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Keep talking, Shawn
After a group of Mohawks from the Tyendinaga reserve blockaded the railway between Kingston and Toronto two weeks ago, a near unanimous cry rose up from the editorial pages of Ontario newspapers and talk radio: Get Shawn Brant. Earlier this month Brant, a beanpole of a man, walked into a packed courtroom with his wrists and ankles shackled after handing himself over to the Ontario provincial police.
According to court testimony, the arrest warrant - on charges of mischief, disobeying a court order, and breach of recognisance - violated an agreement between police and demonstrators, who were given immunity when they peacefully ended the blockade. But Brant worried that the warrant for him would be used as a pretext for raiding a gravel quarry that he and several other community members from Tyendinaga had been occupying for six weeks. "We don't want to bring that into the camp," he told me.
The court granted Brant bail on condition that he is not allowed to "plan, incite, initiate, encourage or participate in any unlawful protest", including those "that interfere in any way with commercial or non-commercial traffic on all public and private roads, airports, railways or waterways".
Why the determination to get Brant, and Brant alone? On the surface, the broken immunity agreement seems sure to inflame tensions. And whatever crimes Brant may have committed, he had plenty of company. But Brant has a theory. "Right now, I'm the voice. They think if they take away the people's voice, the people will stop. They'll see that they're wrong."
Brant is more than a voice. He has become a symbol for the new militancy that is spreading through first nations communities across Canada. Sitting beside the campfire at the occupied quarry a few days ago, he told me that since his childhood people in his community have been telling him to keep quiet. "It used to be, 'Shawn, shut up, don't say those things about the government, they'll cut off our funding'. Now it's 'Shawn, shut up, they'll walk away from the negotiating table'."
The reason Brant isn't willing to let the negotiations take their course is that these talks are designed to take decades. And as the time passes, the land disappears. Forests are clear-cut, mountains are carved up, suburbs creep outward. Ineffective negotiations do not hold the line on an already unacceptable status quo - they contribute to the losing of very real ground.
At the gravel quarry near Deseronto, the loss of land is painfully, insultingly literal. The quarry is on land never ceded by the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte, a fact the federal government has acknowledged. The only question is what form compensation for the theft will take. The Tyendinaga band council and Ottawa have been negotiating over that question since last November. The problem arose because, as the two parties talked, trucks were carrying 10,000 loads of newly crushed gravel out of the pit every year - an estimated 100,000 tonnes. While they bargained for the land, the land itself was disappearing.
It got worse. There was a pile of wood on the edge of the gravel pit that the people occupying the quarry used to feed their bonfire. As the pile depleted, it became apparent the wood had been covering up a large pile of garbage: old washing machines, leaking industrial batteries, oil filters, hydraulic fluid, bed frames, antifreeze. They explored some more and discovered it was all over the pit: piles of hastily covered junk, some of it half-burned, much of it toxic.
Not surprisingly, the mine has become a powerful metaphor, a vivid illustration of the failures of the negotiation process, and the problems with being patient. While the experts talk, good land is trucked out and toxic junk is trucked in. It's an image with resonance on reservations across the country. It's easy to see why more and more native people are telling Shawn Brant to keep talking.
The final insult came when the federal Tories handed down a budget with next to nothing new in it to address first nations' poverty. It prompted Assembly of First Nations Chief Phil Fontaine to call for a national day of action on June 29. Though Fontaine insists he is not calling for cross-country blockades, many first nations are already planning them, with talk of a coordinated targeting of key infrastructure, from rails to roads. "It's the same notion as a general strike," Brant explains with a smile.
Everything is lining up for June 29 to be a day for natives to act and the rest of us to whine about late trains and traffic jams. But listening to Brant, it struck me that it could be something else: a day of action on native rights for Canada as a whole, one when we all refuse to shut up.
Naomi Klein is the author of many books, including her most recent, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, which will be published in September.Visit Naomi's website at nologo.org.
© 2007 The Guardian