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Amnesty International calls for public review of police handling of Tyendinaga Mohawk protests: Key recommendations from Ipperwash Inquiry ignored

    May 31, 2011

    A new brief by Amnesty International says the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) must be held accountable for a dangerous over-reaction to land rights protests at the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory in Eastern Ontario in 2007 and 2008.

     “Our research shows that the OPP decision to deploy snipers and large numbers of other heavily armed police officers was out of proportion to any reasonable assessment of the need to protect public safety,” says Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada. “Police have a legitimate and necessary role in ensuring that protests are peaceful and stay within the law. However, an excessive police response threatens both public safety and the legitimate right to protest. An independent review is needed to get to the heart of why the OPP response at Tyendinaga went so dangerously wrong.”

    Over the last five years, community members from the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory near Belleville have carried out a series of blockades, land occupations and other protest actions in an area of land known as the Culbertson Tract.

    Although the federal government has acknowledged that the Culbertson Tract was wrongfully severed from the territory, the government has refused to correct this injustice by offering to buy back land as it becomes available. The federal and the provincial governments have both failed to protect Mohawk interests in these lands while the dispute remains unresolved.

    In June 2007 and April 2008, hundreds of OPP officers were deployed to surround and contain Mohawk protesters. These forces included members of the Tactics and Rescue Unit (TRU), commonly known as the sniper squad.

    No credible evidence has ever been brought forward to show that the protesters were armed or represented a significant threat to public safety. However, in an incident in April 2008, the situation escalated to the point that OPP officers, panicked by a false report that a rifle had been sighted, drew handguns and levelled high powered assault rifles at unarmed activists and bystanders.

    Rhonda Kunkel, the parent of one of the activists, was arrested at gunpoint when she arrived on the scene to make sure her son was okay. She recalls, “I saw police with handguns, shot-guns, machine guns or something like machine guns all pointing right at us.  I said to my husband, ‘Oh my God, what do we do now?’”

    Amnesty International first called for an independent investigation of the incident in November 2008. Provincial officials and the OPP have repeatedly refused to meet with the human rights organization to discuss these concerns.

    Larry Hay, the former Chief of Police of the Tyendinaga Mohawk Police Service states, “Police have an obligation to ensure the safety of everyone involved in or affected by protests, including bystanders and the protesters themselves. The decision to deploy snipers against the Mohawk protesters is just one example of a readiness to use lethal force that has never been adequately explained.”

    Although police laid 100 charges against 19 individuals involved in the Tyendinaga protests, the court found that only one of these charges was serious enough to warrant time in jail. Even then, the sentence was only for a single day.

    A provincial inquiry into the police killing of Dudley George at Ipperwash Provincial Park in 1995 called for the adoption of a province-wide peacekeeping policy affirming that the use of force in response to Aboriginal occupations and protests is a last resort to be used only as necessary to protect lives and safety.  The Inquiry noted that such a policy would not shield protesters from criminal charges if they break the law, but noted that arrests should be carried out “when it is neither dangerous nor needlessly provocative to do so.”

    The Ipperwash Inquiry also called for an independent evaluation of the implementation of the OPP’s own official policy of ensuring the minimal use of force in response to "Aboriginal Critical Incidents.”

    These recommendations have yet to be implemented.

    The new brief by Amnesty International also notes that the failure to ensure a fair and timely resolution of the outstanding dispute over the Culbertson Tract has been detrimental both to the Mohawk people and to the current landowners and promoted tension between them.

    Beth Berton-Hunter,

    Media Relations,

    Amnesty International Canada

    416-363-9933, ext. 332