Friday, June 29, 2007

Paul Martin speaks at National Day of Action, Akwesasne

Paul Martin speaks at National Day of Action, Akwesasne Mohawk Territory

Martin was wearing a blazer with anchors on the buttons. (The Martins owned a shipping company). The Protestors threw some herbs, probably tobacco into a fire, and prayed, punctuated by screams in a high voice (Mohawks often do this, to express joy, but it does sound disconcerting when heard for the first time). I learned that the reason purple is often used by Mohawks is that it was the colour of seashells that were used in wampum belts. The MCA on Boots' sign stands for Mohawk Council of Akwesasne.
Akwesasne, June 29, 2007 - Former Prime Minister Paul Martin promised to continue "the fight of my life" for native equality, and praised the non-violent approach the Mohawk nation has taken to advancing their cause, but some protesters threatened to escalate tensions if police raid any reserves.
Martin was speaking at National Day of Action on the Akwesasne Mohawk Reserve that stradles the border south of Cornwall. Martin and local natives and some non-native politicians spoke about improving health care and education, addressing land claims, and the free transit of goods and people across the US-Canadian border.
Martin contrasted the peaceful rally at Akwesasne with the barricades erected by followers of Mohawk activist Shawn Brant this week. "The way the case is being made here, peacefully and with great conviction is the way to do it" Martin said. "Those who put up barricades, as was done by Mr. Brant, essentially allow the whole arguement to be diverted - the headlines will be 'Barricades!' as opposed to 'Improve the quality of life of aboriginals'. Martin insisted that the Kelowna Accord that he sponsored "would become the law of the land" and would make sure that natives had the same quality of education and health as non-natives.
Grand Chief Tim Thompson
Martin and other speakers, like Akwesanse Grand Chief Tim Thompson lambasted the Conservative government for not adopting the accord and for cutting funding to native language education. Chief Thompson called the $ 150 million cuts to education "assaults against the preservation of first nations language and culture."
Chief Nona Benedict noted that natives could easily have blocked the border crossing, the Seaway or even the 401 but instead chose to put on an information session. "We want to open communications with other (non-native) people." Chief Benedict said that both the US and Canadian customs stations and the bridge toll both should be moved off of the reserve because they cause traffic tie ups and even traffic accidents on the reserve, and impede non-natives, such as lacrosse teams, from visiting, and Mohawks, who spend 15 million a year in Cornwall, from leaving the reserve. Akwesasne is a major artery for smuggling between the US and Canada, but Benedict said that Canadian customs often unfairly targets native youth for searches. "I call it profiling" she said. She opposed the plan to build a truck plaza at the Canadian Customs, saying that exhaust from idling trucks waiting in line to cross has already increased asthma among children on the reserve, and that a truck plaza could easily be built in Cornwall.
Other speakers expressed their worries that new passport requirements to cross the US border would be hard on them, as they have to cross the border simply to go from one part of the reserve, which is divided between the two Canadian provinces of Quebec and Ontario, and New York State. Many Mohawks do not have a passport.
Protester Stacey Boots, by tent he is living in
A group of about 20 protesters, who were not affiliated with the rally, held a protest about 200 metres away near the toll booth. They greeted Martin with Warrior Society flags and signs that read "Thief Go Home" and with Paul Martin's name next to swastikas. Stacey Boots, spokesperson for the group, who was sporting a T-shirt with a pile of flaming tires and the words "Tax This!" on it, said that they had had a pile of tires but that native police had confiscated them, but still left a pile of wooden pallets behind. Boots said he was protesting because he was homeless and was living in a tent by the road after a fire damaged his previous residence because the Akwesasne Mohawk Council would not find housing for him, even though he has four children of his own and two others from his girlfriend. Boots said that he was in contact with Shawn Brant, and that if something happened like police raids on any native reserve, his group might block the road. "If there's going to be trouble, then we will escalate" he said, as other members of the group prayed around a fire.
Chief Thompson said that Boots' situation was because there was no available housing on the reserve, due to insufficient funding by the federal government, and that several chiefs were working on finding him a place to stay.
 Go Home Thief and Paul Martin Swastikas protest signs

Mohawk Elder Ernie Benedict talks to former Prime Minister Paul Martin
Elder Ernie Benedict, 88, opened the rally by telling the history of the loyalists that founded Cornwall after the Mohawks helped them flee the American Revolution in New York State. He said that Mohawks guided them through the Adirondacks and found food for them, but that after the loyalists had settled, much of the natives' land was taken from them.
Land claims were also a part of former Grand Chief Mike Mitchell speech, where he asked for lands confiscated from Akwesasne to build railroads and bridges be returned to them.
The mood at the rally was light hearted, with refreshments, flower arrangements, and native crafts. Master of Ceremonies Leonard Lazore said that they wanted to use "Words not violence" and there would be no blocades, tire burning flag burning and "no bra burning - sorry guys!" he said jokingly.
"Chain of Friendship" baskets made of sweetgrass and black ash strips with designs of chain of purple were given to Martin and other visitors. The purple chain represented the wampum belts that were made of seashells that were made to seal treaties between the natives and the Europeans.

Cornwall Mayor Bob Kilger receives friendship basket
Local Conservative MP Guy Lauzon was present but did not speak, although he was scheduled to. Chief Thompson was quoted in a local newspaper that Lauzon declined to speak for unspecified reasons, although Martin, who came before Lauzon on the program, came on later than expected.
(Ultimately the pallets were set on fire and scattered across the road, but only after midnight - also an AK-47 was confiscated after being fired.)