TORONTO (CP) - Canada should brace for more dramatic displays of aboriginal defiance in 2007, warn native leaders who say the First Nations frustrations that boiled over in a small Ontario town this year may well be a tipping point for decades of simmering aboriginal anger.
It was in the bedroom community of Caledonia, Ont., which borders the massive Six Nations reserve in southwestern Ontario, where that anger seeped quietly into a nondescript, half-finished housing development on land the protesters claimed as their own.
Two months later, that simmering cauldron boiled over as police tried to evict the protesters. They succeeded only in fanning the flames of rebellion: reinforcements descended en masse from the neighbouring reserve, the most populous in Canada.
Since then, the Caledonia dispute has become a lightning rod for deep-seated aboriginal resentment over everything from residential schools to the deplorable living conditions on reserves like Pikangikum and Kashechewan, aboriginal observers say.
There are 1,000 outstanding land claims across Canada, and "any one of them could trigger the same reaction," said Ontario regional chief Angus Toulouse.
"That's the unfortunate thing - we're going to see much more of that. There is a sense nationally and regionally that there is this frustration."
Aboriginals have lost their land over the years, Toulouse said, making it more difficult for them to earn a living and mount a credible campaign to regain the land through official channels.
For those still camped out in Caledonia, there is more at stake than the deed to a former housing development.
When a dozen people walked on to the half-finished Douglas Creek Estates subdivision in the early hours of Feb. 28 and hung a banner proclaiming it Six Nations land, they were reclaiming stolen pride, said Janie Jamieson, a spokesperson for the protesters.
"At some point, any reasonable person would say, 'Enough is enough,"' Jamieson said. "At some point, we have no choice but to stand up and defend ourselves, because nobody else is going to do that for us."
Aborginals were only granted the right to vote and leave their reserves within the last 50 years, Jamieson said. Many are living in Third World conditions without adequate housing or clean water, and suffer higher rates of diabetes and other health problems, she said.
"All around us, you see prosperity," Jamieson said. "When you look into our own communities . . . everything is hanging on by a thread. It's a very fragile time for us right now. We are in a do-or-die situation now."
Like many aboriginals in Canada, Chief Don Maracle's community has been keeping a close eye on Caledonia. The Tyendinaga Mohawks are locked in a similar battle with the federal government over plans for a 140-home subdivision in the eastern Ontario town of Deseronto.
Their negotiations are at an impasse, he said, leaving many feeling ready to take a more aggressive stand.
"All First Nations people are frustrated over incursion into traditional lands," Maracle said. "There are going to be more protests. First Nations people are becoming more and more aware of how serious the injustices that our nation has suffered over the years. People want it redressed."
Proof positive came in November, when a group of Mohawks who were putting up a roadside sign declaring the land as their own mounted an impromptu blockade when a small convoy of military vehicles drove up, apparently on their way to a nearby Canadian Forces base.
The standoff dissolved after a few hours without injury. But Maracle said aboriginals are being confined to "small, postage-stamp-sized reserves" while their population swells, and something has to change.
"Part of our future includes a bigger land base for our communities," he said.
But that goal often pits aboriginal communities against those with whom they have peacefully co-existed for years. Haldimand County Mayor Marie Trainer said the town of Caledonia has been ripped apart by the ongoing dispute.
Residents and Six Nations protesters have clashed violently several times during the occupation; at the height of the tensions, the town's main road was blocked for weeks. There are non-stop police patrols in town, and some locals have complained of harassment from aboriginals.
"The Caledonia people did nothing wrong to deserve all of this harassment, this disruption in their lives," Trainer said. "A lot of these people will never be the same. They're on tranquillizers, heart medication - some of them are in counselling."
After the media attention dies down and the dispute is eventually resolved, the two sides are going to have to get along, she added.
"After everyone goes back to Ottawa and Toronto, we're still going to be living side-by-side. We have for 200 years. We're going to have to resolve that slowly."
While aboriginal land claims are primarily a federal responsibility, many are calling on the province to show leadership in this area. David Ramsay, Ontario's minister responsible for aboriginal affairs, said he knows aboriginals are frustrated.
Ottawa could go a long way to quelling that frustration by acting on outstanding land claims, he said. Along the Grand River in Caledonia, Ramsay said there are 29 outstanding claims in 26 years and only one has been resolved.
"That's not a very good track record," he said. "I don't know of any other business that could survive if that's how it delivered service to its customers."
"We're really failing here," Ramsay added. "There is no doubt about it."
But Ramsay said it's not for the province to address these failings. It's up to the federal government to put more money into the land claims process so disputes can be resolved faster, he said.
"This is an urgent matter because there is widespread frustruation right across this country," he said. "Aboriginal people have been denied the final resolution of these long-time, outstanding claims. They have to be resolved."
A spokesperson for Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice said he wasn't available for comment.
Observers say the aboriginal anger in Caledonia, Ont., could spread next year across Canada, where there are more than 1,000 unresolved land-claim disputes. Here's a look at some of the largest in Ontario alone:
Algonquin - Formally submitted in 1983, the claim covers a territory of 36,000 square kilometres that includes most of Algonquin Provincial Park, as well as the Canadian military base in Petawawa and the National Capital Region, including Parliament Hill.
Fort William First Nation Boundary - The claim disputes the reserve's boundaries which were drawn up in 1853. Formally submitted in 1985, the claim covers portions of land just outside the town of Thunder Bay.
Pays Plat and Michipicoten First Nation - Both the Pays Plat First Nation and Michipicoten First Nation have been negotiating to expand their existing reserves on Lake Superior since 1991 and 2000 respectively.
Six Nations - Since February, Six Nations protesters have occupied a former housing development in the southwestern Ontario town of Caledonia. They say the land was taken illegally from them over 200 years ago and they are currently negotiating with the federal and provincial governments.
Temagami - The claim was sparked after a 1991 Supreme Court ruling regarding land around Lake Temagami. Ontario has been negotiating with the Temagami First Nation ever since.
Tyendinaga Mohawk - The eastern Ontario town of Deseronto is the site of a planned 140-home subdivision but the Mohawks say the land is theirs. They formally filed a claim in 1995 and are currently negotiating with the federal government.
Wabigoon Lake Ojibway Nation - The Ojibway Nation has been formally negotiating since 2004, seeking compensation from the flooding of its shoreline reserve lands in 1897 which cost the aboriginals 2,318 acres.
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