To understand what happened in Caledonia, Ont., in 2006, you have to understand what happened in Ipperwash, Ont., in 1995.
At Ipperwash, residents of the Stoney Point Ojibway band occupied a provincial park to draw attention to a decades-old dispute over land seized by the federal government during the Second World War. The Ontario Provincial Police intervened, and a native protestor, Dudley George, was killed.
A public inquiry was later held, and the resulting report was damning toward the provincial government and the provincial police force. Just as the Ipperwash inquiry was winding down, a similar crisis erupted in the small town of Caledonia, near Hamilton, Ont.
In February 2006, protesters from the Six Nations Reserve near Caledonia occupied Douglas Creek Estates, a new housing development they insisted was located on their historic land. The resulting standoff, and its effect on those caught in the middle, is chronicled in Christie Blatchford’s Helpless: Caledonia’s Nightmare of Fear and Anarchy, and How the Law Failed All of Us.
The book won some priceless publicity in November 2010, when professionally aggrieved students at the University of Waterloo accused Blatchford of racism and forced the cancellation of her speech. Had they bothered to read Helpless, however, they probably would have figured out that the natives aren’t really the villains of the book.
Instead, Blatchford produces a damning narrative of a government and police force stunned into inaction for fear that one wrong move could trigger another Ipperwash tragedy. After an early attempt to clear the area resulting in a humiliating retreat, the provincial police force was all but paralyzed. As a result, many unfortunate residents of Caledonia — some of whom were forced to drive through occupier-run “checkpoints” to get to their own homes — were basically left to their own fates.
Indeed, the way Blatchford tells the story, it seems like the OPP was more concerned about Caledonians and their supporters provoking a confrontation than the protesters who not only breached a court injunction, but made a big show of burning said order in front of television cameras. The authorities were particularly concerned with a somewhat eccentric Toronto-area man named Gary McHale, who maintains the Caledonia Wake-Up Call web site and organized rallies in support of Caledonia residents. McHale was warned that he’d be arrested if he tried to erect a Canadian flag near the occupation, and was ultimately charged with the obscure offence of “counselling mischief not committed.” (He later showed surprising ability in defending himself, and was acquitted.)
One Caledonia resident took a creative approach, opening his own illegal “smoke shack” with the intent of being arrested, to illustrate the double standard allegedly shown toward native and non-native protesters. Others, though, resigned themselves to being completely abandoned by the people who were supposed to protect them, and left the area altogether.
Blatchford, one of Canada’s most celebrated newspaper columnists (my national paper of choice, The National Post, hasn’t been the same since she left), skilfully describes the frustration, fear, and helplessness of innocent Caledonia residents caught in the middle of a centuries-old dispute, and vividly illustrates the hypocrisy and spinelessness of police and government officials. (OPP commissioner-turned-Tory MP Julian Fantino, in particular, does not have his reputation enhanced by this book.)
What Blatchford doesn’t do is provide a great deal of background to the Caledonia dispute, the alleged historical grievances leading up to it, and the relationship between the people of Six Nations and their non-aboriginal neighbours. The disputed land was apparently surrendered to the Crown in 1841, but native activists insist their ancestors only meant to lease the land to the Crown, and/or that they never received proper compensation.
Who is correct? That may ultimately be a matter for the courts to decide. In a way, that’s Blatchford’s point: even if the Caledonia occupiers were correct about their land dispute, they were subject to Canadian law and had no right to pick and choose which laws would apply to them. (Indeed, several protesters are quoted as saying the “white man’s” law does not apply to them — except for their rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.)
I am inclined to agree. But, while reading Helpless, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was only getting half of the story.