Decades ago, Kanehsata’kehró:non Lynda Nicholas asked her children to promise never to sell the plot of land that had once belonged to her father. She had inherited the Oka letter sealing the family’s ownership, and she wanted it to be passed down across generations – to her son, to her daughter, to her grandchildren and beyond.
This commitment fell squarely on the shoulders of Nicholas’s daughter, Jennifer Lessard Cross, after her brother died in 1995.
True to her word, Lessard Cross has held on to the waterfront property since she inherited it following her mother’s passing in 2020. She plans to hand it down to her own daughter, to whom she made the same plea her mother once made to her.
“When I pass away and this goes to you, you are never to sell this land,” Lessard Cross told her daughter. “It’s to stay in the family.”
At least, that’s the plan. Lessard Cross was shocked to discover in April that the lot she’s known all her life had recently been pronounced the property of another community member, Edward Cree, by Mohawk Council of Kanesatake (MCK) grand chief Victor Bonspille, who signed a declaration of ownership that claimed a “thorough investigation” had borne this out.
Despite this claim, Bonspille had not consulted the MCK Lands and Estates Office, which handles land registration in the community.
When the declaration of ownership letter came to light, Amanda Simon, MCK’s certified lands, estates, and membership manager, told The Eastern Door she had not seen anything like it in 14 years as a certified lands manager.
The letter is not registrable with Indigenous Services Canada (ISC), she added.
Simon’s office immediately recognized that the land was already registered to another community member and brought the matter to Council. A quorum of Council chiefs decried the incident in a communique that described such documents as having no legal value.
Lessard Cross was not satisfied by this response from the grand chief. “For me, I feel Victor has abused his authority by writing this letter, this declaration of land to a new owner,” she said.
In a March 30 email obtained by The Eastern Door , Bonspille privately stated that his “acknowledgment,” as he has repeatedly and inaccurately referred to the declaration, is null without an Oka letter to accompany it and committed to withdrawing his signature if one is not produced. However, he denied that his declaration constituted the creation of a document in its own right as had been suggested by Lessard Cross in a previous email.
“To make things clear, I met with Dr. Edward Cree and gave my acknowledgment of the documentation he provided to me, at the time all documents seemed valid with oral history and knowledge of the said property,” wrote the grand chief.
Bonspille did not respond to a request for comment.
Lessard Cross continues to worry that the document could one day turn up and undermine her family’s possession of the land in question.
“This document is floating out in space and it’s signed by a grand chief,” said Lessard Cross, who said Bonspille did not reply to a lawyer’s letter sent on her behalf over a month ago.
“I don’t want something to come back like 20 years from now, when I’m dead, and my daughter’s kids get their lands swept out from under them because this ownership letter is floating around because Victor doesn’t want to retract it and null and void it.”
According to Simon, who is also the chairperson of the First Nation Lands Managers Association for Quebec and Labrador (FNLMAQL), Lessard Cross’s concerns are valid.
“(Bonspille) should have recognized his error, apologized, and said he’d never do it again. And that did not happen,” said Simon.
“In essence, he became a certified land manager overnight. It discredits my office. Why the hell have a land office if you’re going to have a grand chief who can do it all?” she said.
Simon also suggested that the incident has made her job harder by giving community members an erroneous understanding of how the process works. She said this is especially concerning when considering the interim land base, which is still subject to land allotment.
“Being in land management is hard enough with colonial rules,” she said.
No other declarations have turned up to date, according to Simon.
Lessard Cross said she does not want to pursue legal action at this time because she is concerned it would cost the community money. However, she believes action needs to be taken against the grand chief.
She recently met with MCK chiefs to ask that Bonspille be taken off all portfolios until a retraction and apology are issued, or even removed from office altogether. “What he did was very wrong,” she said.
“I don’t think his behaviour is becoming of a grand chief,” said MCK chief Brant Etienne, one of the chiefs who met with Lessard Cross.
“There’s been nothing but denials and trying to shift blame and trying to say it’s other people’s fault.”
While the Custom Electoral Code outlines how a grand chief’s position can be deemed vacant, to Etienne’s knowledge, removing a grand chief from office is not feasible through a band council resolution (BCR) alone. However, chiefs can and have been removed from portfolios through BCR’s, he said.
This is under consideration, according to Etienne.
Portfolios have long been a contentious issue, with the grand chief insisting he has the authority to reassign them unilaterally.
ISC, the authority when it comes to land allotment, is aware of the situation, which was brought to their attention by the MCK lands office. However, the ministry declined to comment on the declaration of ownership, which a spokesperson described as an internal community matter.
“Generally, before authorizing the allocation of a lot, departmental Indian Land Registration officers must verify that all necessary documents are compliant with the federal registration process,” said ISC spokesperson Zarah Malik.
“Following the Department’s authorization, Oka Letters are issued by Indigenous Services Canada confirming the lawful ownership of the lot in question. Departmental officials continue to make themselves available to provide advice to the First Nation on this process.”
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.