The efforts of an anonymous group of Kanehsata’kehró:non has brought a deluge of attention to Kanesatake with the urgent message that the community has fallen into a “state of lawlessness and danger.”
An open letter circulating amongst journalists and politicians names scourges such as toxic dump sites, dangerous criminal activity, and land “being stolen piece by piece by land developers and assimilated Mohawks treating Kanien’kehá:ka Homelands as if they were all for the taking.”
In part by providing a trove of related documents, the group sparked a La Presse investigation into G&R Recycling that brought the issue roaring back into mainstream discourse.
“The people of Kanesatake have not felt safe for multiple generations now,” the open letter, which was shared directly with The Eastern Door, reads. “We want to reclaim our community, and this is a call for help, support, and access to a legal remedy, which Kanesatake has been denied time and time again.”
The letter’s authors accuse the country, province, and local politicians of failing to deal with the problem.
“Our colonial band council, the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake (MCK), has done very little, almost never consults or informs community members, and acknowledges that organized crime holds the upper hand in the application of local laws,” they write.
“We want to reclaim our community, and this is a call for help, support, and access to a legal remedy, which Kanesatake has been denied time and time again,” reads the open letter.
The letter also issues demands to politicians at different levels of government. These include peace and safety support on a daily basis, a parliamentary special committee to investigate corruption and who is to blame for the current conditions in Kanesatake, and the resolution of historical land issues with the engagement of Rotinonshón:ni.
“As well, we want our land situation to be settled in a peaceful atmosphere without any threats of retribution against those who speak out,” the letter reads.
The group is staying anonymous, they say, because of fears for their safety. “We are the people trying to reclaim our community of Kanesatake,” they write. “Hear our plea and step up to help.”
Finally, the letter calls for an international team to investigate collusion in the dispossession of Kanien’kehá:ka lands.
In the aftermath of new reporting on G&R and the prominence of the open letter, government ministers have been forced to address why more has not been done to address longstanding problems in Kanesatake.
A request from The Eastern Door to discuss the open letter with Crown-Indigenous Relations minister Marc Miller was redirected to Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) minister Patty Hajdu, who did not respond by deadline.
Last week, when asked to comment about G&R, a spokesperson for Quebec’s public security minister François Bonnardel said “Minister Bonnardel is aware of the situation. It is complex; there is no simple and easy solution. He has been working on the file with his colleague (Ian) Lafrenière since taking office and the two ministers reiterate the government’s support for the community.”
In a recent interview with The Eastern Door, Lafrenière, Quebec’s Indigenous affairs minister, expressed concerns about the presence of organized crime in Kanesatake.
Asked directly about the open letter in a scrum in Ottawa last week, Miller said, “There is a security problem that has been going on in Kanesatake for a very long time. And the reality is that it’s the people of Kanesatake who are threatened by certain elements, certain agents who are involved in crime, whether it’s certain Mohawks, or whether it’s Hell’s Angels, who are not necessarily Indigenous, who are abusing this situation. This is the reality of the people of Kanesatake.”
However, both Miller and Hajdu expressed jurisdictional concerns in the scrums.
“My point in all of this is that we all have a responsibility, a responsibility certainly of the federal government, a responsibility of the Quebec government, and a responsibility of the people of Kanesatake and the governance in the community that exists now,” said Miller.
Some anonymous Kanehsata’kehró:non were involved in a protest in front of Miller’s office in Montreal on Tuesday in a bid to keep media and political attention focused on Kanesatake.
Minority party politicians demand inquiry, action
Federal politicians from non-ruling political parties are getting behind calls for a stronger response to Kanesatake’s environmental and public safety pleas as Liberal ministers appear to drag their feet over jurisdictional concerns.
The oft-cited complexity of the situation is no excuse for inaction, said Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party and member of Parliament (MP) for Saanich–Gulf Islands, in an interview with The Eastern Door.
“If you just stop feeling paralyzed and look at it for a moment and think, would this be allowed in any settler culture, much less a wealthy white community, anywhere in Canada? And the answer is no. It would not be tolerated,” she said.
May added that while she believes ministers Miller and Hajdu are sincere and well-intentioned, a bolder approach is needed to support Kanehsata’kehró:non.
The statements come in the wake of a widely circulated open letter by an anonymous group of Kanehsata’kehró:non, while new mainstream reporting on G&R Recycling, largely based on documents the group possesses, has accelerated attention to their cause.
“We want to stand in solidarity with the community that is calling for protection, for an investigation, for something that changes the status quo, because the status quo is untenable,” said May.
The Green Party has been pursuing legislation against environmental racism for over a year with a private member’s bill to address the issue. Bill C-226 is currently in its second reading in the Senate.
Environmental racism is a term used to describe harmful sites being disproportionately foisted upon Indigenous communities and other communities of colour.
“Indigenous Peoples of Canada have been so abused by colonialism and exploitation, there’s no question. So the federal government has multiple levels of responsibility,” said May.
Now the party is throwing its weight behind calls for a parliamentary standing committee and public inquiry.
“A public inquiry, to us as a party, it’s what was being called for by the brave anonymous Mohawk group in Kanesatake. If that’s what’s being called for, and that, to me, meets the criteria of making a difference within federal jurisdiction with something that can be done immediately, and that’s why we support it, and that’s why we’re calling for it,” said May.
A public inquiry should not delay cleanup of G&R Recycling, she qualified.
“I think it’s important to recognize that this is an absolute failure of government that is fully in line with the history of colonialism and racism that the federal government and Quebec government have shown towards First Nations in this country,” said Jonathan Pedneault, deputy leader of the Green Party.
Pedneault said the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples should be invited to Canada to report and make recommendations, reflecting one of the calls in the open letter for an international team to independently investigate land dispossession.
However, there’s still much more that can be done by the Canadian government, he said.
“There are levers that band councils and First Nations communities do not currently have that the federal government does possess,” said Pedneault.
“When members of the community require it and when it appears very clear that the band council is unable to voice its concerns because of threats of retaliation by a handful of individuals associated with organized crime, and when it’s a situation that is known to the authorities, and it’s been well documented for over two years, failing to act is nothing short of environmental racism, if not a continuation of systemic discrimination.”
Pedneault was present at the protest Tuesday in front of Miller’s office.
Alexandre Boulerice, New Democratic Party (NDP) MP representing Rosemont–La Petite-Patrie, was also present, even holding up a container of contaminated water from the G&R site.
“It’s so absolutely disgusting. The smell is horrible. You want to vomit,” said Boulerice. “Nobody would want to live in a place where you have this kind of water. It’s dangerous.”
Boulerice said he was first contacted by concerned Kanehsata’kehró:non three years ago. “They were afraid about the water, the pollution, and also the violence, the threats, the fact it was not possible to act locally, so they were reaching out to find some allies,” he said.
He agrees with the Green Party’s characterization of the situation as environmental racism and insists the government must do more.
“It’s like every level of government is pointing to the other, saying no, it’s not my jurisdiction,” said Boulerice, noting this deflection was the meaning behind the inclusion of a ping-pong table at the demonstration in Montreal.
“We just said that’s enough. Work together, find a solution with the band council, but also with the community, with the citizens. They need to work together.”
He said a planned tripartite meeting in Kanesatake is a good step, but that it must lead to concrete action.
“We don’t want the white police to come in and do whatever they want. That’s not our point. We want it with respect, with the community, with the will of the community to find solutions that will be acceptable to everyone,” he said, noting that no one wants another Oka Crisis, as he called it.
While Boulerice has been aware of the issues in Kanesatake for years, he believes more of his peers are learning about the realities on the ground in Kanesatake because of the open letter’s traction and resonance.
“This is a truly incredible situation on so many levels that people are shocked when they learn it,” he said.
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.