Home News New leaders emerge in Kanesatake

New leaders emerge in Kanesatake

Watsenniiostha Nelson and three of her four sisters and her nephew getting ready for the rolling blockades on July, 11, 2020. (COURTESY WATSENNIIOSTHA NELSON)


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Three years ago on the 27th anniversary of the so-called Oka Crisis, Watsenniiostha Nelson discovered her voice.

Nelson was just finishing the annual march in Kanesatake to commemorate the anniversary of the 1990 Siege, when she, along with her friends and family, discovered some of the Pines had been cut down for a new development on unceded territory.

“It made me angry to think that everyone during 1990, my family included, had put themselves at risk to protect their traditional territory only for it to be happening again 27 years later,” she said.

On that day, Nelson and a group of women from the community posted pictures and videos on social media to draw attention to what was happening. That summer, they began demonstrations to halt the development from continuing just outside the village of Oka.

Following in their footsteps

Nelson is a graduate from First Peoples Studies at Concordia University, which has encouraged her to stay vigilant and informed in her community.

She also comes from a long history of women who weren’t afraid of using their voices.

“I am the person I am today because of my parents, my grandparents and great-grandparents and so on. I’m named after my great-grandmother Watsenniiostha and I’ve heard many stories of her,” the 25-year-old Nelson said.

“My mom, who was only 14 at the time of the crisis, stood up alongside her family,” Nelson said. “She’s been a protective mama bear to myself and my sisters our entire lives.”

Nelson also organized a demonstration to portray Kanesatake’s support of Standing Rock, when they were fighting to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline back in November 2016.

“I hope to one day follow in the steps of the women in my life,” said Nelson.

Kanesatake was never consulted prior to any project, as is always the case, but this one especially irked portions of the community because it demonstrated how easy the land could be built upon – and never given back, even in modern times.

“We never legally signed away our traditional territory to the government or to a developer so he could profit off of it and build hundreds of homes,” she said. “We spent the rest of the summer trying to occupy our traditional territory and have the developer stop selling land and for people to stop buying and building.”

Because of the demonstration, the development was halted that year, but since then, a few houses in that area have been built, the self-imposed moratorium put in place by developer Gregoire Gollin is no longer, and more and more homes are popping up in the shadow of the Pines.

“I believe four to five new houses have been built up without the consent of Kanehsata’kehró:non since then, which frustrates me because the developer and city of Oka show that they do not care for reconciliation,” Nelson said.

“The land in question is known as common lands and at some point the government managed to sell it to the developer building the homes to this day. These common lands could have easily been given back to Kanesatake so that the community would never have to go through another crisis.”

“It seems to me that the Canadian government and the municipality of Oka has not learned a thing from what happened 30 years ago,” she said.

Nelson said it was frustrating that day to be celebrating 27 years since the crisis, all while pine trees planted by her ancestors were being cut down.

“We as Indigenous people are constantly fighting for our rights, not only in Kanesatake but all across Canada,” Nelson said. “Indigenous people have been fighting for water, land, and their individual rights forever. Thirty years have passed since the crisis, and now three years have passed since we did our first demonstration to stop the new development from happening. Between 1990 and now, nothing has changed. Heck, nothing has changed within the last 300-plus years.”

However, after the summer, Nelson expressed frustration with council and the process of governance within the community.

“There was a lot happening not only between Kanesatake and Oka but Kanesatake and the council,” Nelson said. “It was frustrating for myself to see that we weren’t getting the support from council to drop the development from happening, especially when the Canadian government will only discuss matters like this to council and not the People of the Longhouse.”

“It’s a long history between the council that was created by the Indian Act so the Canadian government could control who went in and what was done within that title, versus the People of the Longhouse that consists of our traditional ways,” Nelson said. “The government does not recognize the People of the Longhouse as a title that can hold anything legally, but that’s just part of the history of colonization and trying to control Indigenous people and ridding us of our traditional government.”

Nelson said it felt like they didn’t have the support of council and she decided to focus on her own health journey.

“I had to take a break because there was a part of me that thought why bother? It didn’t seem like anyone cared about what was happening,” Nelson said. “And I had only been doing this for two years at the time so I can only imagine those who have been standing up for years.”

She is also considering going back to school to become a dietician, or nutritionist, as she seeks ways to be healthier.

Nelson works at the Fuel Bar at the Kanehsatake Crossfit, and hopes she could eventually bring her nutrition knowledge back to the community to help others.

While Nelson has been focusing on her own health the last two years, she’s still constantly staying informed within the community and looking for other ways she can contribute to change.

She attended this year’s commemoration and while she was faced with a bit of discouragement in the recent years of finding her voice, she doesn’t regret standing up.

“I felt proud to be able to stand up and I felt a sense of purpose, to stand up for something I believed in,” Nelson said.

“I believe that one day it could change. I have to believe that those who stand up and raise their voice on issues they believe in, will lead to the change needed for future generations. I was not demonstrating for myself but for my future children, grand-children, and even great-grandchildren. Hopefully they won’t have to stand up for their rights just as I had to.”

“I’m sure my mom hoped that her future children wouldn’t have to do the same when she stood up in 1990 as a 14-year-old child,” said Nelson.

Everyone needs to be engaged as people, she added, and the community needs to forge a better future.

“I think simply working together would help Kanesatake tremendously,” said Nelson.

Fighting alongside women

Community engagement means a lot to Teiawenniserate Jeremy Tomlinson of Kanesatake.

Since the launch of his website Onkwehshona alongside his cousin in 2018, the website has aimed to keep the community informed on political issues and bring the politics back to the people.

“I want to normalize the political discussions because they need to happen and we all need to be engaged as people and community to forge a better future,” the 39-year-old Tomlinson said. “So looking at options to bring all of us together at one table once again. At the community level, to be able to discuss and carry on respectful dialogue to take on a united approach moving toward the future.”

The decision-making power, he said, has to rest with the people, not a select few.

Tomlinson emphasizes that in Kanien’kehá:ka tradition, a doctrine of consensus and a “one mind” approach is vital.

He believes the community has been “disenchanted with the systems” and mentions the Indian Act as the main culprit.

“It is a melting pot of confusion, misinformation and beliefs that have been heavily influenced and likely purposely by the colonial forces,” Tomlinson said.

“A lot of settler historians wrote about how the Iroquois were very strong and powerful because of the one mind practice, which kept us united and strong. It is when they started eroding and exploiting this that the colonial forces were able to undermine our nations, laws and communities in order to gain control.”

Tomlinson also believes that this way of governance within the community creates further division.

“I would not say I want to go back to the old ways, but I want to work toward something better,” he said.

Tomlinson also volunteers once a week at Rotiwennakéhte Elementary School to teach the kindergarten class about music, dances and traditional stories. He occasionally teaches traditional singing at the Kanehsatà:ke Youth Center. Tomlinson believes school is a great place to introduce children to the culture.

“There is much to be said about the strength of cultural knowledge and practices,” he said. “These are the things that colonial forces put a countless amount of effort and resources to annihilate.”

“We survived, but we should be putting in the same amount, if not more effort, into reclaiming and rebuilding it. Our schools are a good place because our children are there more than they are at home.”

He also takes part in the Ratiwennenhá:wi Kanien’kéha immersion program in Kanehsatà:ke, giving four days a week, six hours a day to learn Kanien’kéha.

On his website, he also includes language capsules to help community members learn words and phrases.

“It connects us to our ancestors, our culture and our identity. It needs to be preserved as one of our top priorities,” Tomlinson said. “A lot can be gained for all people by using traditional Indigenous knowledge. Our people lived on this continent in balance for thousands of years.”

While Tomlinson is doing many things in his community, he said revitalizing the language is at the top of his priority list.

“It is of the utmost importance to preserve our language, which carries so much knowledge in and of itself. It grounds us and connects us to our ancestors. It is an intrinsic part of our identity as Kanien’kehá:ka people,” said Tomlinson.

He also learns through attending ceremonies, reading books and speaking to the elders.

“As a human being, as a community member and a Kanien’kehá:ka man, I believe it is part of my role and responsibilities to carry out these things,” he said. “It takes a lot of energy, but it is fulfilling to know that at the very least I am trying.”

“If one day I meet my greatgrand children, I will have, at the very least, the sentiment that I tried to make things better for them and those yet to come,” Tomlinson said.

Caring for the elders

Sabrina Owen’nà:kon Richard always knew she wanted to help others, specifically the elders in her community.

She obtained her bachelor’s in nursing at McGill University in 2017 and has been working full time at the Riverside Elder’s Home in Kanesatake as a nurse since the beginning of last year.

Sabrina Richard is fighting for her community in the health field, especially protecting the elders.


“I worked at Riverside during the summers and that’s when I realized what I wanted to do with my life,” the 24-year-old Richard said. “Caring for the elders in our community has become my mission.”

Before Richard came to Riverside, she worked at the Douglas Hospital in the geriatric psychiatry setting, specializing in neurocognitive disorders for almost two years.

During her studies at McGill, she worked part-time for two summers at Riverside, a place she knew she eventually wanted to come back to, and eventually did, full time, in 2019.

“As much as possible, I want to avoid sending out our elders to outside facilities,” Richard said. “This is reminiscent of the residential school days where they are sent far away, no one speaks their language, no one knows who they are or how they like to be cared for. It is heartbreaking, as our elders do not do well on the outside.”

Riverside is lacking in both equipment and personnel, as they are not fully equipped to care for patients who become too ill.

When this happens, Richard has no choice but to send patients to an outside facility for proper aide.

Currently, there is one registered nurse, three nurse’s aides, 10 orderlies and one doctor at Riverside.

Because Richard is the only registered nurse, she has a very busy job, with lots of responsibilities.

“I’ve been working so hard for so long with so many responsibilities that I feel so defeated sometimes,” Richard said. “But so far Riverside is still afloat, with no cases of COVID-19.”

Despite sometimes feeling overworked, Richard has took it upon herself to launch projects for the elder’s home.

One of her projects was creating a palliative care protocol that took her four months to complete. Before the pandemic hit, she was also working on a post-fall project, which involved creating a process in which orderlies could use to follow up on a patient who fell.

The process involves assessing a patient’s vital and neurological signs after an injury. Assessments are restricted to registered nurses, but with this follow-up tool, orderlies are able to observe and know what to look out for and contact Richard immediately if needed.

“In the community, I will always advocate for the health and safety of our elders,” she said. “In the past few years, I’ve seen our elders grow older and be unable to take a stand at the front lines of Kanesatake’s issues.”

“I want to take their place to stand up for what generations of Kanehsata’kehró:non have fought for so they can rest easy. I see my generation trying to heal and be strong enough to be on the frontlines,” said Richard. “We must work to find solutions that are sustainable.”

Although Richard’s work takes up a lot of her time and energy, she also manages to stay engaged in community issues and takes part in demonstrations in Kanesatake.

Richard attended the Wet’suwet’en support protests in Kanesatake back in February, and was also present at land dispute demonstrations in the summer of 2017.

Promoting the language

Wenhni’tiio Will Gareau, his wife Nadine Etienne, and his four kids all speak Kanien’kéha at home.

As the language and cultural coordinator at the Kanesatake Health Center, Gareau’s life is centred around revitalizing Kanien’kéha in all areas of his life.

“Our land, our culture, and especially our language, play such an integral role in making sure that we have strong identities as Kanien’kehá:ka,” Gareau said. “Those three things are such an integral part of who we are.”

Gareau says without this, one’s identity can be jeopardized.

“One of the biggest threats that each generation has growing up, is anything that can harm one’s sense of self,” Gareau said. “If someone grows up without those things, there’s always time to heal, so to speak, to bolster one’s self-identity by turning in that direction.”

“In terms of our language, of course this is a multi-generational problem stemming from, in large part, residential schools, which taught generations of our people that they were less than and that our culture and language was insufficient,” Gareau said. “We are still suffering from the effects of this intergenerational trauma, it’s not something that’s easy to turn around.”

Gareau also notes that the continual land disputes in Kanesatake are another threat to one’s identity.

“The Municipality of Oka is built on Kanehsatà:ke, so due to the fact that this goes unrecognized, they feel they can do as they wish on our land; housing developments, roadwork, infrastructure projects, monoculture farming, gas and oil pipelines and everything else under the sun,” Gareau said.

“It’s not natural that each subsequent generation of Kanehsata’kehró:ron have to struggle in this regard, and feel constantly unsafe from these threats. As Kanien’kehá:ka under the Kaianere’kó:wa, we are taught to be in a constant pursuit of peace. And that’s all we want, skén:nen, peace, and the ability to live our lives and that way.”

And despite the repeated threats, Gareau remains focused and works every day to ensure that the land, lanuage and culture are not threatened.

However, despite the many initiatives Gareau takes part in, he thinks there should be more emphasis on learning the language in school.

“In my mind, there’s no amount of our language and culture that would be too much to incorporate into our schools,” Gareau said. “My dream, the end goal if you will, would be to have all of our schooling in our language and also culturally-relevant.”

Gareau said Rotiwennakéhte Elementary School was originally built with the purpose of being a full immersion school. It operated for a number of years in Kanien’kéha until it merged with the English-speaking elementary school.

Currently, the only immersion program that exists is the three-year adult immersion program, Kanehsatà:ke Ratiwennenhá:wi, that Gareau graduated from last year – one his wife is currently attending.

Gareau is aware that this would require a complete overhaul of the current system, but is happy to slowly move towards it.

“If we don’t study language in particular, we don’t always see the links that are present between identity, language and culture. One cannot be complete without the other,” Gareau said.

“Our language is the base, the key for our entire identity. By studying our language, or even just speaking it, we are able to travel through time. We use turns of phrase and root words that were created thousands of years ago. Our language is our culture. It’s everything.”

Gareau notes that Kanien’kéha is not like most languages.

Wenhni’tiio Will Gareau at last year’s Oka crisis commemoration in Kanesatake alongside his four kids and the community.


“Our sayings, idioms and greetings bring our ancestors back to life when we speak our language. When we address our family, our relatives, our friends and anyone else there is a certain way to do so in our language,” Gareau said.

“Our language is inter-spliced with not only history, knowledge, societal structures and protocols, but also respect and love for one another.”

Gareau had been a machinist in Montreal for 12 years, but he decided to pursue a career path that aligned with his passion.

This year, Gareau was part of organizing the annual commemoration of the 1990 Oka Crisis, or Siege of 1990.

“I like to that think in terms of what I do, how I try to comport myself, and the things that I focus on, such as the commemoration, all stem from responsibilities that all Kanehsata’kehró:non have in common; responsibilities to ourselves as community members, responsibilities to the land, responsibilities to our language and responsibilities to the past and especially the future generations,” Gareau said.

Joined by NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, Ellen Gabriel and NDP MP Leah Gazan, Gareau read the official statements for the commemoration in Kanien’kéha.

“There is such a potential for all generations I believe, the younger generations in particular, to define such strength in the land, our culture and our language.”

While Gareau said everyone in the community has a responsibility to tackle these issues, he understands that it can feel overwhelming to take on.

“Each generation of Kanehsata’kehró:non have certain responsibilities to take up the fight of the previous generations,” Gareau said.

“This is a major anxiety for Kanehsata’kehró:non due to the fact that it always seems we are facing insurmountable odds, but the more we can band together to face these threats, the easier it is to do so. I find personally, my anxieties don’t stem from the actual issues we are facing, but from ignoring them,” said Gareau.

He tries to pass on everything critical to their collective identities as Kanien’kehá:ka to his kids.

“This is something that will fall to them one day, as well as the rest of their generation,” Gareau said. “I believe if we can set a good example for them, show them that this is one of our responsibilities as Kanehsata’kehró:non, then they will also continue on in our footsteps when necessary.

“I think for children to feel at ease with the responsibilities that they will have one day we have to be very careful as not to put that burden on them right away, but show them that although it’s a very big responsibility, it’s something that is absolutely worth taking on.”


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