STEVE BONSPIEL THE EASTERN DOOR
This article was written in collaboration with Greg Horn, Iorì:wase.
The five candidates for grand chief squared off in the second-ever Grand Debate, hosted by the community’s media outlets. This was the first opportunity for the community to hear directly from each candidate.
The Eastern Door and Iorì:wase teamed up to provide joint coverage of the debate, joining K1037 Radio as moderator, and Akwesasne TV as well. “Some of my strong points are language, which at the end of the day, has to remain strong because it’s our identity,” Sterling Deer said in his opening statements.
Deer said that some of the other things he feels are important are land issues, border-crossing issues and housing within the community.
Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer said she has been on Council now for the past 12 years and one of the main issues she sees in the community is governance. She also said that she would like to see a change in the community governance to better reflect our community.
“If we can find a way to start conversing with each other in a way that’s more peaceful and more respectful because we’re all people of the Creator and we’ve been given these instructions on how to govern ourselves and to respect each other,” Sky-Deer said.
Frankie “Fafa” McComber said that his main portfolio he has worked on since being elected in 2019 was Public Safety – which has had some challenges, including the discovery of the asbestos-containing material in Lot 106, the railway blockade last year, and then the COVID-19 pandemic.
McComber was asked why he was running for the position of grand chief.
“I’m going to go with what I learned since being elected in 2019,” McComber said. “I went in with eyes wide-open trying to figure out how I could help the community. I quickly realized how dysfunctional the table is and how we do not work together.
“I think it’s important that transparency is probably key, we have to start live-recording all our meetings to show the community that we are accountable and we have to stay consistent.”
Sky-Deer said that she is running for Ohén:ton Í:iente, as she prefers that term over grand chief.
“For me, they say it takes a community to raise a child,” Sky-Deer said. “I grew up in this community, I was fortunate to go to Karonhianónhnha Tsi Ionterihwaienstáhkhwa. I got to learn a lot about my identity as an Onkwehón:we and a Kanien’kehá:ka person.”
She said that throughout her career in politics she worked to try to inspire the community’s youth to follow her path and value our language, culture and identity.
Deer said that running for the position of grand chief is a big responsibility and throughout his life he’s had many big responsibilities and big challenges – including being a businessman and working on some of the biggest projects in Canadian history for a Native entrepreneur.
On the issue of transparency and accountability, the candidates discussed televising Council meetings, so long as there are no personal, confidential information being divulged, including those of human resources or of a business nature. On the topic of revenue generation and the economy, McComber said that the community needs to start investing in public-private opportunities as ways to generate revenue for the community and to develop the economy. He said that businesses like Playground, Magic Palace and Mohawk Online have benefitted the community.
“I think we have to start investing in private-public opportunities, and that’s one part where we fail,” McComber said. “I don’t believe the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake should be in business. We should be building relationships to help businesses grow.”
Sky-Deer said that there are two areas the community isn’t capitalizing on – the tobacco and cannabis industries. She said that those industries do require legislation and regulation.
“I feel like a lot of times what the MCK has been doing is dictate how these industries should operate,” Sky-Deer said. “What I think is that we need to empower the people in terms of, what can we do together, so we can make Kahnawake prosper. I don’t always want to be depending on federal and provincial funds.”
Deer said that for revenue generation, the most successful industry in the community is tobacco. He said as a community we need to keep that industry strong and stop the outside governments from getting involved. He also encouraged people to keep their money in the community by shopping locally as much as possible.
The candidates were also asked what they have done to help the community, whether they are in office or not.
McComber said he’s coached and refereed hockey, is a member of the Kahnawake Search and Rescue Team, was a member of the Kahnawake Business Coalition, and founded the Kateri Memorial Hospital Foundation’s annual golf tournament at Kanawaki.
Sky-Deer said she was instrumental in creating the Language and Culture network, helped secure funding for a second cohort of Kanien’kéha Ratiwennahní:rats students, founded the Sober AF initiative to offer sober social activities in the community, and helped commemorate the first-language Kanien’kéha speakers in the community.
Deer said that he has helped bring lacrosse festivals to the community and helped get our children exposure to American universities. He also said that as a businessperson he helped many community members over the years.
Over the past several months, the issue of drug and substance abuse has becoming an increasing problem in the community.
“Over the last 10 years it’s been steadily increasing with the pills and all these hard drugs,” Deer said. “I think we have to put more resources into community service, KSCS, bring more people into fight and combat these issues in our community.
“What we have to understand is just because these people are on drugs, doing drugs, addicted to drugs, it doesn’t make them a bad person, they’re still a part of the community and we have to take care of them.”
Sky-Deer said that this issue is one that will take the entire community to deal with.
“Intergenerational trauma, the residential school experience that we know happened, the sexual abuse that still permeates in our community; so these people have deep-rooted issues,” Sky-Deer said. “And we do have to find a way to get them to heal.”
She said the community needs to mobilize to work together and combat this issue, and would support the idea of a detox center, either here or in Tioweró:ton.
“This issue is about trauma,” McComber said. “And that discussion about trauma has to happen community-wide.”
McComber said that the community needs to start talking about these issues to start healing. He also said that he would support the idea of a detox center here or in Tioweró:ton.
Gina Deer said her policing background helped her to identify the needs of the community.
She cited economic development, notably potential cannabis opportunities, a community gas station, and online gaming, as key areas she has worked on.
“I see the needs in this community. I’ve seen them before I got in this seat, and I really thought that I could help make a difference serving the people who need it most,” said Deer, after mentioning her work “off and on” over her three terms as MCK Chief with the hot-button issue of housing.
“To date, I’m not satisfied what has been done in the way of housing. I’ve worked on revenue generation. We’ve brought dollars into this community and I don’t feel like they’re reaching the people who need it the most.”
She also reiterated her continued support of the tobacco industry, something she worked on in the “early days,” later taking on an active role in external government relations.
Gina Deer has filled in the past when the late former grand chief Joe Norton was away, making her more suited for the job, she said.
“I understand the full-time job of the role,” she said. “There are many things that have to be addressed that you cannot put off. I’m a bit of a workaholic so it kind of goes hand-in-hand for me.”
Deer cited more transparency needed at the Council table, and the need to change “the power struggle that has been going on at the table,” she said.
“People want us to be in charge, to be the leaders, and not to be led by others,” she added. “Ultimately, it should be the table making the decisions.”
She also took on the question of surrounding businesses not respecting Native tax-exemption rights, a file she has worked on through the Quebec-Kahnawake Relations portfolio as a lead.
She has discussed the taxation issue and the Ten Agreements from 1999 with Ian Lafrenière, provincial minister of Indigenous Affairs, and how the use of the band card within a 50 km radius needs to be revisited.
“The future plans are to come to a new agreement. But in the last few months I started to talk with Chateauguay specifically,” said Deer, adding the issue is being looked at on a municipal level.
She also mentioned the proposed community gas station, citing the sticking point of tax and data collection as an issue that has stalled things with Quebec.
Keith Myiow was especially animated on Monday night.
Two times in particular he got into some trouble – calling out the new negotiator for Quebec with Kahnawake, Geoff Kelley, with an unproven allegation; and another time saying Ross Montour signed an agreement, when, in fact, that was incorrect.
Myiow went on K1037 the next day to apologize for the Montour gaffe, but has not yet backed off of his Kelley claim. Myiow was last to speak out of the numbers drawn by the five candidates.
“We talk about who we are as a people, the very premise of our women, where we get our clans, where we are taught respect: today we don’t see that kind of respect,” he said.
“Whether it be from Council or all around us,” he said, citing an example of a woman he knows who is “pretty much living out of her car.”
“What I plan on doing, with your help, your direction, is to bring back traditional government the way that is was intended to be, not dictated to by the band council or non-Native systems.”
Myiow said a big reason he is running for grand chief is local criminal activity.
Concerning issues pertaining to land and Highway 30, Myiow criticized past Council chiefs and said, “A nation does not sell its land. Without land, you are nothing. Where we are here and now, the future does not look good. That’s why I’m putting my butt on the line to go to war for you.”
Myiow used the tax exemption at point-of-sale refusal as a reason to go back to traditional government, a decree made in 1979 that has not happened yet.
“Not once has this band council, that I’ve seen in the last 50 years, done anything for the Indian,” he said
Eastern Door Editor/Publisher Steve Bonspiel started his journalism career in January 2003 with The Nation magazine, a newspaper serving the Cree of northern Quebec.
Since that time, he has won numerous regional and national awards for his in-depth, impassioned writing on a wide variety of subjects, including investigative pieces, features, editorials, columns, sports, human interest and hard news.
He has freelanced for the Montreal Gazette, Toronto Star, Windspeaker, Nunatsiaq News, Calgary Herald, Native Peoples Magazine, and other publications.
Among Steve's many awards is the Paul Dumont-Frenette Award for journalist of the year with the Quebec Community Newspapers Association in 2015, and a back-to-back win in 2010/11 in the Canadian Association of Journalists' community category - one of which also garnered TED a short-list selection of the prestigious Michener award.
He was also Quebec Community Newspapers Association president from 2012 to 2019, and continues to strive to build bridges between Native and non-Native communities for a better understanding of each other.