By John Bacher
Posted September 6th, 2016 on Niagara At Large
(The first of two pieces Niagara At Large is posting by John Bacher on why Thundering Waters Forest in Niagara Falls, Ontario should become a Native-administered nature refuge. The second piece will be posted this September 7th.)
Part of the challenge in getting Native land claims taken seriously in this Niagara region and across the country is that there is no sense of the historical injustices which the process seeks to correct.
Regarding Niagara, there is a strong connection between the destruction of wetlands and the injustices that hit native people after the War of 1812, when their lands and resources became subject to the most oppressive thefts.
Karl Dockstader, a member of the Indigenous community in this region, cites two Niagara treaties and the Nanfan Treaty of 1701 that contain provisions to ensure sharing based on the conservation of precious resources – provisions that were ignored following the War of 1812 due to circumstances characterized by brutal domination of both Native people and the earth they attempted to defend.
After the War of 1812 was over, the person who led the charge against Native rights and culture in Upper Canada was a recent arrival from England, an agronomist named Robert Gourlay. His lengthy book on Upper Canada had considerable influence and in it he advocated the brutal shock treatment of what became a residential school system that, in his words, called for “a push” for “training up youth” for “speedy civilization.”
Gourlay and others who saw Native culture as backwards ignored how it had evolved since the retreat of the glaciers 11,000 years earlier to exist in harmony with the land.
Although wild rice – a crop dependent upon wetlands – is now appreciated as a gourmet delicacy, no Euro-Canadians immigrants never consumed it. Gourlay and his supporters viewed Native efforts to follow a way of life dependent upon the wealth of wetlands as a sign of laziness, rather than the thoughtful sustainable use of resources it actually was.
One of Gourlay’s firm allies was the St. Catharines business mogul, William Hamilton Merritt. He set himself on a collision course with the Six Nations arising out of his determination to canalize the Grand River, which meant driving a feeder canal through the Wainfleet Bog and damming up and flooding much of the Grand River, destroying native crops.
What made the situation even more offensive was the Native people were forced to pay, from their own funds, for the destruction of the rich biodiversity they had depended upon.
Merritt connived to have the Six Nation’s Trust funds (based on investments from land sales going back to colonial New York) used to pay for the building of the Grand River Canal. The stock the Six Nations were forced to invest eventually became worthless when the Grand River Navigation Company went bankrupt.
The company collapsed after the main reason for the canal’s existence -shipping timber from giant old growth trees stolen from Native lands – vanished along with the forests they had been stripped from.
Merritt’s schemes for wetland destruction led to a political challenge from Native people that was real and intense involving public bitterly contested open air ballots and courtroom drama.
During the 1820s, Native leadership in Canada fell on a remarkable youthful personality, John Brant, who emerged as an officer and a hero during the War of 1812. A senior public servant in the Indian Affairs Department, Brant was widely admired as the most educated gentleman in Upper Canada. He would later have a school in the Niagara town of Fort Erie named in his honour.
An opponent of Merritt’s schemes of wetland destruction, Brant sought and won election to the Upper Canadian legislative assembly. After serving there for two and half months however, he soon found himself in the midst of a judicial battle.
In the 1820s, voting was done in public in a prominent open air place. The names of people on the electoral rolls would be called out. A person would then step forward and say the name, which was recorded, of the candidate he was voting for.
After Brant was elected, William Hamilton Merritt and his clique of wetland destroyers got busy. They carefully reviewed all the names of the people who had voted for Brant. Then they argued in court that the electors, many of whom were Native Canadians, did not own sufficient “real property” to vote.
Since some of this was held in tribal tenure, Merritt’s legal team challenged the legitimacy of some of Brant’s electors. As a result, the courts expelled Brant from the Upper Canadian legislature and a by-election was ordered.
Brant bravely sought to regain his legislative seat in the planned by-election. It could not take place however, since both he and his opponent died as a result of a cholera epidemic.
William Hamilton Merritt, although living in St. Catharines, ran in the Haldimand by-election. He won and filled Brant’s former seat.
From his seat in the Parliament of Canada (created after the 1840 merger of Upper and Lower Canada), Merritt would play an important role in the abolition of Native political rights.
He had already experienced how Natives could use these rights to oppose his schemes for the destruction of their forests, wetlands and water resources and he used his position in Parliament to vote to abolish Native voting rights.
The destruction of 90 per cent of Ontario’s wetlands took place after Natives had been stripped of their political rights by the very business cliques that profited from it.
This shameful history offers one good reason why there should be compensation through the public purchase of one of the our threatened wetland areas in Niagara – the Thundering Waters Forest in Niagara Falls, Ontario where municipal representatives in the region are now working with a China-based corporation to urbanize it.
Here we have an opportunity to protect the environment and to educate the broader public on the earth-protecting values of Native culture.
John Bacher is a veteran conservationist in Niagara, Ontario and is the Chair of Greening Niagara
For more on Greening Niagara click on – http://www.greeningniagara.ca/
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