The sentencing hearing of Haudenosaunee activist Skyler Williams was back in court Thursday morning, after Justice Gethin Edward said he was “trying to find the truth” when it comes to the land Williams says he has been defending.
Williams testified last week, answering questions from Edward about why he has taken part in a two-year-long occupation of the site of a controversial development in Caledonia, Ont., and what “land back” means to him.
“We’ve got to hear from both sides … to assist this court in making a determination as to what is in the best interest of the community,” Edward said last week in a Cayuga, Ont., courthouse.
Williams, 39, previously pleaded guilty to a mischief charge and two counts of failing to comply with an undertaking, all related to his actions on what is known in the area as 1492 Land Back Lane.
Edward’s questioning last week will help determine what he considers to be an appropriate sentence for Williams’s actions. Thursday saw the court set a new date for the hearing to continue, in January.
Foxgate Development (a joint venture between Losani Homes and Ballantry Homes) planned to build more than 200 residences at a location it called McKenzie Meadows in 2020.
Demonstrators stopped the work, saying the land was unceded Haudenosaunee territory, renaming it and erecting several buildings on the site. Williams has been the spokesperson for the demonstrations.
The land sits on the Haldimand Tract, which was 384,451 hectares of land along the Grand River granted to Six Nations in 1784 for allying with the British during the American Revolution.
It led to burning barricades, a backhoe digging up a road and Ontario Provincial Police reportedly using a Taser and firing at least one rubber bullet.
Police arrested dozens of demonstrators, including Williams, in the months that followed.
As part of legal action, the developers sought an injunction to bar activists, also known as land defenders, from the site and prohibit them from blocking area roads.
That spawned a separate legal battle that is still ongoing.
Williams also faces a criminal contempt charge after a Coastal GasLink pipeline blockade on Wets’uwet’en traditional territory in northern B.C. in 2021.
‘200 years of colonialism’ to blame: Williams
In court last week, Williams stood wearing a green jacket and blue jeans as he opened up about his personal life and the philosophy behind the land demonstrations.
He had at least a dozen people attend in support, including Sarah Jama, the Ontario NDP candidate for Hamilton Centre.
He answered questions from his lawyer, Joshua Frost, the Crown prosecutor, Gabe Settimi, and Justice Gethin Edward, who is Indigenous.
Williams said his first introduction to the landback activism he does now was Ipperwash in 1995.
Frost asked Williams why he’s been demonstrating.
“I’ve got kids … that are going to need a place to build a home,” he said, adding it’s a resistance against ongoing oppression and a fight to keep the land they’re connected to.
Williams said he acknowledges consulting and gaining consent in Six Nations of the Grand River can be a bureaucratic nightmare, but Indigenous people aren’t to blame for that.
“It’s hard because it’s 200 years of colonialism, oppression, racism, over-incarceration rates, child welfare being stacked against us. These are the issues our communities are still dealing with,” he said.
One example of that is the tension between the Six Nations elected council, established under the Indian Act 1942, and Haudenosaunee Confederacy Chiefs Council, the hereditary leaders who many see as leaders of the community.
Despite that, the elected council is generally who developers and others go to for consultation. In this case, Six Nations elected council approved Foxgate’s proposed development.
Williams said the elected council should have a voice at the table, but shouldn’t be the only voice.
For people in Haldimand County or Cayuga inconvenienced by the reclamation camp, Williams said he’d offer his phone number to anyone who wants to talk, to help them understand the meaning behind the fight.
He said later the reason Mackenzie Meadows was occupied as opposed to other developments was because this project was “right in our face” and could be seen whenever someone left the territory.
‘What are the options?’
Williams told Crown prosecutor Settimi if developers returned to get another piece of land, he would support demonstrating against it, regardless of the law or the outcome of the current legal matter.
Williams later said if there was a nation-to-nation agreement on the land, he would respect it, regardless of what the terms were.
A nation-to-nation agreement would include having all stakeholders at the table to come to terms.
Justice Edward told Williams he appreciated Williams’s “optimism” about nation-to-nation negotiations but said it needs to be “steeped in reality” because an agreement might not ever be reached and it isn’t “politically expedient.”
He asked Williams why he wouldn’t try to go through the Superior Court of Justice, to which Williams replied the courts are a “slight” to Indigenous leaders.
“What are the options?” Edward asked.
Edward said occupying the land when a development concerns the community, which leads to escalated emotions and police involvement isn’t in line with Haudenosaunee teachings.
“We can’t continue to have a situation where the only option is the ongoing struggle that leads to individuals warring with one another over something that you’d think can be resolved in some fashion,” Edward said.
Williams agreed, but emphasized the courts and colonial processes are what pit people against each other. He also mentioned how expensive court battles can be.
“Show me a system that we can participate in fully and feel like our voices are heard and amplified because these developers … they are amplified by courtrooms.”
Rather than make a decision on Williams’s charges, Edward said the only way to get at the truth would be to hear from a representative of Six Nations elected council.
He asked the Crown to see if Six Nations Lands and Resources Director Lonny Bomberry could appear in court.
Settimi said he had concerns it might create further division, but Edward persisted.
“What’s the Truth and Reconciliation Commission all about but not an accounting of what’s transpired? So by anyone’s measure, is what’s happened here fair? Certainly not to Mr. Williams,” Edward said.
“Why is it we’re reluctant to seek out the truth and does the truth only count from those affected?”
A new court was set Thursday morning. Bomberry, or someone else representing the elected council, is expected to appear Jan. 23.