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Five uneasy questions about the Oregon militia standoff

By Pieta Woolley

On Jan. 2, a group of armed militia members broke away from a peaceful protest in Burns, Ore., taking over the headquarters building in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. They’re led by the Bundys, a family of ranchers originally from Nevada. The issues: the surprise enforcement of mandatory minimum sentences on two local ranchers, Dwight Hammond Jr., and his son Steven, and unwanted federal regulation of land.

Set aside, if you will, the culture clash elements of this story. The gun mindset, anti-government rhetoric and cowboy hats aren't helping Torontonians or Vancouverites give these guys the benefit of the doubt. Nor are the wittier Twitter hashtags, such as #yallqueda or — my favourite — #vanillaisis.

This unfolding story offers at least five challenging questions worth contemplating. 

1. Will non-aboriginal North Americans ever stop being considered settlers?

In the U.S., it's called Federal Land. In Canada, it's called Crown Land. Social Media has done a nice job of pointing out that the land is available to ranch – with a license – because it was taken by force from the Moapa Tribe. And the progressive analysis is, because the ranchers are settlers — non-aboriginal North Americans — they have no inherent claim to use the land. But until relatively recently, the vast swaths of Oregon's backcountry were administered with a much lighter hand — and had been settled for nearly 200 years by squatter-farmers. The land was open for public use. In effect, the Oregon action is a quasi-land claim by "white people" with a deep connection to the region and their ranching heritage. So is this totally unreasonable?  

2. Should the principal of religious tolerance cover this action?

America and Canada were largely settled by Europeans fleeing religious persecution: the French Huguenots, the English Puritans, the Russian and Ukrainian Mennonites, etc.. So freedom of religion is a foundational value. Still, as Jon Krakauer points out in Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, the Bundys were likely inspired into action by the anti-government fundamentalist Mormonism that flourishes in the rural West: “The government ha[s] no right to require American citizens to obtain any kind of license, or pay taxes, or submit to the oppressive burden of a Social Security number.”

“I had come to realize," [the book's subject,] Dan [Lafferty] says, "that a license was simply an agreement with the government to let them have control of your life. And I decided I didn't want them to have control of my life. . . .  already had a basic right to enjoy all of the basic activities of a human being, without their permission." At what point does freedom of religion end?

3. Should this action spell the end of mandatory minimums?

In Oregon, the district court judge who sentenced Dwight and Steve Hammond for illegally burning federal land — perhaps accidentally, and perhaps not — gave them a month and a year respectively (instead of the mandatory minimum of five years) because the full sentence "would shock the conscious." The U.S. Court of Appeals intervened three years later, and gave them the full five years, for which they reported on Jan. 4. As this story in The Atlantic points out, along with an inset video of a John Oliver monologue, this standoff might unite the left and right against mandatory minimum sentences. If it does and they’re successful, it will be because of two middle-aged, relatively wealthy white men, not the thousands of racialized and poor citizens who endure such sentences.

4. What does it take to change a law?

Over the past several years, 11 Western state governments have introduced laws that push back against the increasing federal regulation of public lands. Utah even passed a law demanding that the federal government leave the land there by the end of 2014. But nothing happened. And with that lack of response from "the system," taking up guns against the federal government appears to be logical and within the original intent of constitutional rights. An America that depends on armed standoffs to change laws, though? Yikes.

5. What does this have to do with Canada?

As Canada negotiates its new relationship with First Nations in the midst of major resource development, we're also facing conflict about what happens on Crown Land and in the ocean: who's in charge and who's rights trump who's. Under Stephen Harper, Canada introduced mandatory minimum sentences for the first time. Canada also struggles with the limits of religious tolerance, such as intervention in the Bountiful community. What’s more, Canada has its own small-scale versions of violent rural conflict over public land use, such as the B.C. pipeline bombings of 2008 and 2009. In other words, the themes running through the Bundy standoff may seem foreign, but they remind us of how similar we are north of the border.

Author's photo
Pieta Woolley is a writer in Powell River, B.C.
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