Neither Liberals nor Conservatives took action on report on Six Nations land conflict, says former chief

The Justin Trudeau Liberal government, like its Conservative predecessor, has done little to act on the recommendations from a fact-finding report into a Six Nations 2006 land conflict that is playing out again today on a different property in Caledonia, Ont., according to a former elected chief of the community. 

Six Nations says claim runs through 38 southern Ontario municipalities, worth trillions of dollars

Chiefs from the Six Nations reading wampum belts in Brantford, Ont., in September 1871. Joseph Snow, George Henry Martin Johnson, John Buch, John Smoke Johnson, Isaac Hill, John Seneca Johnson. (Electric Studio / Library and Archives Canada / c085137)

The Justin Trudeau Liberal government, like its Conservative predecessor, has done little to act on the recommendations from a fact-finding report into a Six Nations 2006 land conflict that is playing out again today on a different property in Caledonia, Ont., according to a former elected chief of the community. 

Tensions continue to simmer around property slated for a housing development known as McKenzie Meadows in Caledonia. Six Nations members reclaimed the land in July, renaming it 1492 Land Back Lane, and remain on the site despite a court injunction, an August police raid, and over two dozen arrests. 

The events of today echo what unfolded in 2006 over a housing development known as Douglas Creek Estates. As the 2006 conflict unfolded, then-Indian affairs minister Jim Prentice appointed Michael Coyle, a law professor at the University of Western Ontario and an experienced mediator, to conduct a fact-finding mission to explore options on finding resolution to the conflict. 

William Montour, who was elected chief of Six Nations from 1985 to 1991 and 2007 to 2014, said the Harper Conservative government did "nothing" to follow up the recommendations in Coyle's report.

"The policy makers are so set in their ways — which goes back to the colonial mentality that 'we''re the boss and these Indians are in the way," said Montour, 

"In my mind that is still the direction that the current Trudeau government is following." 

Coyle's report, submitted to Prentice on April 7, 2006, issued several recommendations, including creating a table to negotiate all of Six Nations land claims as one, hiring an independent historical fact-finder, streamlining the process to add lands to the reserve and formally renewing the relationship between Canada and Six Nations' traditional government. 

Cover page from the Six Nations research document outlining its land claim titled, A Global Solution for Six Nations of the Grand River. The image shows the reduction of Six Nations' land over time. (Six Nations of the Grand River)

The conflict subsided after the Ontario government purchased the Douglas Creek Estates lands, which it still holds.

To this date, no historical fact finder was ever appointed, no comprehensive land table created and the federal government has never moved to formally renew its relationship with the Six Nations traditional government, known as the Haudenosaunee Confederacy Chiefs Council. 

While Six Nations is poised to get two parcels of land under Ottawa's additions to reserve process for a 50 megawatt solar farm, an official with the elected council said it's still a cumbersome process that can take decades to complete.   

Douglas Creek Estates and McKenzie Meadows sit on some of the 384,451 hectares of land that form the Haldimand Tract, granted to Six Nations of the Grand River in 1784 for allying with the British during the American Revolution. The land ran along roughly 10 km on each side of the 280 km Grand River from its source in the region around Waterhen, Ont., to Lake Erie. Six Nations, which has the largest population of any reserve in the country, now has less than five per cent, or 18,615 hectares, of its original land base. 

The majority of land was lost to widespread squatting of lands — later turned into official land patents — and through flooding, development and leases that were never paid either to colonial authorities or Six Nations.

"There were very few outright legal sales of our land; 90 per cent of the leased land has never been paid for or paid to Six Nations," according to a research document prepared by Six Nations. 

Today, 38 municipalities in southern Ontario sit on lost Six Nations lands, according to the nation's research.

Going to court

Six Nations said it's also owed between $7.5 billion and $6 trillion — depending on the interest rate — for money from the lease and sale of their lands that was used for everything from funding the Law Society of Upper Canada and McGill University to paying down the colonial administration's public and war time debt, and never repaid.

Michael Coyle said in an interview with CBC News that renewing the relationship with Six Nations, a former military ally of the British Crown, is pivotal to finding a path to resolution.

"The issue of the relationship … was very important for the Confederacy chiefs in particular," said Coyle. 

"They indicated they wanted to be treated respectfully and they saw a key issue in resolving the dispute being about reestablishing and reconciling the parties' relationship of one of respect."

Former Indian affairs minister Jim Prentice in 2006 appointed Michael Coyle to conduct a fact-finding mission to explore options on finding resolution to the Six Nations land conflict. (Geoff Robins/Western University)

Coyle said the federal government needs to co-develop a framework to work through the claims with Six Nations outside Ottawa's existing policies on land claims that don't fit the complexity of this situation. 

"There are other complex negotiations — very financially important negotiations — that Canada is able to manage, like free trade agreements," said Coyle. 

"I am not quite sure to what extent their existing policies are getting in the way."

As it stands now, Six Nations' claim is headed to trial in the fall of 2022. The case, originally filed in 1995, was reinitiated after talks broke down with the Harper Conservative government in 2009. Federal negotiators at the time refused to negotiate all the claims at the same time, said Lonny Bomberry, director of lands and resources for the Six Nations elected government. 

Bomberry said Six Nations started the court case after pulling out of the federal government's specific claims process —created to deal with historical grievances over lost lands and monies — because it was too restrictive and placed Canada as the final arbiter. 

Six Nations initially filed 29 specific claims. One was settled. 

"I think our case is so strong, I don't think we can lose," he said. 

Six Nations members stand at a barricade in Caledonia, Ont., near Hamilton, in May 2006. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

When the Trudeau government came into power in 2015, it did not restart land talks. Instead, it entered into an "exploratory table" that encompassed not just land, but governance and other issues like membership. The talks included Ontario, which pulled out in June 2018, said Bomberry.

Bomberry said talks continued with Ottawa focused on more internal issues, but they've stalled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Coyle report 'an important 1st step:' feds

Ontario's Minister of Indigenous Affairs Greg Rickford's office said in a statement that the province's role in the exploratory talks ended after contracts with facilitators ended. The statement said Ontario is still engaged with Six Nations in other ways, negotiating the return of another piece of land to Six Nations in 2017 and a $102 million contribution agreement in 2018 related to interest in the Casino Brantford. 

"As the matter of the Six Nations land claims and historical grievances is before the courts, it would be inappropriate for the ministry to provide further comment on that topic," said the statement.

An Ontario Provincial Police SUV sits by the property known as 1492 Land Back Lane on Friday. (submitted by 1492 Land Back Lane)

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett's office said in a statement that the Coyle report "was an important first step in opening lines of communication." The statement said there have been "numerous attempts by Canada, Ontario and Six Nations" to deal with the claims "through dialogue" since 2006.

"We believe the best way to resolve outstanding issues is through a respectful and collaborative dialogue which is vital to building stronger relationships and advancing reconciliation," said the statement. 


Jorge Barrera is a Caracas-born, award-winning journalist who has worked across the country and internationally. He works for CBC's investigative unit based out of Ottawa. Follow him on Twitter @JorgeBarrera or email him