causes, and what lines of title or authority need to be straightened out at the root. Again, what we’ve been asking the Ministers of Canada to do is to come to a table with those parties, to be able to decide those things, and we are also asking them to put a moratorium on any development. That means no development whatsoever until the federal government, the Ontario government, and the current governments of Six Nations can figure out how to move forward in a proper way, and how to legitimately get land title and everything sorted. On August 20th, we received a response from Carolyn Bennett and Mark Miller saying that they are willing to come to the table with us and the two governing bodies (for lack of a better word at this time) and get that ball rolling, which we’re very excited about. It’s a step forward. It’s something we want to see, but again we’re just going to keep pushing for the moratorium. If you look at the hundreds of years of colonization and the damage that was done to our community when it comes to not knowing our ways, all the trauma, all of the violence, we as a community need to be able to take the time to fix all of those things, regroup, and become healthy as a community, to be able to make informed choices on how our how our land should be used.

BINISH: Thank you so much for educating us and sharing your knowledge.

Binish Ahmed is an Asian Indigenous Kashmiri cis-woman, who works as an educator, artist, researcher, writer, and a community connector. Her work examines justice in governance as well as social movements at the intersections of racialization, migration, labour, gender, and solidarity with Indigenous movements for self-determination and resurgence. She is currently completing a PhD (ABD) in Policy Studies at Ryerson University, and is the host of Azaadi NOW / @AzaadiNow on Twitter. You can reach Binish by email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), or Twitter @binishahmed