Forty acres of Norfolk County farmland is poised to become the next front in the ongoing battle over Indigenous land rights.
In 2015, the Haudenosaunee Development Institute bought a property on Concession 2 Townsend for $310,000 and has not paid property taxes since.
The HDI, which is the development arm of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy Chiefs Council, argues the land bordering the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve is unceded Haudenosaunee territory and should be exempt from taxation.
The county rejects that argument and is looking to sell the land to collect some $23,500 in back taxes.
“Norfolk County refuses to acknowledge and respect Haudenosaunee rights and sovereignty,” said HDI representative Aaron Detlor.
Detlor says the property — called Onehsa’keh, which translates to “sandy place where things grow” in Mohawk — falls under the Nanfan Treaty of 1701, which gives the Haudenosaunee “free and undisturbed use” of the land around Lake Erie.
“It’s like the Crown is trying to sell the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s not theirs to sell,” Detlor said of the attempted tax sale, which he described as a “shameless cash grab.”
Norfolk defended its position in a statement from county solicitor Paula Boutis’ office.
“Staff have thoroughly reviewed the circumstances related to the property in question and have concluded there is no legal basis for the assertion that this property is not subject to taxation on the basis of alleged treaty rights, or any other basis,” the statement read.
“The county is obligated to charge and collect taxes pursuant to the appropriate legislation.”
Boutis declined to be interviewed for this story.
In several letters to the county, Detlor made it clear the HDI has “no intention” of vacating the land or paying taxes, and advised Norfolk to inform any would-be purchasers of the farmland of the dispute.
Skyler Williams, spokesperson for the land defenders currently occupying 1492 Land Back Lane in Caledonia, signalled his support for the HDI’s stance.
“We have taken this land back into our possession, and we are going to take all peaceful steps necessary to protect the land and ensure that no one other than the Haudenosaunee are ever able to use this land,” Williams said in a statement.
Detlor says there are no structures on the property and no permanent residents, but people visit “daily.”
“Right now there’s hunting going on, there's harvesting going on, there’s planting going on,” he said.
“The land is now held in the Confederacy’s land title registry system, which has existed for something in the range of 300 years.”
But according to the provincial land title system, the property is still in Norfolk County and subject to taxation.
In a June letter to the HDI regarding a different land issue, the province recognized the hunting and fishing rights enshrined in the Nanfan Treaty, which lower courts in Ontario have affirmed.
“However, these rights are not absolute,” the province writes, saying the Crown has a “duty to consult and, where appropriate, accommodate” Indigenous communities, but only in cases where “the Crown contemplates conduct that might adversely impact established or credibly asserted Aboriginal or treaty rights.”
In the eyes of the province, Nanfan does not give the Haudenosaunee “free and undisturbed use of the land” or automatically confer ownership.
But Detlor said that approach falls short of the province’s own duty to consult on planning matters that could affect treaty rights, as set out in Ontario’
He noted the province provides tax exemptions for many types of properties, from legions and small theatres to land owned by the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides of Canada.
“Amusement park rides are exempt,” Detlor said.
“Yet the honour of the Crown, the long-standing relationship between allies, and the understanding that the Canadian Crown is supposed to be advancing the goals of reconciliation — somehow, in the context of all that, Indians don’t qualify (for tax exemption). We’re just not good enough.”
According to Detlor, the Norfolk property is one of at least eight the HDI has purchased in Norfolk, Brant and Haldimand counties. The Confederacy is not looking to add these parcels of land to the Six Nations reserve — which Detlor dismissed as “a colonial construct” — but to “hold them as we held them prior to the arrival of settlers.”
He expects this dispute in Norfolk will not be the last time the Canadian and Haudenosaunee land title systems come into conflict.
“It’s going to keep happening daily. We’re not going to stop the process of peacefully reacquiring lands,” he said.
“And we’re certainly not going to be paying taxes on those lands to any foreign governments.”
J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator