CALEDONIA Michael Corrado finds himself between the proverbial rock and hard place.
The rock is 1492 Land Back Lane, the year-long occupation of a Caledonia construction site that abuts his property.
The hard place, according to the Ancaster-based developer, is the government’s unwillingness to do anything about an Indigenous land rights dispute that has prompted the cancellation of two builds in Caledonia and dimmed the prospects for Corrado’s own project.
“We are in limbo right now,” said Corrado, who with his business partners owns 83 acres in between what would have been the McKenzie and Douglas Creek Estates subdivisions.
Corrado’s property was to be the next phase in the McKenzie build, which was recently abandoned by Foxgate Developments.
These days, however, his land is used by land defenders as safe passage between McKenzie Road and the former Douglas Creek lands, which are now known as Kanonhstaton and remain occupied by Six Nations members.
“They built a road on our property. They’re trespassing on our property,” Corrado said.
“We complained to the OPP, but they’re not going to do anything,” he added, referring to a court injunction that bars anyone not authorized by Foxgate from being on the McKenzie property.
“If they do make an arrest, they catch and release, and they do it off-site,” Corrado said.
Corrado was one of the original purchasers of the McKenzie lands in 2003. The county and province approved his company’s plans for a subdivision originally named McKenzie Meadows. In 2015, Corrado’s company sold the 25 acres closest to McKenzie Road to Losani Homes and Ballantry Homes — the companies behind Foxgate — and the project was rebranded as The McKenzie.
With Foxgate cancelling all contracts and refunding homebuyers’ deposits in late June, Corrado is unlikely to break ground on his half of the project any time soon. The same goes for Ballantry, which owns land east of the McKenzie site that is slated to become a large subdivision.
But the occupation has not slowed other builds in Haldimand. There are 14 subdivisions at various stages of development in the county, including several major builds in and around Caledonia encompassing over 2,000 residential units in total.
“We’ve got a significant amount of development occurring (and) a significant amount of development that’s in the pipeline,” said Haldimand chief administrative officer Craig Manley.
“As it stands right now, all indications are that most of the people who have invested and made development applications are continuing to proceed with them.”
Manley said the county was “disappointed” but not surprised when Foxgate pulled the plug on the McKenzie build after the lengthy occupation, adding he sympathizes with homebuyers who “have had their lives dramatically disrupted.”
“We feel bad for them, because there’s nothing you can point to that was fundamentally wrong with the steps that the developer took,” Manley said.
Haldimand-Norfolk MPP Toby Barrett said following the rules is no guarantee of success in Caledonia.
“We’ve seen this movie before, with Douglas Creek Estates 15 years ago,” Barrett said. “Regrettably, with any issues around Caledonia, some things are predictable. My advice to the county would’ve been to not provide a permit to go forward to build (on McKenzie).”
Corrado is no stranger to the land claims issue, as previous builds of his in Cayuga were challenged by the Haudenosaunee Development Institute (HDI) and land rights activists from Six Nations.
In 2008, he successfully petitioned for a Superior Court injunction against a group protesting a 44-unit townhouse project. Corrado said the townhouses eventually “sold at a much lower price based on that blockade.”
In the years following the Douglas Creek occupation in 2006, some housing developments proceeded in Caledonia with minimal or no interruption from land defenders. So Corrado thought he was in the clear when he moved to develop the McKenzie property, which those at Land Back Lane say is unceded Haudenosaunee territory.
Corrado rejects that view and says he has the documents to prove it.
“We have the original surrender, when the Six Nations chiefs sold this property to the Crown, with all the chiefs’ signatures. All these lands were properly surrendered and sold,” he said. “If the money that Six Nations received was misappropriated, that’s a different story. That’s an accounting issue. But they have no claim on the land.”
The Haudenosaunee Confederacy Chiefs Council — the hereditary leadership on Six Nations — says it has documents proving the McKenzie land was not surrendered, while a lawsuit launched by the elected council in 1995 seeks an accounting from Ottawa of the various land transactions within the Haldimand Tract.
In April, the Confederacy declared a moratorium on development within the Haldimand Tract unless builders and governments first consult with the HDI.
“If we don’t have someone to sit down and talk to about development and where and how it’s going to proceed, then obviously, we’re pushed in the position of saying, ‘OK, we’re going to stop all development,’” said HDI representative Aaron Detlor.
“It doesn’t make any sense to come to us after the fact and say, ‘We’ve approved a development, now can we talk about your interests?’”
Those who ignore the moratorium and try to build should expect a repeat of what happened on McKenzie Road, Detlor added.
“I think any developer has to take seriously the risk of developing on what’s clearly stolen land,” he said.
Corrado remains frustrated by the apparent lack of political will to resolve a dispute that encompasses not just Caledonia, but land alongside the full length of the Grand River from north of Fergus to Lake Erie.
“There’s no politician in the world who’s going to wade into this hot water. Nobody wants to touch it, especially now,” said Corrado.
“Caledonia is evidently expendable and has become the sacrificial lamb, because it is geographically convenient to blockade. But Kitchener-Waterloo, Cambridge, Brantford, Paris are all part of the same land dispute.”
Manley said the long occupation at Land Back Lane, like Douglas Creek before it, has affected Haldimand’s reputation as a place to do business.
“Clearly, it’s not helpful,” the chief administrative officer said.
“Because of some of the reputational implications, we are putting a lot of energy and effort into promoting Haldimand — and I think successfully — as a place that is welcoming for investment and for tourists, and we’re going to continue to do.”
He echoed Corrado’s call for senior levels of government to “deal with” land claims and address “historical injustices to the Indigenous community.”
“They need to step up,” Manley said of federal and provincial officials. “So that for everyone involved, we have clarity around what’s going to happen and what’s not going to happen, and so that we don’t end up 10 years from now having another situation.”
Nearly two decades of frustration have not driven Corrado out of Caledonia.
“Absolutely not. We want to develop there. We have to keep pushing,” he said.
Realistically, he added, his only option now is to hold onto the McKenzie land and hope for the best.
“We have no choice,” Corrado said. “Who’s going to buy that land while it’s occupied?”
J.P. Antonacci is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter based at the Hamilton Spectator. The initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.