The Quebec government will be contributing $11 million to the new multi-purpose building project, which is set to house the Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Center (KOR), Turtle Island Theatre, and Kahnawake Tourism.
The May 16 announcement was delivered by Ian Lafrenière, minister responsible for relations with the First Nations and the Inuit in the presence of Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK) grand chief Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer, KOR’s executive director Kawennanóron Lisa Phillips, and MCK chief Jessica Lazare.
“We see it as a win-win. The partnership and the collaboration that we do as we work together, we can only get better from here,” said Sky-Deer.
“I know this is a very important project for the community but a very important project for the grand chief herself,” said Lafrenière, noting it’s one of the first projects Sky-Deer brought up with him upon meeting. “In my visit through the 55 communities, there isn’t one community that didn’t mention the importance of the languages, of the culture. And today, we’re confirming that with this investment.”
This comes in addition to the $16 million Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada (CIRNAC) committed on behalf of the federal government and the over $8 million the MCK has raised through its capital campaign. With contributions from Mohawk Online, Playground Poker, Magic Palace, Mirela’s, and other donations, MCK is drawing nearer to its $16-million target.
“I believe in this project with all of my being,” said Phillips, who’s been working at KOR for 23 years. For Phillips, the building encapsulates the vision of countless elders and first-language speakers she has worked with over the years. “This was their dream as well,” she said.
Despite the project being in the works for seven years and counting, Phillips remembers talks of a new building dating back to her early days working at KOR.
The new building, which has a recently approved budget of approximately $56 million, will come to life in the location KOR’s founding group of women had initially chosen in the early 1980s, about 40 years ago.
“There’s actually a foundation there from the early 80s, where we had made our first attempt to build that building. But we ran out of money and things didn’t work out,” explained Phillips.
This project was also close to late grand chief Joe Norton’s heart, and Sky-Deer carried the baton.
“Once she was elected grand chief, she still made a commitment that this building was her main priority … and so I want to thank her for that,” Phillips said of Sky-Deer, who is the chairperson for the capital campaign.
Despite the nearly $25 million hike in price for the building, up from the initial $32 million price tag to account for pandemic-driven inflation in the construction industry and labour, Sky-Deer said the MCK’s goal for its capital campaign remains unchanged since PlanIt Consulting was initially contracted for the campaign with that threshold in place.
She also stated that the campaign has yet to enter its public phase, which she foresees will garner more contributions for the building, with about $2 million earmarked in community donations. “It’s ultimately our legacy project for our next seven generations to bring back and strengthen onkwawén:na and tsi niionkwarihò:ten, which is our language and culture.”
Some agreements and funding applications are in the pipeline, and the MCK is expecting to hear back on some of them by the end of summer or early fall, said Lazare. The MCK has also set aside $5 million for contingency costs.
“Not only is it a home for these three organizations, but it’s also a home for the community to celebrate our own language, to advocate for our own language, and to revitalize it on our own, and to have a hub for our community members to feel safe learning the language because as we know, our language is endangered,” said Lazare.
But the payoff of the facility is envisioned to extend way beyond the community.
Aside from providing a space to foster language, culture, arts, and a museum exhibition space, the facility is also meant to become a tourist attraction to teach and educate about Kanien’kehá:ka culture.
Interest in learning about First Nations seems promising, according to two surveys, with 75 percent of Europeans and 89 percent of Quebecers “willing to know more about First Nations,” said Lafrenière.
Lafrenière said the announcement is “a great example of collaboration and a good step forward.”
“This is one step that we’re doing together, while already having said that we need to do more. But I’m very confident that baby steps and steps like today will provide hope for people that we can work together.”
The project has been underway since 2016, and has undergone many obstacles, all while making progress – the feasibility study, the design, the selection of the location, and of the architectural firm to carry out the project, bringing it to this point.
“I know that the relationships between the organizations is what really held this project together. It is the core and the heart of this project,” said Lazare, who’s also involved in the project.
As a graduate of the Kanien’kéha Ratiwennahní:rats immersion program, she’s no stranger to the building’s shortcomings – squirrels and odd smells being some of them.
“For me, it’s almost a relief to see that this building is happening, that this dream that these women – mostly women, now we have some men on our team – have held together for so long, is becoming a reality for us, for our community,” said Lazare.
Even so, the beginning of the new chapter is bittersweet.
“It’s very emotional for us, leaving that building, even though it was time to go and it was falling down,” said Phillips, of the facility, which was deemed unsafe. “The work that we do, everything language and culture lived and breathed inside that building, inside those ugly walls.”
When the thought of leaving the building really sunk in, Phillips was flooded with memories she’d accumulated over the years she spent at the cultural centre.
“I’m going to remember all of those things, the dancing, the jigging, the language, the fun, the laughter, everybody who was part of the cultural centre, that we’ll bring with us into our new building,” said Phillips.
The project is set to break ground mid-fall, with foundation to be laid in late fall.
“I can’t wait for my granddaughter to enjoy that building and go there and take part in camps and everything that we have to offer,” said Phillips, with the ribbon cutting target set for late 2025.