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Colonialism and Kanehsatake

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Issue: 21 Section: Original Peoples Geography: Quebec Kanehsatake Topics: colonialism, Indigenous

August 25, 2004

Colonialism and Kanehsatake

Are dispossession and forced integration ongoing?

by Kim Petersen

Mohawk community members stand guard after forcing James Gabriel and his police force to leave.

The Mohawk Nation in Kanehsatake in southern Quebec is the site of a long, simmering dispute-a dispute that has deep implications for Mohawk and First Nations sovereignty, and which calls into question the Canadian Government's commitment to ending its legacy of residential schools, forced integration, and dispossession. The Mohawks' ability to determine and control their own economy, security, justice system, and ruling structure is at stake. The focus of the conflict is a stealthy land transfer carried out under the auspices of James Gabriel, Grand Chief of the Mohawk Council of Kanehsatake.

The year following the Oka crisis of 1990, Gabriel began talks with the federal officials to secure lands purchased for Kanehsatake. At this time, Gabriel made concessions, unbeknown to the people of Kanehsatake, which led to Bill S-24, the "Kanehsatake Land Based Governance Act."

Gabriel signed Bill S-24 in secret and called for a referendum to ratify the Act, allegedly without informing the Mohawk community of the details. Under these conditions, the referendum vote passed by a slim margin of 239 to 237.

Mohawk journalist Dan David describes the details: "Chief Gabriel signed the agreement that transferred $14 million worth of land purchased by the federal government to the control of a private corporation–not the band–called Kanesatake Orihwa'shon: a Development Corporation." Mohawk lands would be converted into "fee simple" estates, Mohawks would lose their tax-exempt status, and band by-laws would be harmonized with the by-laws of Oka–a municipalization of Kanehsatake, and an end to meaningful sovereignty.

In January 2004 Canadian authorities began funding a 60-man police militia, under the control of Gabriel. This militia was accused by the Mohawk Council of Kanehsatake of "actively provoking incidences on the Territory," such as attempts "to run community volunteer patrol drivers off the road." The residents of Kanehsatake rebelled, surrounded the police station, and ousted what they called the "invasive" police force. Some of the dissenters, provoked by the police use of tear gas against them, responded by torching Gabriel's house. Warrants were subsequently issued for the arrest of many Kanehsatake dissidents.

Particular members of Gabriel's police force, brought in from outside the community, had incurred the enmity of Kanehsatake residents. Among them was non-Native Richard Walsh, a criminal with a previous conviction for impersonating a police officer. Two other policemen, Terry Isaac and Larry Ross, led a police operation in 1999 that resulted in the shooting and paralysis of Mohawk Warrior Joe David, who has since passed away.

In February of this year, journalist Ross Montour asked Gabriel why he brought Isaac and Ross back into the community despite their checkered past in Kanehsatake. Gabriel's verbatim reply was, "Well Ross, history aside, those people [i.e., what Gabriel calls the "criminal element" in Kanehsatake] know that when those two men were there, they kicked a lot of doors in." Montour considered this a "rather chilling statement for any leader to make."

Concerned community members subsequently assumed responsibility for patrolling the territory of Kanehsatake and remaining vigilant for outside police seeking to enter the community uninvited. On August 9, Kanehsatake Interim Chief of Police David Thompson, much appreciated by the community, resigned in a "last ditch effort to force both the governments of Canada and Quebec to respect their word and provide the safety" of the community.

A twice-elected Grand Chief, Gabriel was removed from office by a non-confidence vote of 207 to 130. A Canadian court overturned this decision. Justice Daniele Tremblay-Lamer found the exclusion of non-resident Mohawks from voting to be discriminatory and the vote to be contrary to the Election Code.

This is, however, a Canadian court ruling on a Mohawk Nation matter. As Kanehsatake Chief John Harding points out: "To begin to have an understanding of the current situation in Kanehsatake, one must first appreciate the two fundamental differences between governance in a Mohawk Community, and governance in non-native society."

"Primarily, what is important to understand about governance in Kanehsatake is that the people, not the Chiefs, are the final authority on all matters relating to ourselves and our territory."

"Secondly, decisions taken by the community on important issues must be exercised with responsibility. Decisions must be reached by consensus, not by a slight majority vote."

Nonetheless, at a subsequent election Gabriel gained three more supporters on the council. Montour: "This gave him [Gabriel] both quorum and a superior voting bloc, one which has enabled him to move forward his agenda as he pleases."

Montour cites the opposition argument that Gabriel possesses a mailing list of all off-territory members, which he exploits by manipulating the image of Kanehsatake for his own ends.

According to Montour, two issues make this possible:

One is the failure of the Council to draft and adopt a membership code defining who is and is not a member of the Mohawks of Kanehsatake. The other is modifying the electoral code, which, among other things, defines who may and may not vote in the community's elections. The two are tied together. Those who live in the community and oppose Gabriel argue that only those people who live in the community and know the issues should be allowed to vote.

The conditions and date of the next election are currently the subject of a court battle.

Some also contend that their sovereignty has been undermined by an enforced reliance on federal money. Many Mohawks have sought to establish economic independence by building their own businesses, including the growing and selling of their own tax-free tobacco, staunchly opposed by the federal government. Under Gabriel, the band budget had accumulated a deficit of over $1 million by 2003. The Department of Indian Affairs seized upon this to unilaterally place Kanehsatake under financial trusteeship of PriceWaterhouseCoopers. The PriceWaterhouseCoopers trusteeship saw Kanehsatake plunge deeper into the red with the deficit reaching $3.1 million. Ongoing legal battles continue to be an economic drain on the resources of the Mohawk community.

The corporate media is accused by some Natives of collaborating with the government agenda by demonizing Mohawks as a narcotics-smuggling and otherwise criminal society. Media coverage, they say, has allowed the conflict to be framed as a battle between law and order and a criminal element, ignoring efforts to undermine sovereignty and place land under the control of private interests.

Policing has also been a flashpoint in Kahnesatake. The Quebec government refuses to continue financing Gabriel's police force. A joint police force of Kahnawake-Akwesasne oversees security in Kanehsatake. Gabriel, whose power in Kanehsatake rests on the backing of federal and provincial politicians, has been stymieing attempts at negotiating an end to the issue. Said Gabriel, "You don't mediate law and order. You respect it."

With law in mind, three Kanehsatake women brought the issue of Mohawk sovereignty and human rights before the UN. Canada took the extraordinary step of walking out of the forum. Article 1 of the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states, "All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development." Canada, as a signatory and having ratified the Covenant "shall promote the realization of the right of self-determination, and shall respect that right, in conformity with the provisions of the Charter of the United Nations." Chapter 1, Article 1 of the UN Charter moreover binds Canada. It states that among its purposes and principles is "respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples."

Mohawks are demanding a full investigation into the Gabriel affair. In respect of Mohawk sovereignty, there are calls for the matter to be settled within the Mohawk community.

Gabriel and his police remain exiled from Kanehsatake, and are staying in a hotel at the government's expense. Gabriel threatens Mohawk sovereignty by working secretly towards assimilation into Canadian governance. With memories of the federal government's 1994 plan for a 6,000-troop invasion of Mohawk Nation still lingering, Mohawks stand ready for the continued possibility of an armed invasion.

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