November 23, 2009
Over the last two weeks, Christie Blatchford has devoted a number of columns in The Globe and Mail to the fiasco that is known as Caledonia – “Abandoned, unprotected, afraid. Afghanistan? No. The Heart of Ontario” (November 21); “A reign of terror, a trail of OPP inaction” (November 20); “A false date, a shotgun fixation, and a fumbled cross-examination (November 19); “Finally, the weak have a voice against the strong” (November 18); “With a shotgun and his dog, he tried to defend his Caledonia home” (November 17); “Two standards of policing failed the residents of Caledonia” (November 14); “A couple terrorized in a ‘war zone’ while police stood by” (November 13); “Government preoccupied with how suit seen by natives” (November 11); and “Just how sensitive is Canada’s native file?” (November 10).
In these columns, Blatchford documents how citizens in the town of Caledonia were terrorized by a group of “Mohawk warriors” who were involved in a land claims dispute with the Ontario government. The reason for Blatchford’s column is a lawsuit initiated by two residents of Caledonia – Dave Brown and Dana Chatwell – against the Province of Ontario. Brown and Chatwell are suing the government for $7 million for failing to protect them from various forms of harassment, acts of vandalism, and threats of violence.
While Blatchford justifiably focuses on the plight of Brown and Chatwell, and how their lives have been destroyed by the Ontario Provincial Police’s failure to enforce the law, the case raises wider questions about the realization of demands for aboriginal self-government in Canada. Rather than being an exceptional set of circumstances, the Caledonia debacle is a logical extension of the irresponsible encouragement of the unrealizable rhetoric of “aboriginal nationalism” and “sovereignty”.
The argument underlying “aboriginal nationalism” and “sovereignty” is that Canadian laws should not apply to native groups. This is essentially the assumption that “Mohawk warriors” are operating under in Caledonia. These “warriors” consider themselves to be “sovereign”, and, as a result, have erected barricades, carried out searches, imposed curfews, detained individuals, and issued their own “passports” – actions that are attempting to deny the existence of Canadian law and sovereignty (Canadian passports are recognized throughout the world, unlike Mohawk passports, which will never be pereceived as legitimate by the international community). The Ontario Provincial Police has essentially accepted this state of affairs because it tacitly recognizes aboriginal self-government. The combination of the illegitimacy of Canadian law in the eyes of many native groups and political pressure to avoid violent confrontations with aboriginal “warriors” has resulted in lawlessness.
Defenders of the “Mohawk warriors” will probably argue that aboriginal groups have their own laws, and decolonization requires that this aspect of aboriginal culture be “recognized” and “respected”. What this view fails to acknowledge, however, is that law is not an aspect of traditional tribal cultures. As was explained in Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry (pp. 115-18), and in my paper “The Political Economy of Aboriginal ‘Customary Law’ (available on this blog’s Aboriginal Policy page), tribal groups are organized according to kinship, not legal rational authority, and this means that it is the will of the most powerful faction that prevails. No procedures or institutions have evolved to accommodate the different interests of rival factions. Liberal democratic principles such as equality under the law and the protection of individual rights and freedoms do not exist in tribal societies.
As most of the residents of Caledonia are not related by blood or marriage to the Mohawks of the “Six Nations”, there is no mechanism, or will, to ensure that they will be treated equitably under any regime of aboriginal self-government. If the claims of “aboriginal nationalism” and “sovereignty” are accepted in the rest of the country, similar catastrophic consequences are inevitable.