TORONTO - Ontario taxpayers have shelled out $50 million and counting for costs associated with the two-year aboriginal occupation of a housing development in Caledonia, including almost $500,000 to pay for the aboriginal negotiating team.

The bulk of the costs stem from the round-the-clock policing, now pegged at $35 million and rising, according to government figures quietly posted on the province's website.

Although the federal government provided more than $26 million to help Ontario bear the costs of the occupation, provincial taxpayers have paid $50 million on top of that, including almost $500,000 for the aboriginal negotiating team that has been meeting for two years to resolve the dispute.

The province has spent a further $3.5 million on help for businesses and residents in Haldimand County and another $3.3 million on its own negotiation costs, expenses and Brantford office. Another $6.9-million cheque was sent to the former owners of the disputed land, Henco, and other builders.

While opposition critics say the occupation is "savaging taxpayers,'' Aboriginal Affairs Minister Michael Bryant said negotiation is still much cheaper than litigation down the road.

"The cost of policing is the cost of keeping the peace,'' Bryant said. "We can either spend 10 times this amount in the courts and the lawyers are the big winners, or we can try and negotiate a resolution that will avoid the extremely damaging and expensive economic costs that come with confrontation.''

The province isn't hiding the cost of the dispute, Bryant added. After several requests from the media for cost breakdowns, the Liberals have posted the tally online and will continue to provide quarterly updates, Bryant said.

Although the occupation has dragged out over two years with little progress at the negotiating table, Bryant said he's feeling more optimistic now than when he started. Having met numerous times with Six Nations representatives, Bryant said he's looking forward to a time when the dispute is resolved by a negotiated settlement and the community can get on with healing.

But Progressive Conservative Leader John Tory said the Liberals appear to be throwing precious taxpayer dollars at the dispute rather than enforcing the rule of law and finding a speedy resolution.

"What's happening here is the lawyers and other negotiators are making scads of money here at the taxpayers' expense when we can't afford it and it's really not expediting things by a minute,'' Tory said. "It's just part of the same scandal. It is savaging the taxpayers.''

Although he called the $50-million figure "incredible,'' Tory said he believes the total bill for the occupation is even bigger. The Liberals are adept at hiding costs within other ministries, he said.

"I think it's grossly underestimating the true cost,'' he said. "It's a fraud and when we add up everything, they'll have been found to be misleading the public.''

NDP Leader Howard Hampton said the Liberals have no one to blame but themselves for the hefty bill being handed to taxpayers. They should have acted quickly to resolve the concerns of Six Nations three years ago before the dispute ever boiled over into an occupation, he said.

"That's what happens when you have a government that doesn't have a plan, that doesn't have a goal and objective,'' he said. "You simply end up talking and talking and policing and policing. It costs a lot of money and it doesn't get anywhere.''

Six Nations protesters have occupied the former housing development site in Caledonia since February 2006, saying the land was stolen from them by the Crown more than 200 years ago.