Monday, November 26, 2007

Caledonia residents call on province to end land-claim dispute

CALEDONIA, Ont. — Residents living with one of the nation's longest aboriginal occupations say they want the province to step in and clear the disputed land as Ontario's new aboriginal affairs minister made his first visit Monday to the beleaguered town of Caledonia.

Michael Bryant met with local politicians, business and spiritual leaders during his much-publicized trip, but did not meet with any of the Six Nations protesters or their representatives. Some residents who also weren't able to meet with Bryant protested outside one of his meetings, holding signs saying “One Law for All” and “Frustrated, Forgotten, Fed Up.”

Misti Bottenfield, who lives near the former housing development site that has been occupied for almost two years, said it's time Mr. Bryant gave protesters an ultimatum.

“It should be — get off the land or no talks,” said the 26-year-old, adding she has been repeatedly intimidated by the protesters. “Get off the land and out of the houses. Even though the barricades are down and the roads are open, it's still not much better. It sucks.”

Mr. Bryant came to this divided southern Ontario town to talk to residents but Ms. Bottenfield said she doesn't know anyone who has been able to speak to him.

Pat Woolley, a 20-year resident of Caledonia, said it's going to take more than a visit from Mr. Bryant to ease the worries of the town. The barricades may have come down and the occupied site may be fairly quiet now, but Woolley said the ongoing occupation continues to hurt both the town and its residents.

“This thing is getting worse, not better,” said Woolley, adding the province should put an end to the occupation now while it continues negotiating the land claim.

“Businesses continue to suffer ... You can't allow this thing to go on. I've always brought my children up to believe we are all equal under the law. My frustration with this Liberal government is that we're not seeing this transpire in this community.”

Mr. Bryant said he spent Sunday afternoon in the town and talked to residents casually in the local Tim Hortons, although he admitted the Grey Cup likely kept many people glued to their televisions at home. The province is interested in working with the town to improve tourism and development while negotiating an end to the occupation, he said.

Whether the provincially owned land is cleared of protesters is a matter for the provincial police, not the governing Liberals to decide, Mr. Bryant added.

“What we're trying to do is come up with some short, medium and long-term solutions at the same time as negotiations are taking place,” he said.

“I certainly heard loud and clear ... about what's going on here in terms of how people are feeling. Obviously people are hurting. We want to get to a point where we're turning things around.”

Haldimand County Mayor Marie Trainer has said town residents living with the ongoing occupation won't feel safe until Six Nations protesters leave the disputed land. But Monday, Ms. Trainer said the town wants to focus on re-starting its economy which has virtually ground to a halt since the occupation began.

Although Caledonia was one of the fastest growing towns in Ontario, Ms. Trainer said virtually no building permits have been issued in the last two years.

“We want these land claims settled,” she said. “We have lived in harmony with the First Nations people for a very long time. It's going to be hard to get that back.”

Six Nations protesters occupied the former housing development site in February 006, saying the land was wrongfully taken from them by the Crown over 200 years ago. The occupation has been violent at times, marred by barricades blocking the town's thoroughfare and clashes between local residents and protesters.