It has been revealed that Mohawk Council of Kanesatake (MCK) grand chief Victor Bonspille signed a document attesting to a band member’s ownership of a Kanesatake lot, seemingly overstepping his authority and sewing confusion over land that already belongs to somebody else.
The declaration of ownership, which includes an MCK header and is dated March 24, 2023, reads, “I, Victor Akwirente Bonspille, grand chief of the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake, hereby declare after thorough investigation of ownership that (Edward Cree) is the lawful and unequivocal owner of the above-described lot.”
Yet, when a copy of the declaration was sent to the MCK’s Lands and Estates Office, it set off alarm bells – not least because the lot in question was already registered to a different band member.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in the 14 years that I’ve been sitting as a certified land manager,” said Amanda Simon, MCK’s certified lands, estates, and membership manager and chairperson of the First Nation Lands Managers Association for Quebec and Labrador (FNLMAQL).
According to Simon, her office takes information on lots of land directly from the Indian Land Registry. This is in turn verified with Indigenous Services Canada (ISC), currently the sole organization that can register a transfer of land.
“I can’t even do that,” she said.
She named the transfer of land on a reserve, an estate transfer, and, in certain circumstances, a Band Council Resolution (BCR) as examples of instruments that are registrable in the system; a declaration of ownership like the one signed by the grand chief is not registrable, however.
Simon said any change to the process would have to be ratified by the community and would outline stringent protocols.
“It’s beyond the scope of (the grand chief’s) authority,” said Simon, who worries the process was put into question by the events that have transpired.
“He doesn’t have a scope of authority when it comes to this.”
ISC did not provide comment by deadline, citing a delay caused by labour disruptions.
The Kanehsata’kehró:non who is the registered owner of the lot at issue declined to speak to The Eastern Door, saying only that they have been advised not to comment on the matter.
Once the declaration of ownership came to light, four MCK chiefs – Amy Beauvais, Denise David, Brant Etienne, and John Canatonquin – released a communique clarifying that such a document has “no legal value” and that Council, including the grand chief, has no role to play in the land allotment process outside of passing BCRs to allot unalloted land to a band member who requires an Oka letter – the equivalent of a certificate of possession – and can demonstrate their right to the land.
“We needed to make sure that the community understood that the declaration that was signed was not worth the paper it was written on,” said Beauvais. “That no one in the community can just write up a piece of paper and as long as it has a chief’s signature on it, it’s good and it’s a viable document. It’s not.”
Bonspille responded with his own communique condemning the four chiefs, describing himself as “extremely disturbed” by what they released, which he characterized as “misleading innuendo.”
“The gaslighting communication dated April 13, 2023, is an unethical attempt to discredit the values ‘I’ hold as the grand chief of Kanesatake. I am secure with my abilities and have always upheld my values and my ethical responsibilities, not only to the community of Kanesatake, but individual community members,” he wrote.
Bonspille defended his signing of the declaration of ownership as merely acknowledging documentation in the possession of Cree, whom he describes as a “respected, world-renowned doctor.”
A letter from Cree to Bonspille is included with the response.
“It has become clear to me that I was provided with an incorrect lot number,” Cree wrote, adding that he hopes the Lands and Estates Office will help him find the correct one.
Cree continued by noting that in the past, land was often purchased with a handshake and recognized by fellow community members. “This has led many of us, including myself, to be denied recognition of interest in land which they have acquired in good faith and have occupied through generations,” he wrote, before thanking Bonspille for affirming that lands should not be under the jurisdiction of the government. He concludes by acknowledging the declaration of ownership signed by Bonspille is null and void.
“Whether it’s true or not, if there was a handshake in the past, we can’t go on that. We have to go with the paper trail,” said Etienne, who noted that chiefs unilaterally declaring who owns land could cause chaos and promote nepotism.
“All of a sudden you’ve got not just this Council, but any Council moving forward – ‘Well, my cousin’s on Council. I’m going to get that piece of land, a declaration saying it’s mine.’ Then what kind of state are we in?”
Regarding Bonspille’s response, Etienne said it matches the explanation Bonspille gave in Council.
“I asked him point blank, ‘Did you understand what the paper said?’ He said yes, he understood it,” said Etienne. “So his whole deflection where he’s trying to say I only signed it as an acknowledgment that Edward Cree has these documents doesn’t make sense when you actually read the document that he put his signature to as grand chief of Kanesatake.”
Etienne – along with Beauvais and Simon – expressed concern that there could be similar declarations of ownership floating around the community that could cause problems for registered lot holders down the road.
“We’ve been contacted by people saying they reached out to him and they’re waiting for it,” he said.
According to Beauvais and Etienne, Bonspille said there are no similar documents with his signature when asked.
Bonspille did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
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.