Indigenous

Protesters at Wahta Mohawk cultural centre say they vacated building as OPP arrived

A spokesperson for the Ontario Provincial Police said Wahta Mohawk demonstrators told police negotiators throughout the day Wednesday that they continued to occupy a community building they had vacated earlier in the day.

OPP tactical team deployed, roads blocked in Wahta Wednesday

Ontario Provincial Police officers gather in response to a reported occupation of the Wahta Mohawk cultural centre on Wednesday. (Submitted by David Stock)

Demonstrators involved in an occupation Wednesday morning of a building in Wahta Mohawk First Nation say they snuck out as the Ontario Provincial Police arrived on the scene.

Wahta band member Dave Stock said the group of about seven occupiers left by the back door of the Wahta Cultural Healing Centre shortly before noon Wednesday, leaving the building empty throughout the day.

Wahta sits about 200 kilometres north of Toronto, just off Highway 400.

The OPP had deployed a tactical unit, blocked Muskoka Road 38 on both sides of the Wahta Cultural Healing Centre Wednesday and asked people living in the immediate vicinity to leave their homes. Police discovered the building was empty once they entered the premises shortly before 1 a.m. Thursday.

The road was reopened after the OPP entered the centre and realized there was nobody inside.

Wahta band member Dave Stock said the group of about seven occupiers left by the back door of the centre shortly before noon Wednesday, leaving the building empty throughout the day. 

"We went in between their lines and we got out of there," said Stock. "We left them sitting there surrounding an empty building."

Stock said the OPP towed the vehicles that were left behind at the cultural centre. Stock said they kept up the charade in hopes of sparking other First Nations protests.

"Why did we string it out so long? We were attempting to see who the heck was going to help, who was going to stand up," he said.

"What we figured out is that the nation is down, they're done. Nobody is going to stand up."

Krystal Brooks from Rama First Nation, who was also part of the protest, told CBC Wednesday evening there were 14 people inside the centre.

"I apologize for lying to you," said Brooks, in a message to CBC on Thursday morning.

No estimate of personnel involved

OPP Sgt. J.T. Folz said Thursday the occupiers had told police negotiators they were continuing to occupy the centre and that witnesses relayed the same information to officers. The demonstrators also repeated the message in various conversations with CBC News. 

"Our information was they were inside there and we discovered they weren't," said Folz.

OPP officers block a road in the Wahta Mohawk First Nation on Wednesday. (Submitted by David Stock)

Folz said the OPP deployed a Tactics and Rescue Unit (TRU) and a K-9 unit to deal with the situation. Folz said he couldn't give a precise number of how many officers were called in because of shift changes.

"There were quite a few people there," he said.

Folz said the OPP is aware of the identities of some of the people involved in the event and that the investigation was ongoing.  

"I don't think I've ever seen one like this," he said.

There was no answer at the Wahta band office Thursday morning.

2014 protest lasted 140 days

Wahta was founded in 1881 by members from the Mohawk community of Kanesatake, Que., near Montreal.

Wahta faced a 140-day protest outside the band administration office in 2014 aimed at the band council. Stock filed an unsuccessful $13 million Federal Court lawsuit against the band last March alleging it had drafted an "enemies list" of 35 people who were involved in the protest.

Stock rhymed off a number of issues behind Wednesday's protest, including findings of systemic racism in Thunder Bay's police force, Ottawa's now-cancelled plan to revise policy on modern day treaty negotiations that triggered a protest in Edmonton last week, and last year's acquittal of Peter Khill in the 2016 killing of Six Nations man Jon Styres.

One grievance that Stock brought up several times was the conduct of band governments under the Indian Act band system and Ottawa's perceived willingness to look the other way on governance issues and corruption.

"Rogue councils can do whatever they want," he said. "Even if they were voted in by three per cent of the people who live there."

Stock said many First Nations faced similar issues.

"This is not a Wahta thing, this is a nation thing. This is a whole nation thing. This is everybody," he said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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

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