Declaring the Exception

Direct Action, Six Nations, and the Struggle in Brantford

In September of 2008 three distinct political moments highlighted the perils and possibilities of the ongoing struggle of the Six Nations (Haudenosaunee) people in southern Ontario. On the morning of Labour Day, Brantford police moved in to make three arrests at a building site where Six Nations protesters were blocking the construction of a Hampton Inn hotel. Moments later, word of the arrests spread to the reclamation site in the nearby town of Caledonia. Several dozen people from Six Nations dragged a hydro tower across Highway 6 and blocked the main street through the town. Two hours later, the natives had lifted their blockade but the road remained closed. About 100 Caledonians blocked all traffic entering the town to protest the native blockade and the failure of the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) to clear it.

Increasingly experienced in the art of protest, residents used radios and police scanners to coordinate their efforts. They managed to keep the road blocked for six hours. Late in the day, when the OPP riot squad finally arrived to clear the road, an agreement was reached that the residents would leave – but only once the OPP themselves stood down. Ultimately, the conflict was defused and the road re-opened amidst muttered threats from organizers that they would take action to blockade the entrances to the Six Nations reserve the next time the conflict erupted.

Several weeks later, Brantford developers and city counsellors called a meeting at Coronation public school to provide information about a new subdivision they were planning to build in an environmentally sensitive area along Hardy Street. With the city involved in a bitter struggle with native activists over development, tensions in the city were running high. Because both the parking lot and nearby baseball diamond were overflowing with parked cars, some Six Nations activists attending the event were worried as they approached the school. Trepidation about the reception they might receive quickly dissolved when it became clear that the overwhelming majority of the more than 200 people present were flatly opposed to the plans to build 2000 new homes in their neighbourhood. Six Nations activists’ statements - that the land in question is unceded native territory and that they would not permit construction to take place - were met with wild applause, whistles, and foot stomping. An impromptu vote was held to decide if the community wanted the development to proceed and the scheme was rejected 200 votes to one.

In late September, workers from the Brantford Amalgamated Transit Union Local 685 approached members of the Haudenosaunee Men’s Council for assistance. Fighting for their first contract, the workers asked if members of the Men’s Council would be willing to join their picket lines and give them warrior flags they could carry in solidarity with Six Nations. The workers further asked Six Nations to declare that their employer’s business operations were on unceded native land and to give them permission to set up their pickets and mobile strike headquarters on that land.

What these vignettes reveal is that the Six Nations struggle has now surpassed the political constraints of most indigenous land claims in Canada, where issues are settled through a protracted process of negotiation and judicial argument by experts. What is different about the current direction of the Six Nations struggle is its ongoing and escalating direct action protests.2

Because of the numerical and organizational strength of Six Nations, and because of the large non-native population in the surrounding area, these protests are starting to transform local struggles. Along with giving rise to a radical right-wing populism opposed to indigenous sovereignty (as demonstrated by anti-native protests in Caledonia) direct action protests by Six Nations are increasingly resonating with local ecological and class struggles.

As Vince Gilchrest, a member of the Haudenosaunee Men’s Council recounts:

You wouldn’t believe how many people support us. I go into a bar just to have a drink, and [non-native] people that I don’t know come up to me and start giving me high fives and slapping me on the back and say ‘you guys keep it up, you’re doing good’ and all that stuff. They know we’re winning because of the way we stand up to their government. And I tell them, ‘well you guys could do the same. If you band together and have resolve, you can get the same results.’

Although the actions of Six Nations are receiving relatively little attention from the radical left, their struggle is raising intriguing questions about the ways in which direct action can provoke a contestation over sovereignty while at the same time transforming the means by which non-natives conceive of their own political struggles and possibilities for victory.

“Threatening the very life of the city”

Over the past year, the primary focus of Six Nations protests has been commercial development on contested lands within the city of Brantford. Occupations at over a dozen construction sites have stopped developments and disrupted Brantford’s plans for long-term economic growth. According to Neil Smitherman, the city’s lawyer, the Six Nations campaign of direct action is “a critical problem for the city of Brantford; it’s an emergency ... it’s threatening the very life of the city.”3 In response, the city has begun criminalizing political activity by the people of Six Nations. Wthout community consultation, the Brantford City Council pushed through a series of bylaws in April 2008 aimed at stopping Six Nations from protesting at construction sites in Brantford.4 When people from Six Nations disregarded these bylaws and continued their blockades, the city council filed an injunction calling for the courts to bring in the Canadian Armed Forces to quell the “inevitable … full-scale disturbance or riot” that would be triggered by the requested police enforcement of the bylaws and injunction.5

The situation in Brantford remains unresolved. On one side, a determined group of indigenous activists are asserting the sovereign authority of their traditional government – the Haudenosaunee Confederacy – by physically blocking development in the middle of Canada’s 31st largest city. On the other side, the city of Brantford is trying to exert its own authority as an arm of the Canadian state and as enforcer of the property rights of corporations attempting to build on Six Nations land. What happens next has major repercussions for the ongoing struggle over the 950,000 acres of disputed land on the Haldimand tract. It will set an important precedent for indigenous movements across North America.

Since the February 2006 land reclamation near Caledonia, the political resurgence at Six Nations has led the Haudenosaunee Confederacy to create new institutions operating outside of the control of the Canadian state. Backed by direct action, these institutions are making demands on capitalists seeking to develop indigenous lands.6 These actions are implicitly anti-capitalist. Not only are they aimed at physically shutting down the developments that are actively dispossessing Six Nations of their lands, they are also explicitly seeking to return these lands to collective communal control.7 Because the Six Nations worldview calls for an improvement of environmental conditions (from which all residents of the Grand River stand to benefit), and because non-native social movements have been inspired by their direct action tactics, new alliances between indigenous activists and segments of the local non-native population are emerging. These alliances have the potential to create new and powerful forms of solidarity across struggles.

Direct Action Gets the Goods

The 2006 reclamation of the Douglas Creek Estates (DCE) – known to Six Nations as Kanenhstaton, “the protected place” – was made possible by a tremendous mobilization that saw thousands of people participating in prolonged direct action. In this way, they held the site against physical attacks from both the Ontario Provincial Police and hostile mobs of non-natives. But the reclamation also raised a number of questions for the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Given that federal and provincial negotiators were showing little interest in addressing substantive issues, how could Six Nations exercise their sovereign rights to halt (or at least control) development taking place on land over which they were negotiating? The Confederacy’s solution was to create the Haudenosaunee Development Institute (HDI), which would function as a planning and administrative arm of the Confederacy. After developers paid an administration fee and submitted their work plans, the HDI would conduct an environmental assessment and historical research to determine if, and under what conditions, development could continue.

In many ways, the strategy of the HDI appears to mark a return to 19th-century war chief Joseph Brant’s original plan for providing for the Six Nations community. In Brant’s vision, much of the Haldimand tract would be leased to non-natives, and the revenues would be administered for the “perpetual care and maintenance” of the community as a whole. In at least one instance, this does indeed seem to be what HDI is proposing. A sworn affidavit by Parminder Bawa, director and manager of the Bawa hotel development in Brantford, states that HDI would only let the development go ahead if “the title in the land was assigned to HDI in exchange for a 50 year lease” on the property.8 Annual development fees and lease payments would also have to be made to the HDI. The HDI thus represents a very different approach to handling land claims than elsewhere in Canada, where the balance of power is significantly less favorable to indigenous communities. As a wing of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy Council, the HDI has not waited for the federal or provincial government to resolve land claims. Because of this, the HDI has also faced the fundamental question that all sovereign powers confront: how can it physically enforce power over the territory it claims?

The legacy of community self-mobilization and direct action required to hold Kanenhstaton partly addressed this problem. Floyd and Ruby Montour – two Six Nations elders who played a central role at the reclamation site – led a small group of Six Nations activists to shut down the Edwards Landfill in November 2007. A non-native coalition known as Haldimand Against Landfill Transfers (HALT) had been seeking legal remedies to the illegal dumping of industrial, commercial, and institutional garbage at the landfill for a number of years.9 However, the local residents were not willing to use direct action tactics once their legal and lobbying strategies had failed. It was not until the group around the Montours began to physically block the entrance of the dump that the landfill was shut down.

These protest tactics were applied elsewhere in Brantford. By the spring of 2008, the group around the Montours stopped work at half a dozen construction sites including a multi-million dollar industrial development by Kingspan Insulated Panels Ltd., an 84-room Hampton Inn project being built by Bawa Hotels Canada, a retail development by First Gulf developments, and a residential subdivision planned by Cambridge Heritage Management Corp.10 Indigenous activists shut down these sites by standing in front of heavy machinery and politely informing the bosses that, if they did not immediately cease construction and consult with the HDI, a large group of Six Nations activists would descend on the site and carry out a repeat of the Caledonia reclamation. Although the HDI denies that the Montours were acting on its behalf, the group of activists led by the Montours has forced developers to recognize the HDI as a body that must be consulted.

Provoking a “Full Scale Disturbance”

Squeezed by activists from Six Nations on one side and by frustrated developers on the other, the city of Brantford filed an injunction on May 20, 2008 against the HDI, the Montours, and six other individuals from Six Nations who had allegedly been involved in stopping development in Brantford. The injunction was based upon the claim that:

…irreparable harm to the reputation of the city of Brantford [has been caused] as a result of the unlawful actions of the defendants including: cancellations of planned developments; loss of prospective or future investment and development in the city owing to the stigma of aboriginal protests whose effect has been, and was intended by the defendants to be, a general impression in the business community that the city of Brantford is not a stable environment in which to do business owing to the continuing unlawful activities of the defendants; reduction of provincial infrastructure investment in the city; and decline in respect for the lawful authority of the city and the rule of law.11

The injunction demanded that the defendants pay $110 million in damages and sought to restrain the defendants from “disrupting, obstructing, and impeding, or otherwise interfering” with the development of land within city limits. The injunction also sought to force the Brantford police – who have been very circumspect in taking any action against Six Nations – to arrest anyone contravening its provisions. At the same time, the city of Brantford also sought “a declaration that the Six Nations of the Grand River Band of Indians, the Six Nations Council, the Six Nations Confederacy Council, and the Haudenosaunee Development Institute have no right, title or interest in any lands situated within the city of Brantford…”12 This declaration would have the effect of making it clear (in the eyes of the Canadian state and especially the police) that indigenous groups “have no claim or colour of right permitting them to obstruct or interfere with access to, interfere with or prevent development of, or request or require development or other fees or charges of any kind in relation to land situated in the city of Brantford and that any such activities are unlawful and of no force and effect whatsoever.”13 With this last motion, the city sought to eliminate in one stroke all claims relating to land within Brantford’s city limits.

A central theme in the City’s submission was their inability to stop the protests by recourse to police action. The city has been frustrated by the fact that both its own police force and the OPP have exercised operational discretion in refusing to arrest the Montours and other protesters due to fears that the conflict will escalate and cause a repeat of the Caledonia situation. Indeed, whenever native protesters have arrived at a construction site, the police have requested that the workers cease work so as to defuse the situation and forestall the arrival of more members of the community. Deeply disturbed by this state of affairs, the city’s motion for an injunction criticizes the Brantford police for failing to arrest the people of Six Nations, noting that:

...the defendants know that merely by threatening private developers with protests, they can effectively obstruct public rights of way since local police forces, fearing a breach of the peace and concerned with public safety, will intervene to prevent private developers from accessing their own lands and conducting lawful activities on such lands.14

The motion goes on to claim that “developers and their agents, contractors and employees are becoming increasingly agitated and frustrated” and that this frustration is not only being directed at native protesters but also at “the police who are perceived as facilitating the continuation of the defendants’ unlawful activities.”15 With Six Nations activists gaining momentum from their successes, and with its own police force unable or unwilling to implement its directives, the City of Brantford is looking for support from other branches of the Canadian state.

Due to the “increased frequency of, and sites affected by, the defendant’s unlawful activities” the motion claims that “a physical confrontation and disturbance of the peace or riot is inevitable and imminent.”16 Since Brantford has only 150 police officers, “the force will not be able to effectively protect public safety when the full-scale disturbance or riot occurs.” Even though Six Nations has always occupied building sites peacefully and without using weapons, they have shown great resolve in holding their ground when attacked by police or anti-native protesters. In the April 20, 2006 Ontario OPP raid on Kanenhstaton, unarmed Six Nations community members physically drove off several dozen police officers armed with automatic rifles, tear gas grenades, pepper spray, and tasers. Lacking the offensive capacities of the OPP, the City of Brantford knows that their only other resource is the Canadian Armed Forces. For this reason, the city’s injunction makes explicit reference to section 275 of the National Defence Act, which states that:

The Canadian Forces, any unit or other element thereof and any officer or non-commissioned member, with material, are liable to be called out for service in aid of the civil power in any case in which a riot or disturbance of the peace, beyond the powers of the civil authorities to suppress, prevent or deal with and requiring that service, occurs or is, in the opinion of an attorney general, considered as likely to occur.17

Using precisely this language, the city requested that a Superior Court Justice judge send a notice to the Attorney General of Ontario indicating that “the services of the Canadian Forces are required in aid of the civil power because a disturbance of the peace or riot is occurring or is likely to occur” in Brantford.18 While this part of the injunction won’t be heard until December 2008, it is significant that the Brantford City Council has decided that the breaking of Six Nations power is important enough to justify military action and the possibility of a confrontation on the scale of the 1990 Oka crisis.

On May 30, 2008 over 350 people from Six Nations protested the injunction outside the Brantford courthouse. On June 2 Justice Taylor appointed a judge to hear all motions in the case in greater detail. In the interim he decided that the terms of the Brantford City Council injunction would stand and that the plaintiffs would be “required to comply with the law prohibiting interference with an owner’s lawful use and enjoyment of property.”

Construction resumed at development sites for several weeks until almost 200 people in a 70-vehicle convoy, led by Six Nations Confederacy Chiefs, once again shut down all of the sites named in the injunction.19 The direct involvement of the traditional leadership of the community – who have historically steered clear of any open conflict with Canadian authorities since the Indian Act was imposed at Six Nations by the RCMP in 1924 – signaled that a new stage of mobilization had been reached.20 The Brantford police, who seemed to be aware of the significance of Confederacy leadership of the protests, chose not to enforce the newly passed injunction.

In addition to the Confederacy assuming direct political leadership, grassroots initiatives within Six Nations – such as the Haudenosaunee Men’s and Women’s Councils – have also emerged in recent months. These groups provide an accessible avenue for members of the community to organize together in a way that both respects Haudenosaunee traditions and allows for broad community participation in direct actions.21 On August 6, a group of 60 people from the Men’s Council shut down a $500-million construction site operated by King and Benton due to concerns over ecological practices that were brought to the attention of Six Nations by local grassroots non-native environmental activists.

According to some sources, Six Nations direct actions have caused over $1.7 billion in economic damage to the local economy since the 2006 reclamation began. In addition to the disruption of the King and Benton site, Six Nations has shut down a $125-million Hydro One expansion in Caledonia, the development of 4,000 homes in Caledonia valued at $880 million, the development of 85 townhouses in Hagersville valued at $20 million, a $275-million wind-farm, a Wal-Mart development in Dunnville, and a total of $590 million worth of other developments in Brantford.22

Doing the Job of the Settler State

In Brantford, the usual guarantor of private property rights – the capitalist state – has so far proved unable to break the power of Six Nations protesters. As a result, a political vacuum has been created. Enter Gary McHale, a 46-year-old under-unemployed web designer who has spent the past two years building a movement in the non-native communities surrounding Six Nations. Although McHale’s analysis of the underlying situation has lacked any historical context concerning the nation to nation diplomatic agreements that the Haudenosaunee Confederacy entered into with European powers including the British Crown, the political focus of McHale’s campaign has been the effective loss of Canadian state sovereignty to the “state of exception” created by recent Six Nations direct action. According to McHale, people from Six Nations have been breaking Canadian laws (thereby implying that they are Canadian citizens and should be held to account by those laws), and a system of “two-tiered” justice now exists in the province of Ontario because police officers are unable to enforce laws against native protesters carrying out direct actions. The failure of police officers to immediately intervene to stop native direct actions is, according to McHale, an expression of “race-based policing.” Citing Martin Luther King, Jr., McHale endorses non-violent direct action as an appropriate strategy for the people of Caledonia and Brantford to “regain” their legal rights as Canadian citizens.23

McHale fails to understand that there are actually two conflicting rules of law at work in this situation, since the people of Six Nations have never relinquished their sovereignty and have refused to become Canadian citizens. Their traditional forms of governance, suppressed by the Canadian government in 1924, have remained in continuous operation and are now being recognized by federal and provincial negotiators as a result of the direct actions that secured Kanenhstaton. Without publicly recognizing that the direct action protests he critiques as “extortion, violence and terrorism” are actually a struggle between the competing claims of two sovereign nations, McHale has steadily built a grassroots movement with the aim of pressuring local state officials to undermine Haudenosaunee claims to sovereignty by criminalizing their resistance, and demanding that all Six Nations claims be processed by institutions and structures set up and administered by the Canadian state according to its law.

McHale’s most recent efforts have culminated in the creation of a grassroots network of non-native activists called Canadian Advocates for Charter Equality (CANACE), which claims a membership of over 100 people.24 One of the principal aims of this group is to “do the work that the police won’t do” by gathering surveillance footage and pressing their own private criminal charges against Six Nations activists engaged in direct action. In June 2008, McHale appeared before a justice of the peace to provide the evidence required to file over 30 criminal charges against Six Nations activists, including charges of “extortion,” “mischief,” and “terrorism.” In doing this work, McHale, who lives rent-free in a new home in the Hamilton region courtesy of “an anonymous benefactor,” is positioning himself to benefit from the unfolding financial crisis created by Six Nations sovereignty.25 McHale is forthright about the fact that he is building CANACE as a vehicle for social protest that can act on behalf of business interests in the area.26

CANACE is able to bring a human face to the problem. Through public events designed to gain media attention the Canadian public can see the changes needed ... CANACE can do what business and associations cannot do. We can organize peaceful protests that challenge the official positions of the police and government that has allowed repeated violence and illegal occupations to become the norm in the province of Ontario.27

In May 2008, as the struggle between the Haudenosaunee activists and developers in Brantford intensified, CANACE produced a 50-page document entitled Legalized Myths of Illegal Occupations: the Truth about Police Discretion, Duty to Consult and the Colour of Right. The document reports on a wide range of court decisions, quotes sections from Canada’s Criminal Code and Constitution, and provides advice to property owners about how they can file private prosecutions against protesting natives. Claiming that “CANACE is like an iceberg; our most effective activities are rarely visible,” the report brags about how they have “used private prosecutions, small claims court actions, complaints to bodies such as the Ontario Human Rights Commission, the ombudsman’s office and the Ontario Civilian Commission on Police Services as tools to oppose race-based policing.”28

Just as Six Nations is at the forefront of native activism in Canada, McHale and CANACE are the most sophisticated grassroots anti-native political force currently active. They are actively making links with other non-native communities elsewhere in Canada affected by land claims (such as Ipperwash and Deseronto) and, because they mix activism with research and ongoing lobbying efforts aimed at all levels of government, they are able to push governments from below and get them to take action that they might not otherwise see as politically feasible. Indeed, CANACE has managed to shift the public political debate around native land rights to the right. While McHale and his group are very careful to stay away from overt forms of racism and hate speech, their work provides fertile ground on which neo-Nazi and other far right groups can organize. Paul Fromm, one of Canada’s leading neo-Nazis, has appeared at many of McHale’s protests and demonstrations, as have approximately a dozen members of the neo-Nazi Northern Alliance group based in London, Ontario. In this context, if non-native activists don’t step up to actively resist neo-Nazi groups and provide alternative sources of political analysis and leadership, these groups may succeed in implanting themselves in the largely white towns surrounding Six Nations.29

The Possibilities of Victory

The current conjuncture in Brantford involves an unstable contest between two competing powers. For the city of Brantford, the definition of victory and the means to achieve it are relatively clear: the bylaws and the injunction defending the sanctity of private property must be upheld, and doing so will require state repression to defeat and demoralize Six Nations activists without provoking a larger conflagration. In order to acheive these goals, the current strategy seems to involve the targeted arrests of rank-and-file Six Nations activists. To date, more than 60 people from Six Nations have been criminally charged since the April 2006 reclamation in Caledonia.

For Six Nations, the strategic possibilities of victory are much more complex. First, the question of what exactly “victory” entails is itself up for debate in the community. However, statements made by the Confederacy and discussions with members of the Haudenosaunee Men’s Council, an immediate resolution of the conflict in Brantford might include a moratorium on development of lands subject to a land claim, the creation of a leasing structure that transfers revenue and title deed to Six Nations on land that is developed, and the construction of mechanisms that provide for oversight by Six Nations on all environmentally-sensitive questions related to land development. Six Nations also wants recognition of their sovereignty as enshrined in the Two Row Wampum and the Silver Covenant Chain agreements, treaties that were made between Six Nations and various European states in the 17th century.

While these longer-term goals will require constitutional resolution at the federal level, there are two obvious ways in which Six Nations could achieve their more immediate goals. First, the blockade of development sites in Brantford could be escalated to the point at which economic losses would pressure the provincial and federal governments to make meaningful concessions. But because the land implicated in Six Nations claims is so large and so valuable, and because people at Six Nations have consistently refused cash offers in exchange for their land and have held out for the return of the land itself, this possibility seems unlikely. And because Brantford is not an economic powerhouse in the Ontario economy, it seems quite likely that the Ontario and federal governments will prefer to simply bail out individual developers (as they did with Henco Industries on the Douglas Creek Estates site) while development continues unabated elsewhere on the Haldimand tract.

A second way for Six Nations to win is if they can escalate their blockades in a manner that continues to financially hurt the City of Brantford while also making clear that attempts at police or military intervention would be costly and impractical means of resolving the situation. By escalating direct action tactics and mobilizing a larger number of people from Six Nations, this approach might force the City of Brantford to recognize Six Nations land rights and sovereignty through some kind of wide-ranging and innovative agreement with the Confederacy and the HDI. Such an approach may be more achievable since the City of Brantford is a more responsive government institution than the Ontario or federal governments, and since the land claims within Brantford are inherently more resolvable than those over the whole of the Haldimand tract. If some kind of agreement was made that was agreeable to Six Nations, this approach could create a whole new precedent for the resolution of land claims in Canada.

Either way, the key question for non-native activists will be the role of the non-native population in Brantford, which can either support the municipal government in cracking down on Six Nations or work in alliance with the people of Six Nations to halt development and improve local environmental conditions. So far, the Six Nations protests in Brantford have not inconvenienced the city’s population to the same degree as they did in Caledonia, where the town’s main thoroughfare was blocked for three months. Many residents also recognize the historic role of Six Nations in founding Brantford – after all, the town itself is named after renowned Six Nations leader Joseph Brant, and a large statue of Brant and chiefs of each of the Six Nations overlooks the town’s central square. These two factors seem to have made it more difficult for McHale and his group to build the same kind of base in Brantford that they have in Caledonia. At the same time, the absence of a major reclamation site similar to the one in Caledonia has meant that many non-native solidarity activists have been unsure about how to relate to Six Nations in an ongoing fashion.

Despite this limitation, important initiatives by non-native activists aimed at building and maintaining ongoing relationships with Six Nations activists while also attempting to relate to the local non-native population are taking place. One of the most significant examples of this work has been the Brantford-based group Two Row Understanding through Education. Founded by Jim Windle (a non-native staff member of the Six Nations Tekawennake newspaper) and Marilyn Vegso (a rank-and-file activist with the Canadian Auto Workers) the group has organized a half dozen public talks aimed at educating non-native people about the specifics of Six Nations land claims, the experiences of native people at the Mohawk Institute Residential School, the history of the Haudenosaunee, the failings of mainstream media reporting on the conflict, the possibilities for alliance-building between local environmentalists and indigenous activists and other topics. Attended by an average of about 150 people, the events provide an important space for Brantford residents to learn about the real history of their city and to discuss these issues with people from Six Nations.

The second area of ongoing solidarity work has been led by an alliance created by radical environmentalist activists, members of the Black Action Defense Committee in Toronto, and representatives of the First Nations Solidarity Working Group of the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 3903. This network has supported direct actions aimed at stopping development in Brantford and has worked together with the Haudenosaunee Men’s Council to organize a gathering that brought out several hundred natives and non-natives for a weekend long gathering in August 2008 at Chiefswood Park in Six Nations. Ongoing work by individuals from Guelph and Toronto has also supported people from Six Nations facing criminal charges as a result of attempts to stop developments in Brantford and Caledonia.

Despite their importance as starting points, these initiatives fall far short of what is needed to help Six Nations win their objectives and strengthen grassroots non-native activism in Brantford. While specific organizing efforts have been important, the non-native left has largely failed to think through the larger strategic questions about how non-native allies can effectively contribute to the struggle. In particular, we have failed to build functioning mass based organizations and a political base in the non-native communities surrounding Six Nations and to do the kind of practical and theoretical work that is necessary to counter the actions and ideology of Gary McHale and CANACE.

One example that demonstrates the very real possibilities that exist for linking indigenous struggles in Brantford to non-native class struggles at a deeper level can be seen in the relationships built between CAW workers and activists from Six Nations during a recent strike at the Brantford Casino. Recognizing that the CAW sent members to the frontlines of the reclamation struggle two years ago, a delegation of activists from Six Nations walked the picket lines in solidarity with the 700 Casino workers who went on strike in June 2008. As they went into the strike, the CAW workers were inspired by Six Nations’ ability to stand up to developers and the police; many openly talked about using the same direct action tactics to win concessions from their employer. Building links between indigenous struggles and working-class struggles is difficult, but possible. It is possible because of the non-native interest in the improved environmental conditions victories for Six Nations would entail, and also because – whether or not it is recognized – both groups share a common enemy in the capitalist class developing and running the City of Brantford, the Province of Ontario, and the Canadian state.

With or without consistent and coherent support from non-natives, the struggle of Six Nations will continue. The fundamental problem that Six Nations faces is that, while traditional governance structures have been greatly strengthened over the past two years, there still remain many fundamental disagreements within the community. These include questions arising from the long history of factionalism within the community, as well as broader disagreements on questions of political strategy. In particular, some in the community feel that the HDI lacks a popular political mandate and sufficient accountability and transparency in its dealings with developers. As in all social movements, debates exist about how fast to move and within what kind of political framework. Without going into detail about the specifics of these many disagreements (most of which have long-involved histories and could not be appropriately discussed here), it is enough to say that the problem of internal factionalism is one of the most serious obstacles limiting Six Nations’ ability to move beyond the unresolved and contradictionary character of their gains in Brantford.

The fact that these struggles have been carried out according to the principles of direct action (as opposed to negotiation or purely legal strategies) has resulted in the sharpening of contradictions within the community. This is because direct action immediately raises questions of power and political sovereignty, while privileging the role of the grassroots activists carrying it out. For many radical non-native activists it’s difficult to imagine what an anti-capitalist, popular, and democratic sovereignty would look like. More to the point, a question arises as to whether such radical action is even possible given the state of class politics in contemporary North American settler society.

In contrast, indigenous communities are demonstrating a growing willingness to engage in grassroots resistance and direct action. In communities like Six Nations, where traditional governance structures still operate, direct action has revitalized these bodies. Despite these opportunities, the precise political content of that “traditionalism” remain unresolved questions. How this new sovereign “proto-state” might organize itself and relate to internal and external capitalist dynamics raises questions with major consequences for community members. What’s so interesting about the Six Nations example is that a process of decolonization is clearly underway and that, despite all manner of internal contradictions, it will have a significant impact on other anti-colonial struggles movements the Canadian state and on anti-capitalist activists thinking about the transformative possibilities of direct action politics.


1 As a non-native activist who has been organizing around the Six Nations struggle since the April 2006 reclamation, my understanding of political dynamics at Six Nations have benefited greatly from conversations I’ve had with a wide range of people I have worked with there. I would especially like to thank George, Hazel, Ruby, Adam, Vince, Rhonda, Ken, Dawn, Missy, and Wes for their comments on earlier versions of this article. Responsibility for any errors or omissions in this text rest with me.

2 The Six Nations penchant for direct action protests should not be surprising, as their own political self-definition as a sovereign nation precludes them from considering the usual tactics that citizens would use to pressure the Canadian government – lobbying MPs, circulating petitions, carrying out one-day protest marches, for example. For activists at Six Nations, the land in question is their land, and they are merely acting in accordance with their own laws when they reclaim it.

3 “Injunction Case on Hold; Natives to Return to Court Friday,” Brantford Expositor, May 24, 2008.

4 The legal strategy that the Brantford City Council relied upon was developed by Fasken Martineau, the law firm behind the injunction which put Ardoch Algonquin protest leader Bob Lovelace in jail for 104 days for opposing the activity of uranium mining company Frontenac Ventures on Algonquin lands earlier in 2008.

5 City of Brantford Injunction, Superior Court of Justice - Ontario, CV-08-334, p. 4.

6 It is important to note that Six Nations has always maintained that it would not eject non-natives living on Six Nations land from their homes. The targets of Six Nations protests have been the corporations seeking to develop on lands on their territory.

7 I consider the return of indigenous lands to the collective communal control of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy to be implicitly anti-capitalist even though this could result in Six Nations accumulating a significant rentier income, because the use of this income has always been intended for the “perpetual care and maintenance” of the whole population, not for individual capitalist accumulation.

8 City of Brantford Injunction, p. 94.

9 Karen Best, Dunville Chronicle, November 21, 2007.

10 In addition to these active disruptions of ongoing developments in Brantford, John Frabotta, the Director of Economic Development for the City of Brantford, has indicated that a number of corporations including Dancor Development, Abrigo Canada and Ardency Corporation that were planning to make significant investments in building new facilities have either delayed or halted construction due to concerns around the threats of native blockades and work stoppages. City of Brantford Injunction, p. 87.

11 City of Brantford Injunction, p. 11-12.

12 City of Brantford Injunction, p. 3.

13 City of Brantford Injunction, p. 122.

14 City of Brantford Injunction, p. 10.

15 City of Brantford Injunction, p. 10.

16 City of Brantford Injunction, p. 11.

17 See the 1985 National Defense Act at

18 City of Brantford Injunction, p. 4.

19 Jim Windle, “Chiefs Join Land Protectors in Defiance of Injunction”, Tekawennake News, Wednesday, July 9, 2008, p 1.

20 Another indication of the change in internal Six Nations politics since the reclamation is the way in which the Indian Act Band Council of Six Nations now openly expresses its support for the political leadership of the Confederacy; that support was on display at the July 7 protests when members of the band council marched side by side with the Confederacy chiefs to shut down the construction sites.

21 The Haudenosaunee Men’s Council was formed in April 2008 out of a direct action that shut down the Highway 6 bypass near Caledonia in solidarity with members of the Tyendenaga Mohawk community that were then under siege by the OPP.

22 CANACE, The Human Costs of Illegal Occupations, December 2007, p. 87.

23 CANACE, Legalized MYTHS of Illegal Occupations, May 2008, p. 42-43. Available at

24 See

25 Neil Dring, “At Home with Gary and Christine McHale: Richmond Hill Activist Now Lives in Binbrook”, The Sachem, April 18th, 2008. Available online at

26 According to the CANACE website, “The people behind CANACE wrote the book on direct, peaceful activism designed to expose and oppose lawlessness and fundamental failures in justice and law enforcement associated with landclaim occupations. We have the expertise your company or town needs when the system fails – when ‘following the rules’ no longer works. When the police won’t enforce the law. When the politicians won’t speak up. When your lawyers don’t know what to do. When you just want to understand what is happening and why. We can help.” See under the “Our Services” banner.

27 CANACE, The Human Costs of Illegal Occupations, December 2007, p. 100.

28 CANACE, Legalized MYTHS of Illegal Occupations, May 2008, p. 42.

29 For an in-depth discussion of the activities non-native activists intervening in the standoff around the reclamation in Caledonia, please see Tom Keefer’s article “The Contradictions of Canadian Colonialism: Non-Native Responses to the Six Nations Reclamation,” to be published in a collection of essays by Lynne Davis entitled Re/Envisioning Relationships: Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Alliances and Coalitions (under review for publication).