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Caledonia's forgotten family a symbol of national shame


October 11, 2008
Globe & Mail

On Tuesday last, the Ontario government introduced something called the Apology Act, legislation that would make it easier for public institutions and those who work in them, but particularly health professionals, to say they're sorry for mistakes without fear of legal consequences.

I understand the purpose, but my first reaction was a snort of derision: Only in Canada - and, if passed, Ontario would be the fourth Canadian province to enact such a law - is the great poet Alexander Pope rewritten to read: "To err is human, to apologize divine."

Then I talked to Dave Brown of Caledonia again, about a year after I first spoke to him, and changed my mind.

Now, I hope this sucker passes fast, because then Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty and the present and former commissioners of the Ontario Provincial Police (Julian Fantino, who inherited the mess from his predecessor Gwen Boniface), and all of those who have so betrayed Dave and his family can get down on bended knee, publicly lash themselves and cry to the heavens how sorry they are.

The background in a nutshell: Dave and his wife Dana Chatwell and their teenage son Dax have the extraordinary misfortune of living in a house - Dana's childhood home - on Argyle Street South in Caledonia, immediately next to the now-notorious ex-housing development called Douglas Creek Estates.

It was this piece of land, part of a long-simmering Six Nations land claim, that was in February of 2006 first taken over under a Mohawk Warrior banner, occupied illegally until Mr. McGuinty's government kindly bought out the poor developer and purchased the land for about $12-million, and which now has turned into an effective policing no-go zone, an adult version of the "home free" tree you touch in a game of hide-and-seek.

On April 20 that year, the first native barricades went up and stayed up for six weeks, a period during which the Browns were issued native "passports" and subjected to arbitrary searches as they tried to go home, and arbitrary native-imposed curfews.

DCE, as everyone calls it, continues to be patrolled like a military camp, with natives shining spotlights into the Brown home and fires burning most nights at the one remaining house (and adjacent trailer) on the occupied land. The family has lived for two years plus under general intimidation - by natives driving past on patrol and making their hands into a gun, or yelling - and on occasion subjected to specific threats.

Much of this conduct has occurred under the noses of OPP officers, and what hasn't been witnessed has been reported to them. While top government officials pooh-pooh the notion that the police aren't policing, almost anyone in Caledonia knows otherwise, and can cite dates, times and specific incidents as evidence.

I know cops; I know that their first inclination is to act, particularly to protect the vulnerable, such as women and children. To stand by runs contrary to every bone in a police officer's body. My conclusion is that if there haven't been formal directives to turn a blind eye to native criminal conduct, these marching orders (or rather non-marching orders) have nonetheless been absorbed by the officers on the ground from their superiors and by the government. The message to avoid confrontation with native lawbreakers at all costs, to go onto DCE only in the most exigent circumstances, has been sent and received.

The family has been utterly decimated - emotionally and financially - by all this.

In the fall of 2005, they were a functioning, happy and perfectly ordinary household - Dave with a good job as a forklift operator, Dana with a thriving hair salon on the lower level of their then-new home. Now they are ruined. Dave lost his job and understands why - he couldn't function, was short with people, was forever being called home because Dana was scared. She lost her business; odd how no one would come to a war zone for a haircut.

Dax has been sent away for his safety no fewer than 38 times, sometimes for months and sometimes for a weekend, whenever tensions rose such that his folks were frightened for him.

Each of them still keeps a small bag, packed and ready to go, by the front door - just in case.

Dave hasn't slept more than seven nights in their bed; he dozes off on the couch instead, where he can be ready to respond to intruders (the house has been broken into and trashed once), where he can calm the growling dog, where he can be alert to any threat to those he loves.

They sometimes drink too much. Their complete helplessness, their abandonment by all who are sworn to serve and protect them, consumes them.

Dave, whose entire medical records before February of 2006 consisted of a handful of visits for a sore throat, a rash and the like, who was known to his friends as the remarkably capable and amiable "Brownie," has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Psychologist Lisa Keith, who examined the family as part of their lawsuit against the government, wrote in her Dec. 20, 2007, report that they would suffer more with each passing day they spend in that house, under siege.

That was almost a year ago.

Government lawyers, and thus presumably the government, have had this report for almost a year. It has not moved them a whit. For almost a year, the government has done nothing to help them.

I think, through no fault of his own, Dave Brown has become the symbol of our country's failure to come to terms with aboriginal people, of Ontario's inability to deal with Caledonia, of Ottawa's to settle land claims. Collectively, we are paralyzed; our leaders don't know what to do, how to do it. We are ashamed, perhaps properly. No one wants to be reminded of failure and shame. And so no one in power will look at what has happened to Dave Brown. No one will listen. No one will answer.

It is every bit as much of a disgrace as the unsettled land claims, the broken promises, the reserves where natives live in despair. This man has been cast to the wolves by his government, his only crime to have bought the wrong house, in the wrong place.