Friday, April 25, 2008

Shawn Brant Arrested -- Again -- In Standoff

Brant's history defies bail elligibility

For those who follow relations between Canada and its aboriginal communities even passingly, Sean Brant has become a household name.

Involved in organizing last June's Aboriginal Day of Action, Brant once again took aim at his favourite target, Deseronto, Ontario.

Today, Ontario Provincial Police Officers drew their weapons when they spotted a protester with a rifle. The protesters insist they had no weapons, but prior experience -- as it pertains to Brant -- would contradict that.

"We've made no secret that we have guns within this camp," Brant told reporters during his blockade during the National Aboriginal Day of Action. Although he would be let go with a warning during the Day of Action, he would later surrender to police to face charges stemming from violation of bail conditions applied during his previous arrest for blockading CN rail lines in April 2007.

He would initially be denied bail, although that decision would later be overturned.

Brant was arrested earlier in the day. Once again, he has violated his bail conditions. Some news outlets report two officers were assaulted during the course of the arrest.

This seems to be the story of Shawn Brant's life -- arrested during the course of often-violent activism, released on bail, then re-arrested once he violates the conditions of his bail, only to be granted bail once again.

One of the earliest incidents involving Brant seems to deal with a 2002 trial wherein Brant was blamed for some property damage that took place during a protest against the Eviction of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty from their offices (the space was due to be taken over by the Metro Toronto Housing Authority).

Brant would once again draw the attention of the law in 2002, when he and his fellow Mohawk tribes invoked a Tobacco controversy.

Originating in the Akwasasne tribal council, the scheme was eventually adopted by the Kanesatake community. When the RCMP finally decided to intervene in the case of what was clearly illegally-manufactured cigarettes, Brant got involved.

"We were involved in a government intervention into the sister community of Kanesatake," Brant told the CBC. "When we were done in Kanestake, what we decided was we would utilize that same opportunity that was given to the other communities and capitalize on the tobacco resource, in order to bring about a change in Tyendinaga and facilitate the development of some infrastructure here."

"That was at the end of April 2004, the government had planned to intervene and we had taken a number of men down to intervene," Brant continues. "May 3rd was the actual day of conflict in Kanesatake."

"We bought our first cigarettes in September of 2004 from a community south of Montreal, Kahnawake, and we got into the business after that," he added. "We borrowed a few dollars to start up and took it from there."

"We purchased 20 boxes of cigarettes, which we brought up to the community and actually sold them for the same amount that we bought them for. We spoke to a number of people that we felt could benefit by utilizing the resource and so we started from there; we created a label, a design, the market based upon that label, and then we just proceeded to expand from there."

The RCMP declined to intervene so long as the Mohawk Tobacco Products were sold only on the reserve. When the tribe began selling the tobacco to non-natives who came to the reserve -- then re-selling them off-reserve -- the RCMP was forced to step in.

"I know that the government of Canada takes a very particular position - and a very specific position - on the legality of the creation of tobacco products and their distribution certainly within the Canadian state," Brant says. "There is a framework of applications, processes and approvals that govern when and how a manufacturing company can exist, so I don’t disagree that the government assessment of what we do as being not legal. But that is not the same position that we’ve taken."

Naturally, the issue of poverty reduction in Mohawk communities was raised as the motive for the scheme.

"I think that when we look at the creation of, or the base of financial independence, there needs to be a look at what resources are available within particular communities, within particular First Nations. Some have timber, some have diamonds or ore that can be taken from the ground," Brant noted. "[Because of] where we are located geographically – in southern Ontario – we have a limit to the availability of that type of resource."

What they did have to work with was a largely unenforced border through the middle of the Akwesasne reservation -- a reserve that spans from Southern Ontario into the United States -- making it possible for them to buy cigarettes in the United States (where taxes are remarkably lower) and re-sell them in Canada.

The Mohawk's objection to any Canadian attempt to regulate their scheme came down to two things: their sovereignty, and the sacredness of tobacco -- although selling tobacco for profit to non-natives for non-ritual purposes probably violated that particular cultural tenet.

The sovereignty argument also evaporated when Mohawk-branded cigarettes began to trickle into the United States via smuggling rings.

Brant's involvement in the tobacco-scheme-cum-smuggling-ring eventually blossomed into a continual cycle of arrests, bail, and bail violations resulting in further arrests.

In the end, it's hard to deliver a verdict on Shawn Brant. If anything, his greatest crime (though one would hesitate to call it that) is frustration with methods that all too often don't garner results. The long history of dealings between the Canadian government and native bands is wrought with drawn-out disputes that would frustrate anyone -- particularly people living in poverty.

At the same time, Brant's tendency to resort to what often amounts to armed insurrection cannot be ignored, either. Eventually, Shawn Brant will have to go to jail to stay. His tendency to violate bail conditions demands that the revolving door of bail be closed and locked for good.

The issues that Shawn Brant is protesting need to be resolved, but Brant should not be granted bail this time around, protests by his supporters to the contrary.

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