Massena Town Supervisor Joseph Gray has apologized for calling an Idle No More protest that shut down the Seaway International Bridge between New York state and the Province of Ontario on January 5 “pointless” and “foolish.” Protests are legitimate, he said in an apology in a new blog entry; he just wishes that future protests won’t shut down the bridge and inconvenience people.
Gray’s apology may be too little, too late to the countless Mohawk Indians who posted responses saying his comments were racist and insulting. Gray shared his thoughts three days after the January 5 Idle No More protest that closed the International Bridge between Massena, New York, and Cornwall, Ontario, for five hours. His blog entry is called Pointless Bridge-Closing Protests Must Stop. The protest drew 300-400 exuberant Mohawk Indians from both sides of the St. Lawrence River onto the International Bridge for several hours of marching, singing, drumming and a round dance at a highway roundabout on the Canadian side of the imposed international border. Dozens of Idle No More protests have swept across Canada, the United States, Europe, the Middle East and as far away as New Zealand and Japan over the past month in support of indigenous rights.
The Idle No More movement originally protested the passage by the Canadian legislature of bill C-45, a draconian law that violates treaties with First Nations and makes it easier for multinational corporations to purchase, exploit and degrade indigenous lands without any consultation, let alone the “free, prior and informed consent” and other requirements of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. But since then it has grown into a peaceful grassroots social justice movement that aims to raise consciousness and understanding of indigenous sovereignty and the urgent need to protect the environment. The movement ultimately seeks to bring about profound social, political and economic change locally and globally.
In his January 8 blog posting, Gray wrote, “Once again, law-abiding travellers [sic] between Massena and Cornwall, Ontario, have been harassed and inconvenienced by another pointless protest closing traffic on the Seaway International Bridge” – implying that the protesters were not law-abiding. “The time has come for U.S., Canadian and Mohawk authorities to stop this foolishness,” he says.
Massena Mayor James F. Hidy, who is one of Mr. Gray’s allies in the matter, according to the Massena Daily Courier, also criticized the Mohawk protest. “I think shutting down the bridge is wrong. No one else should have to be inconvenienced (because of) another person’s protests,” Hidy said. “There has to be some other means (through which) they can get their point across, by using good nature, good dialogue and good judgment.” Hidy has not apologized for his comments.
Apparently uninformed of the announcement on January 4 that Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper had acquiesced to a demand by Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence to meet with First Nations leaders, Gray claimed that the Idle No More protest did nothing more than “ticking off drivers.” Spence vowed to continue the hunger strike she began on December 11 unless the meeting between the prime minister and First Nations leaders took place. That meeting did take place on January 11, but Spence boycotted it because Canada’s Governor-General David Johnson, the British Crown’s representative, did not attend.
“Why must we tolerate them? Why do authorities tolerate them?” he continued. “If I get a hundred people together to close the bridge in protest of bridge-closing protests will I be arrested and taken off to jail?” Gray asked, posing a hypothetical protest of a bridge-closing as equivalent to dozens of real protests against broken treaties, the expropriation of indigenous lands and resources, and the abject poverty of some First Nations communities.
Excluding himself from authorities he said “are hesitant to stop the Mohawk-sponsored protests for fear of being called racists,” Gray called for residents “to come together and say we've had enough of the disruptions to our business, our pleasure, our daily lives.”
Then, in a display of mind-reading ability, Gray wrote that “Most people can't tell you what any of these protests are about. In fact, some of the protesters probably don't really know why they are closing a bridge and what they hope to achieve. I don't make these comments out of hatred or because of any bias. I am simply appealing to reasonable adults in our communities to do the right thing and say we will not tolerate these disruptions in the future. There are plenty of other means of expressing your viewpoint.”
Gray’s blog posting had the buoyancy of a lead balloon. Within two days, it drew more than 160 comments, many of which were critical of him. Ron LeFrance, one of the three chiefs of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, posted a comment a day after Gray’s blog appeared. “It’s too bad you know so little about your neighbors and the struggles we face to survive as Mohawk people,” LaFrance wrote. LaFrance and Sub-Chief Eric Thompson attended the Idle No More protest. “The foolishness you refer to is what we refer to as STANDING up for our rights, something that has been taken away from you without you even realizing it,” LaFrance wrote. “These foolish people you are referring to keep your little excuse for a town afloat. If it wasn't for the people and businesses of Akwesasne, Massena would have dried up a long time ago. I don't know why we keep your economy from drying up when we hear and read crap like this. Malone is not that far away, think about it blow hole!”
Several comments were angry, with accusations of racism tossed back and forth between Mohawks and non-Indians; others threatened to boycott Massena businesses.
On January 10, Gray posted another blog entry called ‘I’ll Apologize And Hope You’ll Accept It.” He apologized to “all of my Mohawk neighbors and others who were offended by my post about the bridge closing.” He said it wasn’t his intention to upset people or criticize the Idle No More movement or the opposition to Bill C-45. “I simply hoped that in the future we could find a better way to state a protest than to shut down the bridge,” he says. He hoped the controversy hasn’t caused him to lose any of his Mohawk friends.
Gray’s apology drew 70 comments in one day. A few writers accepted Gray’s apology unequivocally, but most expressed skepticism, anger or sadness. “I accept your apology. However, I cannot speak for everyone. There have been too many other similar instances,” one writer said. “Too many of my people have been subjected to blatant racism, and there is only so much one can take. It wasn't just your original post, but the comments also. Although a lot of my brothers and sisters also brought it. It is just so disheartening, that in this time and age, so much hatred is still there.”