The crucial word in this report on the lawsuit brought by an Ontario couple caught in the chaos of a native protest is in the very first sentence. The corrosive strain of living through the lawless native occupation around David Brown's house in Caledonia betrayed itself in dramatic fashion: sitting in his underwear at his kitchen table with a shotgun held between his knees, keeping watch in the dark during another fearful, sleepless night, he dozed off, his hand slipping down the gun's barrel and hitting the trigger, court heard yesterday.

Lawless. The godawful life David Brown and his wife Dana Chatwell say they have endured since the spring of 2006 can be described in many ways -- appalling, unimaginable, horrific, unconscionable -- but the most critical term is lawless. In their own home, in an ordinary neighbourhood in a small town near the heart of the most populous region of the country, Brown and Chatwell say they couldn't count on the Ontario Provincial Police to enforce the law, even when violations were taking place in front of their eyes in broad daylight.

They weren't alone. Plenty of other Caledonia residents have described what happened after natives from a nearby reserve occupied a development in the town west of Hamilton and treated the hands-off attitude of the police like a licence to run wild.

Hundreds of tires were dropped across the highway, doused with gasoline and lit; a wooden bridge over railway tracks was set ablaze and allowed to burn to the ground because the fire chief did not feel the OPP could protect his men if they turned their hoses on against native orders; boxes of documents were hauled from the developer's office inside a model home on the site and tossed into a bonfire.

Brown says he was required to carry a native-issued passport and needed approval to enter his own house. When he arrived "after curfew" one day he was denied entry and jailed by the OPP when he caused trouble by ignoring the natives. He testified that he took illegal drugs to keep him awake at night to protect his family, and blew a hole in the ceiling the night he nodded off anyway and accidentally pulled the trigger.

Brown and Chatwell are seeking $7 million for the alleged refusal of the OPP and the Ontario government to protect them. That they felt they were on their own to deal with a situation of utter anarchy isn't in doubt.

Mr. Brown testified he was repeatedly threatened, his property stolen, his free passage halted, his family subjected to loud intimidation and harassment throughout the nights. Rocks and mud were thrown at them and their home, he said. None of it provoked any response by the OPP, he said.

What remains a mystery is how the province hopes to defend itself. In the years since the mayhem began the OPP has made no secret that its officers weren't about to aggravate the situation by provoking the natives. In instance after instance Caledonians complained that police stood by and watched natives violate the law. People came to believe that while they remained subject to normal legal expectations, the natives could get away with almost anything without fear of police interference

Why? Crown lawyer David Felicient told the court Monday the couple's claim "must be understood against the backdrop of the unique character of aboriginal occupations and protests." The OPP were handcuffed by the "policy implications" of negotiation and reconciliation with natives, he said.

"Policy implications." In other words, the politics of the situation. The effect of earlier confrontations with natives -- particularly at Ipperwash and Oka, was to terrify Ontario's government into a state of near paralysis. Premier Dalton McGuinty is a man heavily disposed towards confrontation avoidance. His solution to potential conflict is often to try and buy off the other party, with juicier employment contracts, for instance, or, as in this case, by buying up much of the land at dispute and letting the natives have the run of it. The McGuinty government's approach to native problems is to do as little as possible and hope it goes away. Not surprisingly, that has done little to dissuade natives from further confrontations.

So when the Caledonia crisis erupted, there was never much chance Mr. McGuinty would move aggressively against the natives, and the OPP was stuck with an impossible situation. They could move forcefully against the natives and get stuck with the blame for the almost inevitable disaster that followed, or they could stand by and avoid confrontation while the politicians ducked and weaved, searching desperately for cover.

The Browns can't be blamed for believing politics shouldn't come into it. They should be able to dwell peacefully in their home without having to sit up at night cradling a shotgun because police feel they are handcuffed by "policy implications." If they're wrong, and politics trumps the law, what's to stop any government from using "policy implications" to justify ignoring other legalities when they prove to be temporarily inconvenient?