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James Constant. Ben Beiske. The Success-Story of Malaysia. Sarah Stolle. Exercising their claimed rights to control activity on specific areas of land is a visible, tangible manifestation of their autonomy as cultures, as peoples. Writing from a two-metre-by-four-metre prison cell where he spent Frontenac Ventures had staked some 12, hectares of land that the Algonquin claimed as their traditional territory.
Lovelace contended that the province of Ontario acted unlawfully when it registered the claims and provided the leases over the land without consulting the aboriginal communities affected by the leases. Lovelace described being essentially ignored by the Ontario government when the aboriginal community made their concerns known and asked for meaningful consultation. According to Lovelace, the government held only one meeting with the affected community, and it occurred only after the staking had taken place and when drilling was imminent.
When the exploration work commenced, two Algonquin communities established a blockade to stop Frontenac. Without the addition of direct action, in other words, their efforts to assert their rights would continue to be ignored by the government. Frontenac obtained an injunction against the Ardoch protestors, and the court found three of the community leaders in contempt of court when they did not obey the injunction against their blockade. Lovelace noted that shifting ideology is no easy task. Direct action is often required before the government will open its eyes to the issue of aboriginal rights.
But Lovelace also contends that aboriginal communities themselves have a responsibility to assert their rights in this manner, that change must flow from the expressions of desire for change by aboriginal communities. Direct action can be as much about community empowerment as it is about obtaining rights. This is not to put an overly idealistic veneer on direct action. Lovelace recognizes that direct action can turn negative when not adequately planned and controlled.
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Aboriginal civil disobedience can also be the boiling-over point of decades of frustrated attempts to gain back land taken by the government. With respect to the confrontation in Oka, Quebec, the Mohawk community had had land taken from them in the seventeen-hundreds. The land at the heart of the issue was sacred, containing a burial ground and a sacred grove of pine trees.
Repeated efforts to have the land returned failed, including an attempt to retake the land by force in The planned expansion of a golf course, which already occupied a portion of the land, and development of residential housing on the land, ignited decades of resentment over the failure of government to return the land. The armed stand-off on part of the Mohawks was a direct action of last resort to prevent essentially irreversible harm to land they held sacred.
If we accept the notion of land as cultural identity, then the action can be seen as a method of cultural self-defence. What identity could aboriginal communities hold to, if they could not protect land of such fundamental value to their community?
Ipperwash is another situation where aboriginal communities took direct action to take back land they believed to be rightfully theirs. The land the government took was not simply sitting vacant. It was the site of an Ojibway community. The expropriation included a forced relocation, consisting of bulldozing some homes and placing the displaced residents into another community.
The relocation resulted in emotional stress, loss of livelihoods and social friction. In , Jean Chretien, minister of Indian Affairs at the time, unsuccessfully requested his government to return the land to the Ojibway. Yet, time and again, the federal government failed to return the land to the Ojibway, despite the numerous attempts by the aboriginal communities to persuade the government to honour its commitment to do so. The decades of frustrated effort boiled over in the summer of when Ojibway aboriginals took the direct action of peacefully occupying the military ranges.
The occupation continued through the winter of In February of , the Department of National Defence agreed to close the military camp and return the land to the aboriginal communities, yet did not follow through with this promise. Over a year passed without resolution of the issue, and in July of , the aboriginal occupiers acted to forcefully take over the military buildings on the site. Tensions increased again in September when the occupiers moved to assert claim to the adjacent provincial park.
The move into the park raised the ire of then Premier Mike Harris, who exerted his influence to hasten the police to remove the protestors. The resulting police action ended in a clash between the occupiers and police, and the death of an unarmed occupier, shot by police. Most blockades, it seems from reviews of publicized protests and from research of academics investigating aboriginal civil disobedience, are not random events, and do not stem from individual motivations, but rather are pre-planned, deliberate actions on the part of communities, fighting for collective objectives and the righting of long-standing injustices.
In this way, aboriginal protest is distinguished from many other examples of protest and civil disobedience, such as blockades by non-aboriginals for purely environmental reasons, or protests for one social cause or another. I do not mean to devalue in the least non-aboriginal protests, but it is important to place aboriginal protest in the different context of threat to cultural identity and decades- and centuries-long injustices.
Self-esteem, or community-esteem, is dealt a hard blow by systemic injustice and the hardships of poverty this injustice produces. Viewed in this context of long-unsettled injustices, and psychological impacts, aboriginal blockades can take on additional meaning.
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Much of the injustice faced by aboriginal communities is the very act of being forcibly compelled to move from their traditional homes and lands usually multiple homes according to the season to one area of land chosen for them by the government of the day. In refusing to move from a blockade, aboriginals are not only frustrating the activity that they are protesting, but are making a symbolic political statement of autonomy against the forced and unjust removals from their lands in the past.
Blockades are also a symbolic assertion of ownership of land, in that occupation and the right to control entry over land are fundamental principles of property law in the common law system. On a practical level, civil disobedience is a necessary course of action for those groups who have little traction with government.
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