Courtesy Mohawk Council of Kahnawake
It took until lunch for the elected chiefs of Kahnawake, Akwesasne, and Kanesatake to finish introducing themselves to one another last Friday, but by all accounts it was time well spent.
The informal meeting of the three Mohawk Councils at Kahnawake’s Two 0 Seven restaurant was the first time many of the chiefs even met their counterparts, something they agree is an important first step to deeper collaboration.
“We can really depend on each other and work with each other, but it all starts with getting to know each other,” said Mohawk Council of Kahnawake grand chief Kahsennenhawe SkyDeer.
“If we build relationships, trust, friendship, then there’s so much possibility in terms of things we can do together, collaborating together, making our communities stronger together.”
One by one, each chief explained what they’re working on and what motivated them to run for band council.
“It was just nice to hear everybody. Some come from different trades, some used to be ironworkers, some used to be teachers. We’re all community people at the end of the day, and we put ourselves in these positions because we are passionate about our communities,” Sky-Deer said.
“The session was focused really on getting to know who the members are and their portfolios and some of the files they’re working on,” said Mohawk Council of Akwesasne (MCA) grand chief Abram Benedict.
“It’s reassuring to know that our communities have files in common and that some of the struggles we have as Mohawks, whether it be Kanestake or Kahnawake, are the same as well,” he added. Benedict identified Bill 96 and the border as issues all three sister communities share, emphasizing the need to be united on relations (“or lack thereof,” he said) with Quebec.
Mohawk Council of Kanesatake chief Brant Etienne agreed that the meeting was useful, even without a specific agenda.
He noted how different it is to look up a chief’s portfolios on a band council website compared to connecting with them face to face about their files.
“There’s one or two people in Kahnawake and one or two people in Akwesasne that I want to reach out to regarding ideas about Kanesatake,” Etienne said.
“I find it really personally helpful, not even just on a technical level,” he said. “Morale-wise, it’s nice to know we’re not alone in this. It’s not just the world against Kanesatake. Our sister communities are experiencing the same thing, and we’re all eager to help one another.”
Most of Kanesatake’s council was present, a show of engagement at a time of remarkable discord for the chiefs, including a swirl of hostility around a September by-election that was derailed when it was called off by Kanesatake grand chief Victor Bonspille, who did not respond to an interview request for this article.
“It wasn’t a secret. It wasn’t anything we tried to hide either,” said Etienne. “It’s an issue, we know that, but we’re still here.
We’re here because we believe in the idea of reaching out and working with our sister communities. In the end, we’re all Kanien’kehá:ka. We all have the same end in mind – getting back our land and making things better for our people.”
He said chiefs of other councils noted Kanesatake is not the first band council to experience antipathy. “You can see that there’s definitely some tension on their Council, but what I (told them) is that it happens in politics,” said Sky-Deer.
“You’re not always going to agree on issues. You’re not maybe even always going to like each other. But at the end of the day, you’re all put there by the people and you have a job to do and responsibilities.”
The chiefs also had a chance to commiserate about some of the venom they face on social media, where they are routinely berated.
We can understand the roots of those things and the trauma. What do we have to do to heal and move beyond and work together? A lot of it starts with leadership,” said Sky-Deer.
The three councils plan to find ways to work more closely going forward, whether that means more formal meetings or other ways to ensure portfolios are in alignment.
“It definitely gave everybody a good feeling,” Sky-Deer said. “We left there with positive hope for the future in terms of our nation-building in our communities.”