After ten months of an occupation at a previously non-Native, privately operated gravel quarry, the Bay of Quinte Mohawks are preparing for winter. The quarry is part of the Culbertson Tract, about 900 acres which includes much of Deseronto, Ontario, that is being discussed as part of the land claims process. The land is recognized as Mohawk land, and negotiations are around how to return it. The federal government wants to pay the Mohawks for the land, and the Mohawks want the land itself.

Until the occupation, 800 dump trucks of gravel per month were being taken from the land under discussion. Now this has stopped, and the negotiations continue.

Shawn Brant is spokesperson for the Bay of Quinte Mohawks and is facing 12 years in jail for his part in actions that closed the CN rail lines through Tyendinaga on April 20, in both 2006 and 2007, and Highway 401 and CN’s main rail lines on June 29, 2007. Matt Silburn recently interviewed Brant about courage, sacrifice, economic disruption, and federal and provincial collaboration to continue harvesting First Nations’ resources.

Matt Silburn: I don’t feel like regular Canadians understand that what seems like an increased militancy on indigenous territory within Canada is coming from a cultural revitalization. Or that’s how it seems to me, anyway, and I wonder if you’d speak to that.

Shawn Brant: Well it’s interesting because I think the cultural revitalization comes from the militancy and not the other way around. I think that what has happened even in the last year has created a sense of pride and optimism that wasn’t otherwise available to young people living in First Nations communities. Particularly when the demographics show that 50 percent of the community is under the age of 22. There really wasn’t a belief that learning the culture, learning the language, and learning that attachment to the land was important because there was no pride that was being taken in the community or from leadership, or a direction that promoted that.

I think in the last year, young people have come to realize that there are options available rather than the status quo and waiting for things to happen. And it’s that whole taking control of your life and making things happen. I think that that has allowed for what we see now, that community, that culture, that integrity and that pride. And people are seeing that, in First Nations communities, just because you’re poor doesn’t mean that you’re lacking of character and integrity and culture. And it’s nice. It’s a nice change. We know that those are the types of feelings that reduce the number of suicides. And even if there isn’t any immediate financial relief, there needs to be an immediate social relief. And that’s best demonstrated by the actions that have been taken, and militant action.

Tell me about the 401 and that day, how that went down.

The whole 401 business is something that goes way back. The 401 has always been a target set forward by the community. The first deployment ever of JTF2 [Joint Task Force 2, Canada’s most elite military squad] was to Tyendinaga. The first deployment after its creation in 1990 was to Tyendinaga, and that was in response to talk of closing the 401. That was in 1994. Since that time, there has been a lot of talk of using that as a means. Generally the band leadership has tried to use that as leverage to say to the government, ‘these are things being talked about within the community, these are rumours being brought forward, and you need to do something.’

June 29 eliminated all the doubt in anybody’s mind about the ability of this community to act on what it sets forward to do. Unlike Rosseau River and Terrence Nelson, who has advocated a train blockade on at least four different occasions, but hasn’t done it, Tyendinaga has eliminated all that doubt. Not only can we do it, we’re quite prepared to do it. [And] we’re not on a small line, a feeder line, we’re on the CN main line between Toronto and Montreal. These things can happen, but they can only happen when you’re prepared to stand up and fight for it. It doesn’t come simply for First Nations people as a result of peaceful protest.

We know that in the early morning hours of June 29 there were armoured personal carriers that were brought up, there was RCMP…

From Trenton?

From Trenton and London. They were ordered in about four o’clock in the morning. TRU team, public order unit, emergency response team.

TRU is the tactical response unit?

Commonly known as the SWAT team. Everyone was brought up on alert. It’s interesting going through the disclosure, you can actually see the point at which they concede, and they conceded the plan to launch a full scale assault simply because nobody backed down. They sent people in, brought a message from Fantino [Commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police], who said the message is, ‘Anyone who is still here in one hour is dead.’ They delivered that message about 5 o’clock in the morning.

Who delivered that message?

It was 4 women from this community. And they wrote it down and the one woman said, ‘I wrote it down word for word, what Fantino said, because I didn’t want to misunderstand or misinterpret his message.’ And when she said I have a note here, we were all standing there, and she said ‘Anyone who doesn’t leave now and who is here in an hour, is dead. You are all dead.’

So what is it like as a community knowing you are Canada’s most likely targets of political assassination?

I think that given that Tyendinaga doesn’t just have a strong organization of a few people, it is a strong organization of an entire community. It has matured into that over fighting for the last 17 years. In Tyendinaga, you can’t come in and target one element. You’d have to come door to door and kill half the population in order to stop the ability to stand up and fight. I think Tyendinaga is probably a target because we don’t sit defensively behind a barricade, and allow ourselves to be corralled into a small area and be contained. June 29 we went out and went after targets, and were arrogant enough to say we’re going after these three targets, try and stop us. That’s something that people aren’t used to and it really took it to another level of fighting.

For other communities to develop themselves with that kind of strength, what developments have been necessary over the last 17 years? It seems to me, Native or non-Native, that a cultural shift is necessary to build those kinds of relationships.

I know that people in the past have spoken of revolution not being able to come from the people who struggle every day to put food on the table, but from elsewhere. In First Nations communities we don’t have the benefit of getting help and support from anywhere other than from the people who struggle every day to put food on the table. It has taken that length of time…That’s what makes it so serious and so significant. These are the people who are standing on the lines. These are the people that are doing that, and that hasn’t been realized before. People have found a way in which to live in their existence but also at the same time to bring it together.

Since I’ve been out of jail we’ve been contacted by no fewer than 10 different communities saying that people want to identify and follow the model of fighting in Tyendinaga, and throw that support into one collective movement…And even though there may have been some apprehension or misunderstandings about how significant and important economic disruption can be, I don’t think people doubt it any more. I think that they saw what happened on June 29th particularly with Tyendinaga, and saw the degree of costs to Canada and to its government.

People saw that this is where the power lies, and people want to be able to organize and mobilize. If what happened on June 29th wasn’t significant enough to cause this government to deal with some of the social issues and political concerns that come from the reserves then people are saying we have to step it up…We can’t simply stop. That would be conceding that June 29th was a day of protest. And it wasn’t a day of protest. June 29th was a day of significant fighting and of a significant shift in the way First Nations people are going to confront this government.