May 21: Kanehsatake
"The areas around the territory of Kanehsatake have been developed, but it is still very green and covered with life. There are apple orchards that produce some of the largest yields of the fruit on the entire continent. In the wooded areas you can find maple trees that produce the famous maple syrup from the region. But it is in the Pine woods that the most value is produced, getting new life from the land—the land which holds ancestors of the past and provides the basis of life for the present– and for the future. There is no numerical value on dignity, but it grows in Onentokon."
The areas around the territory of Kanehsatake have been developed, but it is still very green and covered with life. There are apple orchards that produce some of the largest yields of the fruit on the entire continent. In the wooded areas you can find maple trees that produce the famous maple syrup from the region. But it is in the Pine woods that the most value is produced, getting new life from the land—the land which holds ancestors of the past and provides the basis of life for the present– and for the future. There is no numerical value on dignity, but it grows in Onentokon.
These days, when spokespersons for the ongoing maintenance of colonial policies towards indigenous nations try to justify the same, they do so by discussing the matter as one of the past and not the present. In previous times the colonialist discourse could, with a little wrangling, be whittled down to the simple question of land. They would state the necessity of the white settler state to claim and establish title to some land, not to take it from the nation who lived there, but to simply demarcate where agricultural land would end and where hunting could begin. Hunting was always secondary to farming we were told, and still are told—notably by Tom Flanagan, Professor of political science at the University of Calgary and former chief of staff for leader of Her Majesty’s loyal opposition, Stephen Harper.(i)
The question of taking land was not of either race or establishing a settler colony, we are assured—rather, it was couched in the very same language of “inevitability” that has earmarked so much pro-colonial discussion around indigenous nations’ resistance. Much like war, a settler colony has a self perpetuating, cyclical logic—one argument bolsters the other, and the second lie is referred back to the first to rationalize it.
One can see such “logic” in the occupation of Iraq: The nation was invaded and occupied in order to “prevent terror”, and even those who would also “express regret” over having gone in, the reality is that “to prevent terror” the illegal occupation must continue “until victory”. The first was used to justify the second, and the second refers to the first as having created facts that leave the second unassailable. “Past is past”, we hear constantly. “We can’t turn back the clock,” we are reminded. “The best thing we can do in Iraq is to try to clean up the mess we made first.” Once that is accomplished, we are all reminded, we can then leave with our dignity and “help the local people catch up”.
Such a language is an eerily familiar dialect in Kanehsatake, the territory adjoining the village of Oka, north-west of Montréal, Québec. Trouble is for the Kanien’keháka (Mohawk Nation), they weren’t mainly hunters anyhow, but the displacement of families from their farms for white settlers didn’t wait for a cue from men such as Flanagan. This agricultural farming people saw huge tracts of land seized directly by French and English colonists who maintain an imposing presence throughout this territory today. Seizures continue today in many guises, but the theme remains. The farming-dependent Mohawks were ethnically cleansed, or “transferred” to parts of Northern Ontario that are on top of mounds of rock in the so-called “Canadian Shield” --named Watha (Gibson Reserve) in the Muskoga region. Starvation, disease and death set in for some as early as the beginning of their first winter, with no land to plant and therefore, no crops to harvest.
The house I stayed in was built on land stolen from families cleared out in 1885. Fast forward to 1990. The territory of Oka had just experienced lockdown and military invasion after Warriors defended the burial sites of their ancestors from a proposed golf course parking lot. The French settlers in this house and many other properties “surrounded by Indians” demanded compensation and a government buyout, much like Settlers allegedly being evacuated from the Gaza Strip today. They received Crown buyouts, the crown in turn then told the Indians they demanded similar compensation for these properties before returning them to the Nation. Instead of paying to reclaim their own property, many simply moved into houses as they stood. The government has not been foolhardy enough to try and evict anyone, although they maintain publicly and on their paper records that these houses belong to the Federal State. However, as any Zionist would assure you, it is most often the facts on the ground that you can assert that matter the most. In that sense, these are liberated properties.
Another area where facts on the ground have been applied in defense of territory-- instead of to seize yet more Kanien’keháka land—has been around the mentioned expansion of a golf course across a national burial ground in what became known to Canadians as the “Oka Crisis” of 1990. The addition of nine holes and a parking lot to a golf course already constructed under duress was first officially proposed by the municipality of Oka in 1985. The final images are known to Canadians, and came to define the conflict for many—images of Mohawks in battle fatigues staring down armed Canadian soldiers. Images in your mind likely do not include the rounds of machine gun fire, the night raids or the military helicopters; they have been all but painted out.
In the process of reaching the stand off images we were fed, we seldom hear a serious attempt to illustrate the history that would lead to it, whether that would be the residential schools, the parceling off of the best arable land or even the first phase of the golf course that was built (despite resistance). By the time the Canadian Army invaded to defend property and capital rights for Canadians instead of self-determination and the cemeteries of the Mohawk, it had become abundantly clear that the municipality, Quebec and Canada understood nothing short of force. The cemetery, still flanked by the golf course, remains undisturbed to this day.
Though not as media savvy in that it lacks housefires, the clashes with police or army invasions—perhaps the single most important struggle of the nation has been waged in opposition to the further poisoning of their traditional lands with radiation emitting from a hole in the ground that is filled with water, but to this day does not freeze up in the -30 celcius winter.
The Niobium mine. A mine that opened in 1952, it operated until the early 70s when it was shut down due to horrendously high levels of pollution being emitted. Since that time, tailing of ore from the mine have been constructed into cheap housing units sold off reserve, despite the fact that many workers from the 2 decades of operation have died from cancer, and continue. Recently, there have been attempts by Niocan inc. to open up the very same mine again, with the assurance that this time, the mine will indeed be safe:
“'Niocan’s mining project integrates a number of elements that make it a remarkably environmentally friendly project.' This is the general conclusion drawn by the experts at Roche Ltd, the firm that Niocan selected to undertake the environmental impact assessment (EIA) related to its ferroniobium project. "
Environmentalists and Kanien’keháka alike have pointed to the release of Radon gas into the community as a result of the extraction process. There is no known “safe” level of release for this compound.
Niobium is used to lighten hardened steel. This has immediate implications for everything from construction to most notably the production of high tech mutilation devices used to wage war on populations from Haiti to Afghanistan, and from Iraq to Yugoslavia. It is also known to be a dirty substance, and is the same material that was excavated where those mine employees and Kanehsatake community members were to die far too young.
There is one thing I really appreciate in the quotation from Niobium, however. It is not often that the actual boss of an EIA is spelled out so clearly: Niobium hires the firm that conducts an assessment of their readiness to move ahead. It perhaps might be a good time to note that part of the slogan that adorns the bosses 2003 Annual Report is simply “We are now ready to move ahead.”(iii) Wonder of wonders.
A couple of days ago, the mine project was dealt a monkey wrench, perhaps good news in that it buys more time. However, the reasons reflect the deepening of the visibility of the corruption coming from Indian Act Chief James Gabriel. Niocan has the same auditing company—KPMG Limited—as was recently appointed by the Gabriel camp to monitor the upcoming election for “chief”. In other words, the mine was put on notice for improper appearances. The reason was not because a nation has a right to protect the health of its people and the earth and to do so above the wishes of colonial capital. So the struggle continues.
All of the conflicts so far discussed have led to the current situation with the above mentioned Indian Act Chief James Gabriel. The Kanien’keháka population of Kanehsatake has had many confrontations with Gabriel, leading to the ejection of him from the territory last year, de facto firing him.
Gabriel has been accommodating the Canadian and Québec governments attempts to change the legal nature of Kanehsatake from a territory to a mere municipality. Bill S24, which states a desire to “harmonize the territory with the municipality of Oka”, would render any remaining legal recognition of the difference between Indian land and Québec cosmetic. He has systematically shut out popular participation for the entire negotiation process, refusing to cooperate even with Mohawks who also work for the Indian Act structures, flying in the face of traditional consensus models of governance. Acting on behalf of the colonial state, Gabriel has attempted to use a “Kanehsatake Mohawk Police (KMP)” force of his choosing to crush his political opponents. This force, trained and paid for by the RCMP, has been in operation since the mid-nineties when they were created ostensibly to bolster security for a casino that was later rejected. It operates de facto at the behest of Indian Act chiefs, and by the end of 2003 was the best power left to Gabriel in his attempts to remove the independent economy of tobacco and streamline the end of territory status for Kanehsatake. Attempting to use the KMP to raid and shut down various tobacco producers, Gabriel has announced his attempts are to “cut off the head of the opposition”, who conveniently happen to also be opposed by Canada and Québec.
On January 12, 2004 the community had enough, and surrounded the police inside their station instead of allowing further Gabriel-led political raids. With the KMP holed up inside and neutralized, community members maintained watch out front—and up the hill the good chief had his home torched to the ground, long after he fled the territory. The nearby Kahnawake Reserve offered a compromise, and set up an Indian police force until the end of April, when a “security vacuum” set in after the Kahnawake agreement expired. The community from the territory put together their own security patrol, while Gabriel directed his force to attempt to reassert themselves several times, each one failing. The last attempt for Gabriel to send in his force, ended with Mohawk warriors using rocks, vehicles and blunt force to evict all these colonial police from their territory. Pursuing the police to make very clear they were not welcome back, residents from Kanehsatake chased them clear into the next town.
In the context of all of this are the Montréal and Québec media’s reactions. There has been a general martyrdom complex offered on a full-platter to the “embattled” chief who was “only trying to establish law and order”. Full, two page spreads have been written about his (and his family’s) plight. The “entire community” is said to “live in fear and intimidation” because they are “run by a mafia/drug dealers/grow ops/bikers” or other thugs and undesirables. The KMP who normally used to work through exactly that fashion are noticeably absent (though still paid by the Federal Government), as is the word “Police” from the now-empty facility that used to be their home. While the SQ continues to have access here, they seem reluctant to test it.
The KMP and the Gabriel clique remain powerless, the community remains strong, and an election to the band council of a new Indian Act chief has been postponed and delayed several times. Gabriel continues to ask the Federal government for any help possible returning proper authority to him. Meanwhile solidarity activists have pointed out that many who have said “no elections can be democratic under occupation” have drawn this point out to counter the “civilizing discourse” of those who want to “bring democracy” to Iraq, Palestine or Kanehsatake.
Many of the political traditions of the Mohawk people involve practice that today’s activists often think are innovations to organizing: A belief in consensus decision making, along with the right to dissent and be respected. The use of matriarchal, non-hierarchical organizing models; the delegation of power through respect rather than through institutionalized authority. A respect for the earth as the giver of life, not the provider of money.
There are tapes of the actual police footage shot while the SQ and the KMP were chased into the next town. You see defiant pride for one, but you also hear the comments made by the police to one another as they were run out. There is a sound in their voice. For a settler nation where the issue of Indian Nation sovereignty is supposed to have been “extinguished” long ago, the sound in their voices is fear of something very real, strong and prepared to struggle for the right to exist. A reflection of these values— traditional and forward thinking— that cannot be ignored.
For over a year now, every minute of every day, the community is prepared for a Canadian or Quebecois invasion to attempt to re-assert the leadership of either government Indians like Gabriel or even more direct SQ occupation. Whoever gets left in charge, should such an invasion be successful, would streamline the Niobium mine and the elimination of Kanehsatake as distinctly Indian. When the eventuality of a possible attack was felt to be highest in the summer of 2004, community members stood guard in the same woods they defended in 1990 against military invasion. The name of these woods is Onentokon, a patch of forest planted by Kanien’keháka over three centuries ago. Corporations have cut part of it for a golf course, and wanted to exhume generations of bodies for another nine holes. Still other corporations have tried to get access to cut it for timber. The Canadian Army has invaded it. But Onentokon has been protected many times in many ways. If you put your trust in the land, it will grow and provide you with sustenance-- well into the future for many generations.
This article was heavily influenced and assisted by Clifton Arihwakehte, Kanien'keháka (Mohawk) resident of Kanehsatake.
i Flanagan gained notoriety for publishing a “new” analysis of the history of subjugation of indigenous nations, writing a book entitled “First Nations? Second Thoughts”. While self-dubbing the book “controversial”, in reality Flanagan borrows from old racist dogmas about who was and wasn’t “civilized”, with his “civilization” being based on industrialism and “conquering” the earth. A lack of “civilization”, he explains, is why he refers to “the fiction of aboriginal sovereignty”. A full review of his book and a talk given in Montreal’s McGill University written by Hussain, Arihwakehte and Sehgal can be read here:
ii Niocan Inc. Annual Report 2003 (Montreal head offices)