Birkett Lane development sets Mohawks against Mohawks

BRANTFORD — For the eighth time in recent years, construction on Erie Ave at Birkett Lane was halted this Monday. But this time, rather than sitting inside the construction area on a lawn chair to stop it, Floyd and Ruby Montour, who were named in an injunction to stay away from the site, were standing outside of the construction area in support of it.

What happened? Why the sudden shift in conviction?

It comes down to a deal that was signed between developer Steve Charest’s Guswentah Development Group and the Mohawk Workers, which they believe will change the status quo when it comes to dealing with Mohawk land. Floyd and Ruby are associated with the Mohawk Workers, and believe the deal will advance the cause of the Mohawk Nation and in turn, all of Six Nations.

When they were protesting against development on the site, the land was owned by an off-shore firm which did not recognize the Mohawks or Six Nations as stakeholders. At that time, also, there was no consultation with either in advance of the proposed housing development on unceded land.

In a nutshell, the deal is designed to remove the contested land from the Ontario Realty Corporation registry and place it back under the Haldimand Proclamation of 1784, which brought the Mohawks and others of the Six Nations to reside and prosper along six miles on either side of the Grand River.

Since the last stoppage of development, developer Steve Charest and his company Guswentah Development bought the rights to the land, with the intent of partnering with the Mohawks in its development.

“They came to us and asked us how we could proceed to develop that land,” says Mohawk Workers’ spokesperson Bill Squire.

But not all Six Nations, and certainly not all Mohawks, are of the same opinion, which created a confusing situation at the Erie Ave / Birkett Lane site when members of the Mohawk bench of the Men’s Fire came to shut down the running of services to the land.

Bill Squire of Mohawk Workers and Men’s Fire Mohawk member Bill Monture had words, while Steve Charest and partner Brian Porter watched from the curb beside Floyd Montour.

“This is something the Natives are going to do which is going to benefit the people,” said Floyd Montour. “If there are 800 people waiting for housing on Six Nations waiting list, with a 12 year waiting period, this would be very beneficial to them. This is something that has never happened before and could go nationwide.”

He admitted that he didn’t know the details of how that would work, but is in full support nonetheless.

Soon, Bill Monture and a few others arrived, wondering what was going on and why the servicing of the contested property was going ahead after he and others, including Floyd and Ruby, shut it down several times in the past.

The construction crew decided to take an extended lunch break until the two Mohawk groups worked out their differences.

Eventually, all parties retired for closed-door talks at a house Charest had signed over to the Mohawk Workers, which is within the land he hopes to see developed.

Following that meeting, both Monture and Squire gave the Two Row Times an exclusive video statement offering their specific views of what, if any, headway was made in bringing everyone onto the same page. But in capsule form, the difference in opinion comes from different interpretations of who is who and how history is perceived.

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Monture insists that any decision over Six Nations land needs to be made by all the people of Six Nations, while Squire believes that since the Haldimand Tract was granted to the Mohawks primarily, and to others of the Six Nations, and since he believes the Mohawks have been systematically elbowed out of the picture over the years since 1784, the Mohawk Workers have an obligation and every right to deal with Mohawk land, most especially land that was once the Mohawk Village of Joseph Brant.

“We lived here,” says Squire. “My family in particular spent 87 years on this property. We were moved off this spot and sent to the reserve for our own protection.”

The bottom line in the internal Mohawk dispute is the underlying title, which both groups believe is essential to any land deal. Both also believe that title was never extinguished and remains the same as it was when they first got here, before there was a province or a government of Upper Canada.

But where the road divides between them is in how that reality plays out on Birkett Lane and Erie Ave, in Brantford.

“The Mohawk Workers are doing something here that (they say) is going to benefit the people,” says Monture. “But I can’t and I don’t agree with it. I am only speaking for myself today, but the Mohawk Bench of the Men’s Fire is here today.”

He believes any deal concerning land should benefit all of Six Nations and should include consultation with the entire Six Nations Community.

“If we are going to go ahead with this development, and if it’s such a great deal, why weren’t the people back home asked to participate and to see if it’s a good deal?” Monture asks.

The Two Row Times requested an interview with the HDI, to either deny or confirm reliable sources that say the HDI is also in negotiations with Guswentah Development concerning the same land. Unfortunately they did not respond to our request by deadline.

Squire’s stance is that the land in question was clearly given to the Mohawks, and there is no surrender signed by the Mohawk Nation that gave what is today known as the Six Nations Confederacy and its assigned agent the HDI jurisdiction over it.

According to International law, Canada is responsible for any treaties made before the Canadian Confederation in 1867, including the Haldimand Proclamation.

“How do they get out from under that?” asks Squire hypothetically. “By creating another entity and another title for Haldimand lands, and they did that with the Simcoe Patent of 1793.”

Joseph Brant and the sitting Chiefs and Clan Mothers of the day rejected the Simcoe Patent outright and almost went to war with Britain over it. Even so, Canada still operates under its articles, which virtually removes the Mohawks as principals in the agreement.

“Who was allowed to be the signatories to dispose of Haldimand land?” Squire asks. “The Six Nations Confederacy. Did the Mohawks sign over the Haldimand to the Confederacy? No, that has never been done.”

Details of the actual Mohawk Workers/Guswentah agreement are being held close to the vest under a non-disclosure clause and that makes Monture and others very nervous.

“If we’re going to do it, let’s do it in a good way,” he says. “Let’s do it in a way that will benefit our people. Right now, the only people that are going to benefit are the guys that are developing it. We need to develop an agreement that is foolproof, that no one can penetrate, so that it works and benefits all people, and not just the developer.”

But first, Monture wants to see the details come back to Six Nations at large and a consultation process begin.

“Right now, if we turn that land over to the developer and he turns it into fee simple and registers it with the province, Canadian jurisdiction will apply to that land, never to come back,” says Monture.

But Squire counters, “To face our own people, and have our own people try and deny us the right to deal with our own land, it is very, very difficult to understand. As we talk today I can see that they don’t understand what we are doing. I am giving them the benefit of the doubt. I am not intimidated by them in any way, but if peace can be achieved by a little bit of time and conversation, that is what I am looking at to do to resolve it.”

Construction on Erie Ave at Birkett Lane in Brantford brought a strange mixture of personalities together Monday. Members of the Mohawk Workers, the Mohawk bench of the Men’s Fire, principals of Guswentah Development, Morley construction, along with Brantford Mayor Chris Friel and city solicitor Ted Salisbury talked while construction of water and sewer service pipes onto a proposed housing development stopped for the eighth time in the past few years. (Photo by Jim Windle)
The installation of services piping onto a piece of land at the corner of Birkett Lane and Erie Ave was halted again Monday, but for much different reasons. (Photo by Jim Windle)

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