By 3 p.m. yesterday, the Michigan Soo Wal-Mart was "full of brown faces," says Batchewana First Nation Chief Dean Sayers. "It was a really good turn-out and I was glad to see it." Yesterday afternoon, citizens of Batchewana and Garden River First Nations formed a convoy as they returned from a shopping trip to Michigan as part of a demonstration against the harmonized sales tax.
That convoy stretched for more than a mile and slowed traffic to a crawl when the lead end of it arrived at the Canadian border crossing.
A school bus with Chief Sayers on board arrived at the bridge plaza just in time for him to witness a confrontation between an elder and a Canada Customs official.
The customs agent, Chief Sayers says, was telling her that she had to go inside the plaza with her receipts and that she might have to pay duty on her purchases.
He told her that, if she didn't comply, her vehicle could be seized.
As Sayers recounts the story, the elder told him that asking her to do that was a violation of Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
"I'm not going in there and I'm not paying duty," Sayers heard her tell the customs officer.
"Just ask him," she said pointing at the chief.
"I'm supporting her," he said.
Chief Sayers then walked into the bridge plaza building at about 3:25 p.m., telling the Batchewana and Garden River citizens already there that they were shutting down the bridge.
They followed him to the bus, where he gathered more citizens.
When people waiting in their cars in the convey saw fellow citizens joining hands and walking out across all four lanes of traffic, they left their vehicles and joined the line.
In all, more than 50 people held hands for almost an hour and a half, illuminated by headlights of vehicles that were lined up all the way over the bridge, almost to the U.S. Customs plaza, the chief was later told.
Sault Ste. Marie Police were called to the scene.
Chief Sayers says he called the OPP to ask that the Aboriginal relations team (ART) attend because he and his citizens felt their safety was in jeopardy.
"We were feeling like our safety was compromised by these uninformed municipal police forces and we were feeling very harassed," Sayers said.
But ART's official response to him was that it could only attend if invited by the municipal police, whom Sayers argued were out of their jurisdiction at the Canadian border crossing.
Sayers says he was told by Canadian border crossing officials that they had been directed by their superiors to inspect whatever vehicles they felt it necessary to inspect and to charge duty on all goods coming into the country where appropriate.
"We are not Canadian citizens," Chief Sayers said. "Nor are we citizens of the United States. We are a sovereign nation and your attempts to tax us or charge us duty are illegal under your own laws."
Chris Kealey, Northern Ontario spokesman for Canadian Border Services Agency, was asked by SooToday.com to provide CBSA's side of this story.
As of 9 a.m. Tuesday, he had not returned our call.
After the blockade went on for about an hour, Canada Customs relented.
By 4:45 p.m., Batchewana and Garden River First Nation citizens began to leave without paying duty on their purchases and no charges were laid against them.
By 5 p.m., traffic was flowing normally off the International Bridge in Sault Ste. Marie.
But there were was no indication of what future actions may be taken by customs officials, said Sayers.
"Canada has made a commitment to meet with us in the near future," he told SooToday.com. "We'll work out the details."
But working out the details of who should and shouldn't be charged duty by no means addresses the underlying reason for yesterday's demonstration, Sayers said.
"We're not trying to penalize local merchants," he said. "We want them to realize we're serious about protecting our rights."
Chief Sayers likened the situation to a car loan.
"Just because an agreement is old doesn't mean it's no good anymore," he said. "If you buy a car, it doesn't matter how long your term is, if you stop making your payments someone is going to come and take it back."
Sayers said the 10,000 to 15,000 citizens of Batchewana and Garden River living in this area contribute about 20 percent of the money spent in shops and on services in Sault Ste. Marie and Algoma District.
They want those merchants and the people of Sault Ste. Marie to help carry their message to Sault MPP David Orazietti and Algoma-Manitoulin MPP Mike Brown, telling them to stop trying to say the HST isn't up to them and to honour their treaties.
"Members of the Senate told us they can't go against their colleagues in the House and refuse to pass the HST, but they could and did write a very strongly worded memo to the Ontario government recommending it continue to honour our treaty right to a tax-exempt status," Sayers said. "Ontario has had this ability to make to make this change all along."
Anishinabe of Ontario have opposed the HST since the concept was first introduce, describing it as a breach of a legal contract between the owners of this land and its visitors.
"The Canadian government has dismissed the reality that one sovereign nation cannot tax another," Sayers said in an earlier news release.
When we spoke to Sayers late last night, he was on his way to a meeting with other chiefs in the region to plan more strategies.
The two main items on their agenda were how to deal with the HST in Ontario and how to address Canada Border Services' treatment of their citizens.
Sayers said he felt that yesterday's demonstration was partially successful in that it drew more attention to the issue of HST as a treaty violation.
But he was disappointed in the lack of response from both the OPP and the Ontario government.
Sayers said he felt yesterday's activity demonstrated that Batchewana and Garden River First Nations rights under the Jay Treaty to travel throughout North America without harassment or molestation needs to be recognized.
He believes the demonstration has set in motion a chain of events that he hopes will result in a realization of those particular rights.
Earlier SooToday.com coverage of this story
Anishinabek chiefs stand firm against HST One hour of inconvenience today. More coming (17 photos) Anishinabek Nation leader draws line in the sand over HST HST protest snarls traffic in downtown Toronto Ontario passes HST: Chief Dean Sayers HST: Regional Chief IDay, Grand Council Chief Madahbee Anishinabe: Oppress us with HST? We'll shop in the USA! Local Christmas shopping boycott spreads province wide Protesters close International Bridge for about 75 minutes