Reflections on “The New Directions in Aboriginal Policy Forum”

by Kate Milley

As a white settler academic who has been studying the anti-Native activity of Gary McHale et al for several years, when I heard that they had been personally invited to an academic conference I was alarmed. Though familiar with Frances Widdowson’s work, I mistakenly imagined even she would want to distance herself from such ardent anti-Native activists. On May 5th, 2010 I went to the New Directions in Aboriginal Policy Forum held at Mount Royal University to see for myself what was going on. The conference was minimally attended with about 40 participants in total including the invited speakers. It was held in a dark performance theatre, where mostly empty benches circled three sides of the stage floor. The conference was most prominently sponsored by the Frontier Centre, a think tank known to push neoliberal public policy recommendations and which has alarming positions on Indigenous issues (http://www.fcpp.org/aboriginals.php). McHale and Vandermaas spoke on a panel entitled “Aboriginal Sovereignty and the Rule of Law” with Ron Bourgeault, professor of sociology at Regina University and Wes Elliott from Six Nations.

Bourgeault started things off by recounting his experience decades ago as a welfare worker who discovered that a doctor, a former Nazi, was forcefully sterilizing Indigenous women in a northern Saskatchewan hospital run by the Catholic church. Knowing of McHale and Vandermaas’ attempts to demonize the Canadian Union of Public Employees, he underlined that he called upon CUPE to help unionize the hospital staff, especially the nurses. After unionization the tides of power were turned and the forced sterilization of Indigenous women ended. During the conference, with the exception of Bourgeault, and a few other speakers, there was little mention of the atrocities of colonialism and colonialism itself was rendered as a legacy rather than an ongoing phenomenon. McHale and Vandermaas were not the only speakers to do this, but their erasure of the ongoing colonial reality was perhaps the most egregious.

McHale and Vandermaas’ presentations followed the historically shortsighted, racist and decontextualized rhetoric that they have become notorious for. McHale spoke while images, mostly taken from April 20th 2006, flashed across a screen without any attempt at context and little comment. Most prominently his slideshow began with this message “The people of Caledonia and Six Nations lived in peace for generations” and THEN, he underlines, Six Nations people used Caledonia to pressure the government and broke the peace. This beginning is interesting for several reasons, primarily because of what it erases. While certainly Caledonia and Six Nations have a long history living alongside each other, this rendering fails to acknowledge not only the history of colonialism but its ongoing nature. Summarily erasing the fact that much of the Haldimand tract was “settled’ through illegal means, and the reality of residential schools, McHale’s presentation varied little from his regular summoning of an ahistorical and miraculously ‘objective’ rule of law that seems to have fallen from the skies, rather than one forged in the annals of colonial atrocity.

This ahistorical fervor is perhaps best seen in his ability to compare himself and his work to Martin Luther King, often erroneously citing King’s letter from the Birmingham jail to justify his actions. McHale insists that Six Nations should address their claims through the courts, and ought obey the colonial Rule of Law as their land continues to be stolen. This logic is not so different from that seen in the letter “A Call for Unity” written by eight white clergyman criticizing King’s demonstrations in Birmingham—the very letter that inspired King to write what is now considered the single most important document of the civil rights era.

The white clergymen began their letter “We the undersigned clergymen are among those who, in January, issued “an appeal for law and order and common sense,” in dealing with racial problems in Alabama. We expressed understanding that honest convictions in racial matters could properly be pursued in the courts, but urged that decisions of those courts should in the meantime be peacefully obeyed.” These men’s assertion on the need to obey a rule of law that is inherently racist until such time that the courts find it unjust, is uncannily similar to McHale and Vandermaas’ message. In his response King had this to say about waiting for the oppressor to change the law and the importance of direct action:

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

What was purposefully erased in McHale’s presentation is that Six Nations have for hundreds of years taken their claims to ‘court’, have attempted to solve these issues through good faith negotiations, and for hundreds of years these actions have been delayed, criminalized and ignored—whether through the state enforced exile of Chief Deskaheh who brought his people’s claims to the burgeoning League of Nations, whether through the eviction of the Confederacy at RCMP gunpoint in 1924 and 1959, whether by Canada making it illegal to hire a lawyer with respect to land claims until the 1950s, whether through “the Canadian government work(ing) on the assumption that Indigenous peoples don’t hold title to disputed land,” or whether through “the current federal claims process (which) is painfully slow and inherently unjust.”

In McHale’s account the reclamation seems to have fallen from the sky, much like his rule of law, without notice or warning. When the land was reclaimed indefinitely by Six Nations in February 2006 they had already notified Henco Industries on several occasions that the company was in fact building on contested land. While Canada claims that this land was ceded on January 18th, 1841, Six Nations dispute this. In fact, colonial records show that on February 4th and July 7th 1841 and then again in 1843 the Confederacy petitioned the Crown indicating that they had only agreed to lease the land. And yet with all of McHale’s critiques of the police and the government, he claims it was Six Nations who broke the peace and claim that the police and government are not fulfilling their “duty” to summarily evict Six Nations from the land. I suppose what McHale would like to see is another Ipperwash, where the OPP go in with guns a-blazing, McHale does after all organize with the former president of ONFIRE, a group who held rallies supporting the OPP officer who shot and killed Dudley George. Indeed McHale’s love for tough-no nonsense-rule of law-cowboys was seen in his excitement when Fantino was named OPP commissioner. His love quickly dwindled however when Fantino found McHale to be a “troublemaker”. It’s a fickle sort of love affair McHale has with the “rule of law,” he likes it when it comes down hard on Indigenous people but not him. The hypocrisy, double standards, and double speak that defines McHale’s work, was also highlighted in Vandermaas’ presentation.

Vandermaas claimed he spoke ‘on behalf’ of the victims of Caledonia, and was almost brought to tears once again when he began to talk about “Dancer.” Having left CANACE recently Vandermaas has started the “Caledonia Victim’s Project”, a figure of a dancer is the project’s emblem. “Dancer” is a young woman who lives on the 6th line and who at fourteen wrote a pamphlet called a “road to hope” for a school project. http://voiceofcanada.files.wordpress.com/2008/03/11-dancer-road-of-hope.pdf Though Vandermaas no longer refers to her under the pseudonym he gave her and identifies her by name, in this write up she will be referred to through the pseudonym, as I do not think the way Vandermaas uses her story is ethical or helpful to this young woman. In his presentation Vandermaas read an excerpt from “Dancer’s” diary provided to him. In it she recounts the ‘horror’ of looking out and seeing deer hanging from a lamp pole on the reclamation site. Alongside the diary, Vandermaas provided a picture of this scene. What is disturbing about the way in which Vandermaas’ uses her narrative, is perhaps best seen in this example.

It is clear from the diary entry that “Dancer” is upset about what she sees, however no where is there an explanation to “Dancer” from the adults that surround her that the deer are being prepared to be eaten. While it might be a shocking event for young people who are far removed from the process through which meat based food find its way on to their plates, the ‘horror’ she experiences is nowhere contextualized for her. I remember my brother having a similar reaction when my father, raised in Newfoundland, a fisher from the age of 5 until 19 years old, baited hooks with frogs and gutted a fish in front of him. My brother seemed deeply horrified by the manner in which my father fished, though my brother never was and never became a vegetarian. It was then that my mother, raised in the beaches of Toronto far away from the farm life my maternal grandparents had, sat my brother down and talked to him about food—particularly where meat comes from and how it is derived. It was the same conversation my parents had with my sister, when upon visiting my Uncle and Aunt’s farm, not far from Brantford, my sister witnessed how it was that chicken came onto her plate—and was deeply disturbed by the actions of my uncle to secure super. While both my sister and my brother were ‘horrified’ by the actions of people they had come to trust and love, the adults around them contextualized the feelings they were having, and helped them to see that neither my uncle nor my father were ‘horrible’ people, they were just people who prepared meat for consumption.

The way in which Vandermaas used the example of the deer in his presentation worked to ascribe ‘savagery’ to Indigenous people who ‘horrify’ young white women. Indeed the deer were nowhere presented as food in his account, and were instead decontextualized and simply presented as a sample of the ‘horror’ of Indigenous land reclamations. Nowhere in this example did someone sit down with Dancer and explain that the deer, having led a life in the wild, were now being prepared to be eaten, a better fate one might contend than the cows, chickens and pigs that are kept locked away for most of their lives only then to face mass slaughter in corporate slaughter houses and factory farms. This example underlines the importance of context, and the role of adults to contextualize and discuss the fears and feelings of the young people around them. To continue to reify Dancer’s experience of the deer as ‘horror’ is not helpful to this young woman and indeed speaks to deeper dynamics of the promulgation of ‘horror’, the reification of racist and colonial understandings, and the role of decontextualization that drive both McHale and Vandermaas’ work.

For instance in Dancer’s pamphlet she describes “It’s very sad when the 14 and 15 year old are told that if ever a native came into OUR house and tried hurting us and we defended ourselves by fighting back, we would be the ones arrested! Not the native!” Indeed it is very sad when young people who are clearly scared by the events unfolding outside their homes are lied to by the grown ups around them. Such statements indicate that Native people have a desire to cause harm to children and their families, and that they can do so with impunity, instead of underlining the reality that Indigenous people on this land have been and continue to be oppressed, and are thus far more likely to be criminalized and victimized. As lawyer Sarah Dover indicates:

“An Aboriginal is ten times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Aboriginals. They are twice as likely to be victims of violence, but more likely to be arrested or charged. They are more likely to be denied bail…And more likely to be the victim of racist and violent experiences while in custody. They are more likely to be categorized in maximum security…less likely to be given parole and more likely to be found in breach of parole for non-criminal offences (like not being where they are supposed to be at a given time.” (quoted in the Tekawennake, Oct 14, 2009)

And while the reclamation was clearly a source of fear for Dancer, I imagine the mob rallies that emerged weekly from April to May 2006 in Caledonia where youth circled around fire barrels chanting “burn Natives burn,” where adults held signs reading “don’t feed the animals natives running rampant,” and hearing shouts from adult men that the OPP should hand over their guns to them so they could take care of the “natives” did nothing to alleviate those fears. Perhaps what would have been helpful for young Dancer, would have been for someone to contextualize what was happening right next door in a longer history. Underlining, as Six Nations has repeatedly, that the conflict was not with the people of Caledonia but with the government and had to do with the ongoing theft of Six Nations land by Canadians and the Canadian government. Perhaps Dancer might have better understood what was happening had someone talked to her about the fact that many of those who were at the reclamation site were parents and grandparents standing up for the futures of their children and grandchildren. Perhaps it would have helped this young woman to know that what was happening right outside her door involved families, parents, sisters, brothers, aunties and uncles saying no to a long pattern of theft—that indeed most of the Haldimand tract has been ‘settled’ through outright fraud and theft by both the government and white settlers and that what she was witnessing was an attempt to stop this ongoing pattern. While surely this would not have alleviated all of her fears, perhaps this would have helped to put them into context and for her to be able to better understand the realities of her home on native land and to find that ‘road of hope’ she so longed for.

Wes Elliott was the last presenter on the panel, and offered what might just be that ‘road of hope.’ Elliott offered his “Formula for Peace.” He began by underlining that Six Nations are sovereign allies who entered into treaties and agreements with the Crown. Highlighting the UN Declaration of Indigenous Rights, Elliott spoke about the need for recognition of Indigenous land rights and Treaty rights. He emphasized that Treaties had been broken in both Caledonia and Brantford. Along side a picture of the Tree of Peace, he outlined the components for his formula: Treaties, Respect, Healing, Education, Love and Friendship.

Elliott went so far as to give an example of love, by offering hugs to both Vandermaas and McHale, two men who have compared his people’s resistance to the KKK and described it as sociopathic. Though Vandermaas accepted the hug, he later indicated that Elliott had done so in front of “aboriginal news cameras” (APTN national news were there to record this panel), implying false intentions on Elliot’s part and that it was some kind of a publicity stunt. Elliott is a member of the Hoskanigetah (Men’s Fire), a group that had been described by Vandermaas as “organized crime.” Indeed in a post that Vandermaas claims is proof that he is not racist, he indicates that there are two types of Natives: “honourable Natives” and “sociopaths.” (a racial binary akin to what Mahmood Mamdani calls good muslim/ bad muslim). By equating Six Nations land reclaimers to sociopaths and ‘evildoers’ Vandermaas implies that negotiations cannot be had with the ‘sociopaths.’ This rendering is deeply rooted in the colonial logics. The notion of the “savage war” is a long held colonial rationality that has been used for centuries to justify violence that would otherwise be deemed excessive and unlawful. The doctrine of the “savage war” follows a logic through which the laws that govern “civilized war” cannot be applied to a “savage war” as the savages do not understand reason and only understand violence. Here it is clearly seen that Vandermaas continues to use deeply colonial ideas to justify his rationale, claiming that those involved in the reclamation are ‘sociopathic’ and cannot be reasoned with. Though perhaps a long shot, it is hoped that having had the opportunity to hear the vision for peace that Elliott offered that perhaps McHale and Vandermaas will recognize the humanity and wisdom of those they attempt to dehumanize and vilify.

While they claim that it is their critics who have a political agenda, it is Gary McHale who has ran for political office on a platform of anti-native fearmongering and he is now throwing his hat into the Haldimand municipal elections to do so again. It seemed to me anyways that McHale was at the conference to advance his own agenda and notoriety, and he certainly gave himself many pats on the back. He claimed it was he who had stemmed the tides of confrontations between Caledonia residents and Six Nations, because he taught Caledonia residents how to peacefully protest. And Vandermaas commented that there were residents who definitely wanted to fight back and retaliate but “we showed them another path.”

So there you have it Caledonia you owe your ability to peacefully protest to none other than your self acclaimed spokesperson Mr. Gary McHale, “National Voice of Caledonia”—as he is now calling himself. So nice that Gary McHale not only came to civilize the “savages” but also you! Having got to know many Caledonia residents who are working towards peace and reconciliation, it’s hard to stomach watching McHale and Vandermaas speak on “behalf of you” or to claim that it is they who taught you what peace is. Even those who do support them were not well represented at this conference. Perhaps the few dozen Caledonia residents who support McHale should start to ask themselves whether they have better uses for their money besides bank rolling McHale’s attempt at self-aggrandizement. The use of Caledonia resident’s pain and experiences as means through which Vandermaas and McHale attempt to give meaning to their lives is disquieting. As one audience member said to me “Is this really helping anybody?”

McHale and Vandermaas certainly felt the heat when their presentations were not very well received during question period, though given the content of the conference they not surprisingly found some like minded friends in the crowd that day. Many in the audience scoffed and squirmed in their seats each time they compared themselves and their activities to Martin Luther King. Some audience members audibly gasped at offensive comments made by Vandermaas and McHale. This was particularly true when Vandermaas had the audacity to compare what Caledonia people have experienced to the systematic and genocidal violence of residential schools, whereby he indicated that if the federal government can offer an apology for residential schools, Six Nations can offer an apology to Caledonia residents. One professor from Mount Royal University stood and said “…I guess what really concerns me is when issues of or protests of white victimhood subsume or erase a history. When I hear a phrase “wrong has been done”, there’s no object or subject, buried in particulars, I just think it’s dangerous.”

Frances Widdowson asked Vandermaas and McHale about their tactics and attempts of raising the Canadian flag close to or on the reclamation site. Asking whether “marching through a colonized area with the symbol of the colonizer could increase tensions or make things more difficult…” McHale replied that he thought it was an extremely successful strategy as he “had to come up with a way to get media attention…” to evidence two-tiered justice. Echoing concerns of their dangerous tactics Ron Bourgeault commented “this can get out of hand…you can walk in the ghetto of Atlanta Georgia with the confederate flag, and that’s free expression, but there are limitations.”

While Vandermaas reported that the conference was a success, its poor attendance speaks otherwise. I have seen better-attended graduate conferences with much less of a budget, and a much higher quality of scholarship. At the end of the day an Indigenous student stood and spoke. Complimenting Dr. David Newhouse’s, chair of Indigenous studies at Trent University, presentation, she went on to say that overwhelming the day had been filled with negative commentary on Indigenous people, governments and issues. She indicated it did not reflect well on Mount Royal University. The moderator of the panel addressed her concern, and stated that Frances Widdowson does not represent the views of Mount Royal University. In fact many of her colleagues had refused to come to the conference because of its content. Widdowson went on to lament that she had a hard time creating “balanced” panels as so few people were willing to speak alongside many of those who participated. Even given this fact, Vandermaas and McHale were actively criticized, and professors, including intimation from Dr. Widdowson herself, underlined that their tactics and their ideas were dangerous.

Videos of the presentations can be seen at:

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Filed under Anti-Native Activism, Caledonia, CANACE, Gary McHale, Mark Vandermas, Open Letter of Protest, Racism

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