Following the first regular session since Serge Otsi Simon filled the open Mohawk Council of Kanesatake (MCK) seat on January 21, there’s one thing MCK chiefs agree on: there is little evidence of a thaw in the discord that has so far defined the term.
“It was disappointing. It was disheartening. It’s hard to put into words,” said Serge Otsi Simon, the former grand chief, of the January 31 meeting, emphasizing how he feels things have degenerated since his previous mandate.
Meanwhile, MCK grand chief Victor Bonspille had his own negative assessment, complaining he felt the tone of the session was orchestrated by the others to undermine him. “I found it to be not too good,” he said.
Asked what could be done to resolve the impasse for the years remaining in the mandate, Bonspille had a succinct response: “I don’t know. A miracle.”
Portfolios, which delineate a chief’s responsibilities and areas of focus, are set to arise as a particular source of tension in the coming weeks. While the subject was not resolved at the first meeting due to the absence of MCK chief Denise David, according to chiefs who were present, there is disagreement about how these should be assigned.
Bonspille says portfolios are a settled matter despite objections from some other chiefs, who insist they ought to be consulted on which portfolios they are best suited to pursue. According to MCK chief Brant Etienne, a band council resolution (BCR) set the portfolios at the beginning of the term, but Bonspille has since leveraged assignment shuffles against chiefs with whom he has had disagreements.
“We have attempted to discuss it in the past,” Etienne said. “Ever since, (Bonspille) started acting this way regarding portfolios and arbitrarily reassigning them essentially as a form of control.”
Bonspille claims precedent dictates that he has the right to reassign portfolios at will and suggests they have routinely been reassigned without BCRs.
“When (Teiawenhniseráhte) Jeremy Tomlinson had resigned from Council, chief Denise David was put on justice without a BCR, and none of the chiefs made a squawk about that, and then chief Denise said she’d rather be put on education, and that was done without a squawk, without a request of a BCR,” Bonspille said.
“Now all of a sudden, because Serge is there, they’re asking for BCRs and because I removed them from certain portfolios, because of things that they had done, unilateral decisions that some chiefs have made.”
He claims Simon himself set the precedent of assigning portfolios unilaterally as grand chief; Simon said his approach to portfolios was collaborative.
Bonspille said he has assigned Simon the portfolios of recreation, daycare, and health and social, acknowledging he made these decisions without Simon’s input.
Simon told The Eastern Door he does not accept that his portfolios have been determined and predicts that the issue will escalate, as other chiefs are unhappy about certain portfolios being taken away from them.
“It’s going to turn into a big blowout because, like I told chief Etienne, stop making this about portfolios,” said Simon. “It’s not about portfolios. It’s about the grand chief exercising a perceived veto over the council.”
One BCR was voted on during the hours-long meeting. It pertained to economic development funding for the community said to be in excess of $1 million. It passed 4-2, with Bonspille and chief Valerie Bonspille declining to support it.
“If they want to keep that BCR, that’s fine,” said Bonspille, “but the agreement for funding needs my signature for it to pass through.
“Well, I do intend to (sign the funding agreement), possibly, after I read all the pertinent information,” he continued, “but it’s been three weeks that I’ve been looking for that information and asking for it and I haven’t gotten it. So I’m not delaying anything.”
One bright spot of the meeting was an informal agreement between the chiefs to relax a policy that dictated that agenda items were to be added by 12 p.m. on the preceding Friday for the weekly Tuesday meeting. This policy has been a frequent source of conflict, including at Tuesday’s meeting, as Etienne had submitted items after the deadline.
However, even this was said to be contentious.
“It was an argument. It got kind of loud at points,” said Simon, who said he used to open Council meetings by asking if there was new business to add to the agenda.
Etienne, who has been vocal about his frustrations with the way Council has operated under Bonspille, was softer in his overview of the difficult meeting.
“In the grand scheme of things, (compared to the way) meetings have gone in the past, we touched on everything in the agenda, almost. So that’s actually an improvement,” he said.
According to Etienne, Simon was conciliatory and seemed to be trying to put aside past issues. He also said Simon’s past experience on Council is an asset.
“With five chiefs now who do not support Victor’s desired way of operating, I think there’s a little bit more weight behind that. We’ll see if that changes anything. It seemed to make a difference yesterday,” said Etienne.
He added that he has lost faith in the Bonspilles on Council, a sentiment matched by the grand chief.
“I don’t have confidence in those chiefs,” said Bonspille. “I don’t have confidence in chiefs that don’t have confidence in the community.”
He accused Etienne of failing to understand the role of grand chief.
“My position as the grand chief is to do exactly what the past grand chief did and bring issues to the community, ask the community for direction,” he said. “When you’ve got issues on Council that can’t be settled, the community is there to help you. And that’s what I do, I utilize that community, and they don’t like it.”
“I think the other chiefs, they’re glad there’s someone there with a new perspective but with old experiences,” said Simon, who acknowledged that he failed to work well with others in his first three years as grand chief but argued his approach was collaborative for the latter seven.
“Because I bring things up in the past doesn’t mean I want to stay back there. It means I learned from that and I’m hoping maybe I can share that with you guys. I’m going to do my best. I’m a Council chief now. I’m comfortable with that role.”
Bonspille had a different tone about the value of Simon’s experience.
“The only thing valuable that I find about him being the grand chief that I took with me is the fact that I’m not going to do things the way he did it,” said Bonspille.
Marcus Bankuti, Local Journalism Initiative reporter
Marcus is managing editor of The Eastern Door, where he has been reporting since 2021 on issues that matter to Kahnawake and Kanesatake. He was previously editor-in-chief of The Link and a contributing editor at Our Canada magazine.