By Deb O’Rourke
On March 21, the International Day for the Elimination of Racism, the Lions Club parking lot in Caledonia is nearly empty except for three flags that flutter in the breeze. While the red and yellow warrior flag and the blue and white chain of Six Nations stand tall, the third flutters red and white between the handlebars of Luke’s bike. The sixteen year old Caledonian threads around the parking lot, bravely alone with his Canadian flag.
These are the first arrivals for a rally called by Merlyn Kinrade to protest “two-tier policing” and discrimination against white people in Caledonia. The guest speaker will be Gary McHale, a right-wing activist from Thornhill whose agitating has made him a major thorn in the side of the OPP.
But before McHale arrives, anti-racist activists from Toronto, Guelph, Hamilton, Kitchener-Waterloo, Brantford and Caledonia start to trickle in, to add their own contribution to the argument. As they wait for the rally to begin, the visitors line up on the roadside, greeting passing cars with banners that say things like “McHale is not an anti-racist”, “No to Racism” and “Negotiate Don’t Escalate”.
What especially disturbs these activists, summoned by CUPE 3903 First Nations Solidarity Working Group (FNSWG), and what has drawn me to Caledonia to witness the event, is the appropriation of Martin Luther King’s words to support an anti-native cause.
Niki Thorne of FNSWG explains: “These right-wingers say that they’re anti-racist, that they’re fighting for equality for all. But what they’re really calling for is an end to all land rights and treaty rights for all First Nations people…They’re taking some of the most important principles that we hold dear and are misappropriating them in order to increase tensions and divisions between Six Nations people and Caledonia. Whether they admit it or not, their activity increases the potential for violence against First Nations people.”
Alex Jamieson of Six Nations “wasn’t too sure” about the idea of non-Native supporters of Six Nations showing up to this rally. But now he says: “These people supporting the Six Nations struggle aren’t violent. They’re just expressing their point.… I think it’ll serve a couple of purposes: it’ll bring the issues to the forefront again because its been stagnated for four years. And it brings these two groups face to face.
You’re going to see something. Maybe yelling and shouting, maybe dialogue but at least something’s happening.”
Suddenly, young Luke is not alone with his flag: the organizers of the rally have arrived. The press, including me, chases them for shots and quotes. Most refuse offers of leaflets from the visiting activists, and don’t want to be named. One man who is more than willing to be named turns out to be a right-wing web-media star, London-based Mark Vandermaas who, through his web-site Voice of Canada.ca is one of the promoters of this white-rights appropriation of Martin Luther King’s message.
He tells me he is preparing to talk at the rally about what he refers to as “2-tier justice”: “The issue of whether there is racialized policing or not is not in question any more. It is not a topic of debate. It’s a fact recognized by every major media outlet in Canada. So it’s time to apologize.
“We’re not against Native people. We just want everybody to be treated equally under the law.”
When I ask him if he is aware of the arrests of over 100 Six Nations people on the contested Caledonia ground and elsewhere, he responds: “Let’s talk about the ones who weren’t arrested…”
Then we are both drawn away by the sound of cheers and jeering. To shouts of “Boo! Get a job! Shut up! Go home!” 3903’s Tom Keefer is speaking through a portable sound system and thanking Gary McHale for “taking the initiative” to gather so many locals “to take a stand against racism in Caledonia.”
Then we all get a shock.
In his booming voice, McHale announces that the rally is cancelled: “This should not be allowed. If the natives held a rally here and we tried to approach them, the police would stop us… What’s happening here happens all the time. The natives are permitted to mingle amongst our group until violence breaks out and we get the blame because how dare we hold a rally. So this is now cancelled.
“We’re back here next Sunday at 2 o’clock. We’ll do it every week until the OPP obey their own policies.”
In fact, most of the people here are white: about a hundred who seem to have gathered with McHale, and nearly as many who were called out by FNSWG. As the speech-making, heckling and conversations continue. McHale returns, to try to herd his reluctant flock: “Next week. Don’t argue with anybody. Just go home.”
After calling out a final warning “They’ll try to work you up!” he is gone, with a number of supporters and media.
But over a hundred people remain in the parking lot. With McHale gone, conversation breaks out among visiting anti-racists, locals, and a few Native people. Most people still don’t want to give their names, but I slide from group to group to catch snatches of argument.
FNSWG’s Katie Milley is having an earnest discussion with a gentle middle-aged Caledonia man. When she tells him “What needs to happen is that the government needs to take responsibility,” he agrees: “You’re preaching to the choir there: I wish all land claims were settled yesterday.”
But when they discuss whether the land reclaimed from the proposed Caledonia housing development belongs to Six Nations, he tells her politely: “I’m going to probably disagree with you on that.”
As three smiling teenage girls chant “Caledonia! Caledonia!” locals in hockey jackets are arguing with and teasing young Toronto activists with multiple piercings and strange hair. There is anger, laughter and sometimes ridiculing. But let’s face it, whether you are a stressed-out Caledonian, an embattled Six Nations or a sleep-deprived activist, you sometimes need to vent a little.
One Caledonia mom confronts a young man with naughty words printed on his hoodie. The conversation goes like this:
Fuck White Supremacy hoodie: “I think that by blocking the road you’re going to get the government to listen…
Hockey jacket: “Oh, it affects shit. No–those people should go to McGuinty’s house and keep him in there and see how he feels.”
Friend of hoodie: “Oh, yeah!”
Hoodie: “That’d be good. We gotta occupy Queen’s park. We gotta take over.”
Hockey jacket: “And it’s got to be a lot of people. It’s got to be huge. There’s nothing we’d want more. I’m with that.”
They start laughing at the idea of governing together.
Meanwhile, an intense conversation takes place between a Native and a non-Native man:
Non-Native: “I don’t have anything against anyone because they may happen to live on a reserve, but I’m opposed to the idea of the reserve itself. I don’t like the concept because to me it’s like apartheid.”
Native guy. “South African apartheid was based on the Canadian reserve system. Do you see the irony of using a day that was set up because that apartheid system was destroyed, and then coming here to say that white people are oppressed by native people when it was the reserve system for native people that was the base for South African apartheid?”
This is a timely argument. The International Day for the Elimination of Racism commemorates the day that police opened fire on anti-apartheid demonstrators in Sharpeville, South Africa, killing 69 people. This is the kind of thing that could happen if the OPP took the kind of action people like McHale and Vandermaas advocate. The OPP tried it once, resulting in beatings and many of the criminal charges that Six Nations faces. But hundreds of Six Nations residents left their beds and pushed the taser-wielding OPP off the land that night.
To nearly everyone’s surprise, the International Day for the Elimination of Racism is a pretty good day in Caledonia, resembling the family reunion of a feisty clan. Well, good for everyone except McHale. It appears that even as Caledonians and visitors are conversing, McHale is busy at his typewriter, proving Six Nations member Vince Gilcrist’s contention that he is a “master manipulator” who “puts spins on things” and has “nothing good to say about the natives.”
In a letter to Rick Bartolucci, Commissioner Julian Fantino and Insp. John Periversoff, McHale claims that on this day “the OPP refused to perform their duty and instead endangered the residents of Caledonia by allowing Native Protesters and their supporters to physically confront residents who had gathered for a peaceful protest.”
This letter blames the few Native people present for his discomfort and claims to have “diffused (sic) the situation” by canceling his rally.
It didn’t happen that way, Gary. I was there.