Quebec’s Indigenous affairs minister Ian Lafrenière said dysfunction at the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake (MCK) has created an opening for organized crime in the community, motivating him to speak out publicly.
“When we’re talking about organized crime, they’re going to act where there are vulnerabilities for different reasons,” said Lafrenière, a former police officer, in an interview with The Eastern Door.
According to the minister, there are many qualities that can make a community susceptible to organized crime, such as a remote location, but he believes political instability is the most apparent risk factor for Kanesatake.
“I just want to make something extremely clear: I’m not saying that Kanesatake is the problem,” he said. “I’m saying that organized crime will take advantage of communities.”
He also emphasized that the government has no intention to meddle in Kanesatake’s political affairs. However, he said many Kanehsata’kehró:non have contacted him with concerns about organized crime.
“I have received numerous emails and text messages from community members asking me to do something about it. I feel that the community are victims of that. They’re not part of it, they’re victims of it.”
Lafrenière said safety, particularly the fight against organized crime in Indigenous communities, is among three priorities he identified at the beginning of the current mandate. He has been preoccupied with the problem since he came face to face with the Hells Angels in the Innu community of Uashat on his inaugural tour of Quebec’s 55 Indigenous communities upon being named Indigenous Affairs minister, he said.
He is particularly concerned about the possibility of sexual exploitation, noting that 50 percent of victims in Canada are members of First Nations.
“We’re working on different ways of putting pressure on organized crime, not just in Kanesatake, but generally speaking across the province,” said Lafrenière, although he would not elaborate on measures under consideration.
Political instability at MCK has drawn widespread attention in recent days after mainstream news outlets reported on Serge Otsi Simon turning to federal court in an attempt to reverse the appeal board’s decision to overturn the January 21 by-election. Le Devoir notably featured the story on its front page last week and ran brief comments from Lafrenière.
However, the revelations were no news to the minister. He said he has been contacted by both current and former grand chiefs about the political situation, adding it has also become apparent because Council’s administrative business with the province has been dragged to a halt.
“I’ll be careful, but this is just an example. If I’m asking the Council at this moment to send me a request for something, it’s impossible,” he said. “It’s completely divided.”
He said paying out money through the Aboriginal Initiatives Fund, which invests provincial money to projects in First Nations communities, is an example of something that has been hindered. “It’s impossible for now to do anything about it because we can’t have a formal request because of the instability because of what’s going on right now,” he said.
He has been in touch with his federal counterpart, minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Marc Miller, about the problem. “I think we all want the same thing. We don’t want to interfere. We want to do everything possible within our jurisdiction to help. So I can feel that willingness,” said Lafrenière.
He indicated that the province is limited in what it can do in terms of political problems and that he is focused on organized crime. “This is my target. This is where I’m trying to find solutions,” he said.
“There’s issues here we all know of, and I’ll leave it at that,” said MCK grand chief Victor Bonspille, who declined to expand on comments from people outside the community.
However, given Lafrenière’s position as Indigenous affairs minister, Bonspille did not find the comments inappropriate, adding he would like other ministers such as Miller to publicly acknowledge problems the community is experiencing.
“(Lafrenière) knows there are issues here in Kanesatake, whether social or criminal or whatever. He knows it, he’s expressing it. And I’m actually happy that he’s seeing the light here,” said Bonspille, who added he speaks to many ministers to advocate for the community.
He said that he cannot comment on whether political instability has made Kanesatake more vulnerable to organized crime as he does not know.
MCK chief Brant Etienne believes problems with organized crime predate the current political tensions in Kanesatake.
“It’s been chugging along as much as it wants, no matter the Council (in office), because, I’m going to say it, there’s been no political backbone to actually deal with it,” he said.
Etienne believes the Surete du Quebec has failed to do its job in Kanesatake when called upon. He also pointed out that the provincial government has little jurisdiction in Kanesatake, meaning it needs to focus its efforts elsewhere to ensure problems don’t spill into the community.
“Crack down on the biker gangs. Crack down on organized crime. Crack down on that crap. That would fix the issues in Kanesatake – all of these mafiosos and gangs and bikers and all that crap,” said Etienne.
While Lafrenière declined to name a specific industry that has been co-opted by organized crime, Etienne suggested the local cannabis industry is largely operated by outside forces. “It’s the non-Native population that is using Kanesatake as one point to distribute this for profit,” he said, adding that he believes any unregulated industry has the potential to invite harm.
Etienne acknowledged that problems at Council have at times slowed business with the province. While he attributed this partially to an administrative backlog, he claims Bonspille has sometimes declined to sign funding agreements that have been approved by band council resolution (BCR).
The Eastern Door reported in February that Bonspille had refused to sign a funding agreement that had passed 4-2, a decision the grand chief characterized as a postponement based on the failure of others to provide pertinent information.
According to Etienne, whereas the federal government accepts agreements with First Nations if they are signed by a duly convened quorum majority, Quebec only accepts documents signed by a grand chief.
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.