Riaz Sayani-Mulji (1L)
When I reflect on settler colonialism in Canada, its different aspects come to mind, like land dispossession, destruction of the Earth and animals, broken treaties, eugenics, slavery, residential schools, medical experiments, over-policing and incarceration, disproportionate apprehension of First Nations’ youth by CAS/CCAS, missing and murdered indigenous women….the list goes on. But in opposition to the genocide inflicted by successive Canadian governments has been the resistance of this land’s original peoples. Within this continuing resistance to the Canadian state are the actions of one Ojibway woman, Darlene Decan.
Darlene is a member of the Ojibway Nation of Saugeen, whose reserve is located in northern Ontario. A community plagued by homelessness, and experiencing homelessness herself, Darlene took matters into her own hands and built a log cabin on her family’s trapline (a trapline is a “mapped” line in the bush that families would place snares and traps around to sustain themselves through the winter), 20 km south and outside the boundaries of the reserve. It’s not the first time she’s engaged in direct action to combat homelessness in her nation – two years ago, she led a group in building a cabin for a 74 year-old elder who was living in a chicken barn. After finishing the cabin, Darlene and six others experiencing homelessness walked to Ottawa to show they were upset with the government’s indifference and wanted change.
As Darlene put it, “We can’t just sit and wait for Indian Affairs to do this by their rules. We cannot do that anymore. We have to stand up on our own feet.”
However, the Ontario government wasn’t appreciative of Darlene building a home for herself, as the Ministry of Natural Resources charged her with breaches of the Public Lands Act, with potential fines of $10 000 and $1000 for each successive time she is caught building on the land her family once lived on.
A similar case arose in 2003 involving a couple of the Aroland First Nation attempting to build a hunting cabin on Ogoki Lake’s Comb Island, part of their traditional territory. The Ontario Court of Justice ruled that this right was protected under Treaty 9, and the province gave up the fight.
On November 8th, a legal fundraiser for Darlene was held at the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto, organized by No More Silence, Muskrat Magazine, Idle No More Toronto, the Anti-Colonial Committee of the Law Union of Ontario and CUPE 3903 First Nations Solidarity Working Group. The event also sought donations of clothing and blankets for the Mishkeegogamang First Nation, and the U of T Law Union donated items we collected in the law lounge in the weeks prior to the event.
Darlene spoke powerfully to the crowd of over 200 people in attendance, sharing her story and the struggles she’s faced that culminated in building her log cabin. Darlene also touched upon the connections between violence against indigenous women and poverty, as housing is an essential feature to safety. There have been roughly 1200 police-recorded instances of missing and murdered indigenous women from 1980-2012, and these cases are increasing in rate.
Listening to Darlene’s story, I was in awe of her strength and courage in continuing to fight for her community, despite everything the Canadian state has thrown at her. Regardless of whether the courts will hold that Darlene family’s traditional land is now property of the Crown and that any right to build a cabin is extinguished – which of course is a whole issue in and of itself – it’s hard to reconcile on one hand a government and Premier claiming to be committed to “social justice” and caring about things like housing and violence against women, and on the other hand taking legal action against an Ojibway woman experiencing homelessness and resultantly trying to build herself a home.
Darlene will be back in court on January 22nd to set a trial date. For folks interested in supporting the cause, you can donate online here https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/for-one-strong-lady-darlene-necan.