June 21, 2008
Gravel and Gold
In the Quinte Detention Centre, Indigenous spokespeople compare stories of resistance
At noon on Monday, May 19, I walked through several doors of State security into the Quinte Detention Centre in Napanee, Ontario, to visit Shawn Brant, a spokesperson for the Mohawk community of Tyendinaga. I was accompanied by Sergio Campusano, chief of the indigenous Diaguita of the Huasco Valley in northern Chile.
Sergio had spent the last month in Turtle Island ("North America") along with Wiradjuri ("Australian"), Ipili ("Papua New Guinean") and Western Shoshone ("American") indigenous leaders, all speaking out against the destructive and repressive operations of Toronto-based Barrick Gold , the biggest gold mining company in the world.
Shawn Brant, on the other hand, had spent the last month in the Quinte Detention Centre. Shawn was arrested on April 25, 2008 for charges tied to his involvement in resistance to a gravel quarry on Native land. Government prosecutors are seeking a minimum sentence of 12 years in federal prison.
Shawn's current circumstance and recent incidents at Tyendinaga cannot be properly understood without knowing some of the history. In 1832, the Culberston Tract was stolen from Tyendinaga. In 2003, the federal government acknowledged that the Tract belongs to the Mohawk community, but has yet to give it back. While land negotiations were ongoing, the government granted a mining license to Thurlow Aggregates, a non-native business that developed a gravel quarry within the Culberston Tract.
Both before and after Tyendinaga physically reclaimed the gravel quarry in March 2007, the Mohawk community and others have led a series of actions including economic disruption in order to raise awareness about the situation and pressure the provincial and federal governments to act. Shawn Brant has been repeatedly targeted and arrested for a series of charges.
In late April 2008, after a series of road blockades against Kingston realtor Emile Nibourg in response to plans for construction within the Culberston Tract, Shawn was once again arrested on April 25. The charges included various counts of uttering death threats and possession of a dangerous weapon (a fishing spear during fishing season) related to his peaceful intervention to protect the women and children of his community from a racist attack on April 21.
Sergio and I approached the prison with some caution, apprehensive of the high fences surrounding the detention centre in the small Ontario city of Napanee, only one highway exit away from Tyendinaga. Never having visited any prisons except for in Central America, I had no idea what to expect, especially since we were visiting Shawn.
After we identified ourselves over the intercom as visitors, the large fenced gate slowly opened, reminding me of a cattle entrance. The old building and indirect interactions through intercoms, glass and metal reminded me, as do most bureaucratic institutions, of something straight out of Kafka's stories. We filled out a registration form and left behind our passports and belongings, and Sergio and I were instructed to enter the visitors' side of the visiting room, separated from the detainees by thick plastic, with booths on either side.
Shawn had already been escorted into the detainees' side of the visiting room and was calmly waiting for us in his florescent orange jumpsuit. Since we were the first visitors to arrive at noon sharp, we had no trouble hearing each other for the first little while. When others piled into the booths beside us, however, the telephones generally depicted in prison visit scenes in Hollywood movies would have been extremely helpful: we had to lean down and press our ears against the metal grating below the plastic windows in order to hear each other.
"We're not prepared to simply stand by," Shawn told Sergio through the metal grating, "We feel that our very existence is depending on it."
Before Tyendinaga blockaded and reclaimed what everyone acknowledges is unceded territory, trucks were carrying 10,000 loads of newly crushed gravel out of the pit every year - an estimated 100,000 tonnes.The Huasco Valley, in Chile. [cc2.0] Photo: Carolina Velis
Sergio's community is facing something similar in Chile, where Barrick has fenced off some 50,000 hectares of traditional Diaguita territory and claims it as company private property, off limits to the indigenous people who have lived there for centuries, herding animals, and gathering medicinal plants and firewood in the mountains.
"They put up a gate..." Sergio began saying a few days before, as he showed slides from his home community of 1500 Diaguita at an event held at the Ottawa Public Library. He broke down in tears and had to take a moment to collect himself before he could continue.
"They don't let us go onto our land," he explained. "This hurts me very much."
The Diaguita community erected their own brightly painted sign at the entrance to Barrick Gold's installations: "Home of the Huasco Altinos since 1903. Private."
"We won't trade this for anything. There is no money in the world to buy this." As Sergio spoke, he showed the audience a series of slides: a mural painted on the church belltower in the town of Alto de Carmen, messages of resistance painted on banners carried in marches and protests, and the faces of some of the 260 Diaguita elders. Most of the Diaguita elders proposed Sergio as a candidate for Chief of the Diaguita community of the Huasco Valley. He has been elected twice with their blessing.
"Why don't they let us be what we want to be?" he asked the Ottawa audience.
At the detention centre, Shawn said: "It is about more than mining." "Mining is just a symptom," Shawn explained. "Until we're gone," he continued, the miners, developers, governments, and others cannot come into indigenous territory and do what they please. Shawn's ancestors fought the same struggle for the chance to exist as Peoples and he believes the current generation must make the same sacrifice for the future generations.
A few years ago, faced with the onslaught of mining in their territory, the Huasco Valley Diaguita community put out a call for international solidarity and especially for global indigenous solidarity. They received a response from the Manitoba Assembly of First Nations. Ron Evans, Grand Chief of the MAFN, flew down to Chile and was welcomed in a ceremony in which the Diaguita and MAFN signed an International Agreement of Mutual Aid.
Later, however, the Diaguita learned that the MAFN had used their agreement to propose a multi-million dollar project to Barrick Gold. The Diaguita community sent word to the MAFN that they were to come immediately to the Huasco Valley to explain themselves to the Diaguita community. When Ron Evans did not return to Chile to clarify the situation, the Diaguita informed all involved that the agreement was null and void.
The visit of the MAFN to Diaguita territory for this pro-mining purpose is not an isolated incident. Ron Evans has reportedly traveled to several Latin American countries on similar missions. The use of First Nations Band Council leaders by Canadian mining corporations and the Canadian government to convince indigenous communities in other countries to accept mining is not uncommon.
"We consider them traitors in our midst," said Shawn, with regards to Evans and the Assembly of First Nations in general, explaining that the Mohawk traditional system of governance - founded on values of sovereignty, honesty and integrity - has existed for thousands of years and still exists alongside the Band Council system that was imposed by the Canadian government.
"The Assembly of First Nations is a Government of Canada Indian organization that supports the government of Canada and does nothing to support the Mohawk and other nations," Shawn explained to Sergio.
Mohawk communities and leaders have long been singled out and targeted by government and mainstream media for their militant resistance and defense of their territory. While many remember the images of armed Mohawks in fatigues and balaclavas defending their territory during the Oka stand-off in 1990, fewer remember the images of heavily armed Canadian soldiers and police forcibly trying to remove blockades and enter sovereign First Nations territory at Oka, Ipperwash, Gustafsen Lake, Grassy Narrows, Six Nations, Tyendinaga, and many others.
The Mohawk Warrior Society was the only domestic organization singled out in a 2005 draft version of the Canadian Armed Forces' Counterinsurgency Field Manual, identified along with the Tamil Tigers, Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Taliban.
After Shawn's arrest on April 25, the Mohawk community of Tyendinaga responded with blockades and actions. The police crackdown in response to these actions was severe.
"We were at gunpoint for four days. We were not allowed to leave the quarry," said community member Arosen. He explained that for those four days, from April 26-29, the Mohawk occupation of the gravel quarry was effectively under siege by over 300 police officers and no one was allowed to leave or enter for food, water, or any other reason. "It was terrifying," he said.
Another Mohawk community member recalled the siege: "There were rifles, machine guns, snipers, helicopters, undercover police agents sneaking around at night."
A SWAT team even detained a school bus full of Tyendinaga high school students who must travel off the reservation in order to continue their studies after elementary school.
"They were pulled over by a SWAT team and searched," said Mohawk community activist Niki Storms. When a Mohawk youth at the back of the bus asked what they were looking for, a police officer responded: "Terrorists."
"All we ever wanted was a safe and healthy community to raise our babies, and clean drinking water," remarked Shawn during our visit. "Sadly, we share the same issues and the same efforts to wipe us out," he told Sergio Campusano through the prison glass back at the Quinte Detention Centre.
"I came from very far away," said Sergio. "My eyes have been opened here."
In South America, he said, even indigenous leaders have the idea that indigenous peoples are treated very well in Canada. One of his missions upon his return to Chile, said Sergio, would be to spread the word about Shawn Brant's case and more generally about repression against First Nations in Canada.
For more information, or to get involved, contact the Tyendinaga Support Committee