The Canadian government turned the relationship between itself and the indigenous from one of straight colonialism to one of indirect colonialism. In spite of the change, however, the basic themes remain: communities are not allowed any genuine autonomy or self-government; they are denied, ultimately by force, the right to produce or sell goods without the permission of the Canadian state; people's freedom of movement is restricted; and their land and culture is continually under attack.

Kanehsatake: Mohawk Warriors face Canadian-style colonialism

by Justin Podur

On May 20, 2004, people from all over the Ontario and Quebec will go to the Mohawk community of Kanehsatake to show their support for a peaceful resolution to a confrontation between heavily armed agents of the state and a community that rejects them.  The conflict has gone on for months, with a Grand Chief ousted by the community trying repeatedly to return to power, against community opposition, at the head of a group of heavily armed police.

When it is presented in the media at all, the conflict is presented as one of the forces of law confronting “organized crime” on the reserve.  The reality is quite different, and the confrontation at Kanehsatake is a demonstration of the entire relationship between the Canadian state and the indigenous peoples.

Indigenous people in Canada are around 4.4% of the population, according to Statistics Canada’s 2001 census.  To a large extent, their lives are still controlled by the Indian Act.  This Act, though it has been amended, was designed to be, and still remains, an instrument for trying to get indigenous people to relinquish their land rights, their culture, and languages.  Its first incarnation was passed by the British House of Commons in 1857, its second by the Dominion of Canada in 1876.  The 1876 version made it illegal for an ‘Indian’ to sell or produce goods, or even to leave a reservation, without written permission from an Indian Agent.  Amendments over the following years included forbidding the indigenous from practicing rituals, authorizing the forced removal of children to ‘residential schools’ (centres where all kinds of systematic abuses occurred).  These sorts of laws, particularly the law forbidding Indians to leave reserves without written permission (called the ‘pass system’), were of interest to the South African apartheid regime, which modeled its system on Canada. (1)

Some of the most odious aspects of the laws (the banning of rituals, the residential schools, and the pass laws) were repealed in more recent decades.  Attempts were made to bring the Indian Act in line with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  Perhaps most importantly, the powers of the “Indian Agent” were transferred to Indian Act Band Councils and Band Chiefs, whose status as “self-government” bodies are specified by the Indian Act.

With these changes, the Canadian government turned the relationship between itself and the indigenous from one of straight colonialism to one of indirect colonialism.  In spite of the change, however, the basic themes remain: communities are not allowed any genuine autonomy or self-government; they are denied, ultimately by force, the right to produce or sell goods without the permission of the Canadian state; people’s freedom of movement is restricted; and their land and culture is continually under attack.

All of this is happening at Kanehsatake.

Fact Sheets and Facts

Canada’s Department of Indian and Northern Affairs issues ‘Fact Sheets’ about indigenous communities.  These are inevitably ‘optimistic’: they describe the perpetual ‘progress’ that these communities are making towards ‘self-government’.  The implication is, of course, that the communities are backward, and the Canadian government is helping them to ‘progress’.

The Department’s ‘Fact Sheet’ (2) on Kanehsatake does, to be fair, contain some facts.  It locates the community of Kanehsatake as being about 53 km west of Montreal, for example.  Other facts, not included: the absence of money for housing or health care, despite plenty of money for policing and repression; that the band council is the community’s main employer; that the band council’s deficit of $1.2 million in 2002 was used as an excuse for the government to hire a private company, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, to manage the finances of the community, receiving a large consulting fee for its services. And other parts of its ‘fact sheet’ could also be disputed.

The Development Corporation and Dispossession

The fact sheet, for example, says under its entry for June 1999 in its timeline for ‘progress’: “The Mohawks are now in charge of the management of the land purchased by Canada in Kanehsatake and in the Oka area. A property management agreement is signed by Her Majesty and the Kanehsatake Orihwáshon:a Development Corporation, which is responsible for the management of properties purchased by Canada for the Mohawks.”

As presented by the Department, this sounds like ‘progress’ towards ‘self-government’.  But Dan David, a Mohawk journalist writing for a community paper called ‘Windspeaker’, adds some detail.  The deal “transferred $14 million worth of land purchased by the  federal government to the control of a private corporation-not the  band-called Kanehsatake Orihwa’shon:a Development Corporation… Rumors circulated about shady dealings, conflict of interest and corruption.   Nothing could be proven; everything was done in secret.”

But further investigation (this didn’t make the ‘fact sheet’) revealed that the deal would turn Mohawk “lands into “fee simple” ownership, remove tax exemption, require “harmonization” of band by-laws with the town of Oka….”

Changing ownership and land tenure rights, tax laws, and the legal status of the territory are all annulments of the treaty rights of the indigenous to the land.  Extinguishing those rights, all over Canada, is a major, long-time goal of the Canadian state.  It is a simple idea, one applied countless times against the indigenous in the continent: find someone to sign a ‘deal’ that negates the collective rights of the community to the land, so that it can be parceled away.

This process has been facilitated in Kanehsatake by the fact that many of those registered with the Band live far from the community: the community itself has about 1000 people, but there are 750 members outside, some as far as California, with voting rights, a situation that the Canadian government has been able to use to its advantage.

Bill S-24

The second last entry in the ‘fact sheet’ is for June 14, 2001: “Bill S-24, the Kanehsatake Interim Land Base Governance Act, is referred to the House of Commons and receives Royal Assent. This Act will give legal effect to the Agreement with respect to Kanehsatake governance on its interim land base.”

More progress?  Dan David’s research raises some questions about the law.  Calling it
“the first step in turning Kanehsatake Mohawk territory into a municipality,”  David describes how “in March 2001, then-minister of Indian Affairs Bob Nault introduced the “Kanehsatake Interim Land Base Governance Act.”

“The minister didn’t go to the House of Commons with it, where full debate of the act might have taken place. Instead he took it to the Senate, an unusual move for a bill with far-reaching implications for Aboriginal and treaty rights.

“Over the next few months, Bill S-24 was rushed through hearings, most held in camera and away from prying eyes. The Senate Aboriginal affairs committee tabled a report, but kept it quiet. On May 15, 2001 the House of Commons passed Bill S-24 on third reading. Some MPs had asked questions, but they didn’t have much information to go on. On June 14, Bill S-24 became law.

“It took three months, an amazing-almost unheard of-feat!”

The goal is to turn Kanehsatake into a municipality, which means the rights of the indigenous community to the land would be annulled: another step in the overall project of extinguishing indigenous rights.

‘Organized Crime’ and Cigarettes

Without this context, in which the Canadian government is so keen to expedite the dispossession of the indigenous that it refuses to follow its own legislative procedures, the conflict and violence at Kanehsatake in recent months cannot be understood.  Or, it cannot be understood without recourse to racism and stereotypes.

The latter abound in the mainstream media.  An article in the Montreal Gazette by Sue Montgomery, titled “Rein in Kanehsatake Thugs”, calls the community a “hornet’s nest” of thugs and criminals.

The current conflict began in January, when the community’s Grand Chief (reinstated by the Canadian courts after a no-confidence vote by the community in 2001) James Gabriel’s house was burned down during a protest.  Gabriel is the key figure in this conflict.  It was Gabriel who signed the deal that transferred land ownership to the Kanehsatake Orihwa’shon:a Development Corporation and oversaw the “shady dealings”.  More recently, Gabriel, according to Dan David, signed a secret agreement with the solicitor-general “on Christmas Eve, when offices were closed and no one was watching, worth $900,000 to bring into the community 60 Native cops from across the province to take over from the local police force.”

Gabriel’s deal on policing is part of his role in a larger strategy of cracking down on what the Canadian government, and media, call ‘organized crime’ on the reserves.  The main ‘organized crime’ activity on these reserves is the sale of ‘Native Cigarettes’.  The main interest in ‘cracking down’ on it is because in a situation where, in David’s words, “Kanehsatake Mohawk Territory is dysfunctional. It has a population of about 2,500. It’s millions of dollars in debt. It has escalating legal bills in excess of $1 million, thanks to the endless court fights between various factions on band council. It can’t afford the $1.5 million it takes to run the community. Services have been cut or cut back drastically,” the sale of cigarettes is one of a very few activities that can provide a minimal income.

Indigenous activist Jake Brant, writing a letter in January of this year, describes the attack on ‘Native Cigarettes’ as follows:

“Since the failed Military invasion of our communities in 1994, which included some 6,000 troops and months of training, the Federal Government has been quietly organizing a new strategy to deal with its approach to “organized crime” within all Mohawk communities.  The crime that was alleged to have been committed in 1994, and as government suggests, continues to be committed is the manufacturing and sale of “Native Cigarettes”. One report suggests the need to “target the Indians’ claims to the inherent right of inter-tribal trade with sister Mohawk communities and the native run tobacco manufacturing industry as a whole.” It is concluded that the organized aspect to the criminal offense exists because all distributors in Kanehsatake charge the same price of $25.00 per carton thereby suggesting collusion between proprietors…

Jake Brant continues:

“In the year 2004, Mohawk people have developed their mental capabilities to be able to establish stores that sell pop, chips, newspapers and cigarettes without mob involvement.  There are craft shops, smoke shops, wood shops and others that don’t charge taxes on their goods or services and are all perceived as organized crime because they agree collectively not to collect taxes.”

To the Mohawks, these are just shops that operate according to their own laws.  To the Canadian state, however, they are an affront to the principle embodied in the 19th century version of the Indian Act: the indigenous are producing and selling goods without permission, so they have to be demonized and attacked.

Grand Chief James Gabriel and the Canadian Police

By painting the sale of ‘Native Cigarettes’ as ‘organized crime’, the government and media were able to present Grand Chief James Gabriel as a kind of ‘Elliot Ness’, who was going to ‘get tough’ on crime in the community (3).

Grand Chief James Gabriel was elected twice, serving two terms after the former Grand Chief, Jerry Peltier, resigned under pressure from the community in 1995.  Gabriel was, however, removed from office by a vote of no-confidence in 2001.  After telling the community that he would respect their will, he went to the Canadian courts, who restored him to power over the community.

Between this act, Bill S-24, and the various other irregularities in Gabriel’s administration (4), a great deal of resentment was stirred up in the community, and some of Gabriel’s retractors responded violently.  In late 2001, someone shot at Kanehsatake’s police station.  Later that year, according to Dan David, “one of the leaders of a rival faction in the community assaulted Chief Gabriel.”

Gabriel’s secret $900,000 deal for his own police force, mentioned above, was made in this context.  But when he and his police force attempted to enforce the new order in January 2004, they were met by a strong resistance from the community.  In a clash on January 12 where Gabriel’s police gassed the protesters, activist Clifton Arihwakehte says “Gabriel’s house went up in flames.  No one asked for it, and I’m not saying I condone it, but you have to understand how and why it happened.”

Now, according to Arihwakehte, Gabriel “has vengeance on his mind.”  With the scenario set in the local media as one of a “law-abiding chief” fighting “criminal elements” at worst, or of a “divided community” at best (a situation in which outsiders can wring their hands of any responsibility), the government, Gabriel, and various levels of police forces are setting up a very dangerous situation.

Joining Gabriel’s police force in its highly armed attempt to retake the community are Canadian Federal Police (RCMP) and Provincial Police, the Surete de Quebec.  Eyewitnesses report that the RCMP have taken up positions with heavy weapons around the community.

The actions of one of the members of Gabriel’s police force, Richard Walsh, were instrumental in earning Gabriel the non-confidence vote of the community that ought to have ousted him in 2001.  In addition to policing, Gabriel paid Walsh for three separate jobs out of the community’s budget.  Walsh was paid as a Mohawk language teacher, a scuba consultant, and a janitor, reports John Harding, one of the chiefs of the Mohawk council of Kanehsatake.  Harding, looking through the community’s records, discovered that Walsh had been paid over $100,000 this way.  Walsh previously been convicted of impersonating a Mohawk police officer, of fraud, of possessing a prohibited weapon, and numerous other crimes.

Two other members of this police force, Larry Ross and Robert Bonspiel, were involved in the shooting of Joe David, in 1999.  Joe David was a Mohawk Warrior who was shot in the back after a long standoff with the police.  He was left paralyzed, but survived until just last week: he died on May 3, 2004, as his community was again under siege by some of the very people who were involved in his shooting.

To chief John Harding, these members of Gabriel’s police force are perfect examples of James Gabriel’s methods of policing:  “As a police officer, there are different ways of doing things.  You can kick the door in and push people around, or you can knock on the door and present a warrant.  James Gabriel likes to kick the doors in, and he targets his political enemies using the police.  That is a big part of what he has done in the past six years.”

Warisose, a traditionalist who works with the women of the longhouse in the community, describes the rising tension.  “We don’t know what’s going to happen.  Every day, we’re told that they are building up more police.  We’re worried.  We don’t know if they are going to come in here and shoot people.”  Warisose was part of an effort to find external mediation by a respected third party: James Gabriel refused such a solution.

This is far from the first siege suffered by this community.  Kanehsatake was the site of the ‘Oka Crisis’ in 1990, when Mohawk sacred sites were slated to become condominiums and golf courses.  When the communities protested, the entire area was militarized, and a tense standoff ensued between heavily armed agents of the state and the Mohawk warriors.

In addition to the military-style siege, with the RCMP deploying heavy weapons on flatbed trucks around the community, legal repression has been deployed as well.  Toronto activist Mostafa Henaway visited the community as part of a delegation that visited the community in early May, and describes the way the January 12 clash has been used as the pretext for a wholesale assault on the community.  24 people have been arrested in conjunction with the clash.  According to Henaway,

“people in the community who weren’t even there (on the 12th) were given bogus charges, such as ‘participating in a riot’. As a result some community members have not been allowed to collect welfare, or even come back to the reserve as part of their conditions. Many families have been broken up. Also, warrants are out for many of the young men, providing the excuse for the Surete de Quebec and Gabriel’s police force to enter Kanehsatake on these warrants… on Monday May 3, 24 of these people had court appearances.  For three of them, bail conditions prevent their return to the community until the trial is over.  The police used this time while people were in court to make the latest attempt at an invasion, which became a cat and mouse chase for over 6 hours, but failed.”

Henaway thinks that there is one thing everyone he spoke to agrees upon: Gabriel should not come back.  Clifton Arihwakehte agrees.  “If you were to ask,” he said, “80% would be against Gabriel.”  What the community opposition to Gabriel wants, according to Arihwakehte, is “simple: The police force and the agreement between Gabriel and the solicitor-general should be disbanded.  Peace in the community will be kept by Kanehsatake Mohawk peacekeepers.  We want a Mohawk solution to this problem.  Last, we want a public inquiry into the actions of James Gabriel and of the police in all these matters.”


1) Garth Materie, ‘The Indian Act in Canadian History’, CBC Saskatchewan

2) Fact Sheet – Kanehsatake

3) Elliot Ness is the famed Chicago crimefighter who used paramilitary techniques to ‘take on’ Al Capone’s criminal empire, as is dramatized in the Brian DePalma film ‘The Untouchables’.  It is a useful image for painting oneself as a ‘tough’ crimefighter and ones enemies as gangsters and thugs.  The Montreal Gazette apparently made this analogy explicitly:

4) According to community activist Clifton Arihwakehte, for example, Kanehsatake has 750 people who live in the community, but 1800 Indian-Act registered voters.  These outside voters were used to pass Bill S-24 in a referendum, despite massive boycotting by those who demanded more information, by a margin of 239-237.  “No one knows who these outside voters are”, Arihwakete said in a phone interview on May 7, 2004.

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