For a few years, John Nicholas has had his eye on a parcel of federal land near Highway 344 and Second Avenue Terrasse Raymond. The house that used to stand on it, or next to it, was vandalized and burned a long time ago. Ever since, the lot has been overgrown with shrubs and grass.
“I’m tired of looking at it, passing by every day and knowing it’s such a beautiful piece of land and nobody cares about it,” said Nicholas.
His kids will be adults soon. His oldest will turn 18 in a few years, his youngest a couple years after that. Soon his kids will need a home of their own – he doesn’t expect them to live with him forever, after all.
So on June 10, a sunny Saturday morning, Nicholas – owner of the MedPharma cannabis dispensary – wrangled up a friend with a tractor, fired up a chainsaw, and got to work clearing out the brush.
* * *
At 10:10 a.m., Mohawk Council of Kanesatake (MCK) chief Brant Etienne’s phone rang. It was his colleague, MCK chief Amy Beauvais. A community member had gotten in touch with her to tell her someone was clearing out a parcel of community land. Beauvais asked Etienne if he could meet her there; she didn’t want to go alone. “Sure,” he said. “I’ll meet you there in five minutes.”
He got on his way, arriving before Beauvais did. He found Nicholas and his friend toiling away on the lot.
“I approach John and ask him what’s going on,” said Etienne. “He says he’s clearing it out. I told him this isn’t his property. He said it doesn’t matter – he’s taking it. He’s going to put a house there.”
They argued back and forth until Beauvais showed up. The two MCK chiefs broadcast Facebook Live videos; according to Beauvais, they did it for their own safety given the presence of heavy machinery. They wanted it to be recorded if anything went awry.
Nicholas disagrees. “Nobody was being harmed. I was cutting and they were standing in the middle of the field trying to cause a commotion or uprising on Facebook Live,” he said.
“I asked him, ‘What makes you think you can just take it?’” said Beauvais. “That’s when he started kind of with the personal attacks, from what I remember. Verbal, not physical. He never laid a hand on me.”
Beauvais said she tried to diffuse the situation.
“I said ‘Look, I’ll stop the Live – can we just talk?’” said Beauvais. “But there was no reasoning with him. He was angry.”
The conversation was going nowhere, so after two or three hours, the chiefs called the Surete du Quebec (SQ), hoping they might intervene. It took the police about half an hour to arrive. When they did, they said they couldn’t do anything – that it’s a civil matter.
SQ spokesperson Marc Tessier could not speak to the specific incident, but he acknowledged that if police are called to a civil dispute, they refer the people involved to the proper authorities.
“It’s not our job to determine that dispute,” said Tessier. “It’s the same thing as when we have union lockouts or something like that, when they have a picket line. It’s not our job to determine who’s right, who’s wrong. Our job is to protect and make sure everything goes smoothly.”
Beauvais and Etienne agree that after the police left, Nicholas said he would go, but he showed no sign of vacating.
Upon realizing this, Beauvais went to stand between the tractor and the fork attachment. Etienne sat in the bucket, he said. Beauvais said that, while she was filming, the tractor started coming toward her – there was about five feet between the tractor and the fork attachment, she estimated.
“The tractor guy didn’t try to run them over,” said Nicholas. “He was actually trying to leave, and they were basically holding him hostage.”
The MCK chiefs called the SQ again, who soon arrived on scene. This time, Nicholas agreed to call it a day.
According to Etienne, Nicholas had said he’d go home after he ran out of gas for his chainsaw.
“He had a full tank of gas, though, a jerry tank. At that point, I go ahead and I empty out the jerry can so that he’ll finish. He didn’t really like that.”
Nicholas suggested Etienne was a hypocrite for doing so.
* * *
The next day, Sunday, Nicholas got back to work. At around 10:30 a.m., Etienne returned. What happened next infuriated Nicholas.
“He videotapes himself walking to my truck, opens up my truck, breaks into my truck,” said Nicholas.
“He has a chainsaw again. He’s aggravated, so I’m a little bit worried for my safety, so I go to his truck. I look inside the window,” said Etienne of the moment, which is recorded on video. “I don’t really see anything, so I opened up the door to make sure there’s nothing in there.”
As he does, a chainsaw roars. “What are you doing in my f*cking truck?” is bellowed as the saw slows to a growl and goes silent. “Get the f*ck out of my truck.”
Nicholas said he has the right to “drop” Etienne for breaking into the vehicle, but he doesn’t. He walks away.
“You’re trespassing on community land,” said Etienne.
“Indian land. I’m fucking Mohawk!” shouted Nicholas.
Etienne protested, reaching for the gas can in the truck bed. In the video, Nicholas approaches. The camera is shaky. Shoves appear to take place. The video cuts out.
“He eventually throws a punch at me,” said Etienne. “I had been attempting to record, but I guess my phone didn’t continue recording. He continues to throw punches at me.”
Etienne said he was hit several times until Nicholas took a breather. He kept himself positioned between Nicholas and the chainsaw, he said.
“He proceeds to grab my t-shirt and trying to yank me down,” continued Etienne. “I feel myself falling, so I throw a punch. I’m pretty sure it connected.”
Nicholas denied throwing the first punch. When asked whether punches were involved, he said, “No. I don’t want to comment on that. There was a confrontation and that’s that.”
Both parties say they pressed charges against the other. The SQ would not confirm whether an investigation is ongoing.
Around the time the altercation became physical, MCK chief Serge Otsi Simon arrived.
“I went down there. I thought maybe I could calm things down. The two were, let’s just say they were fighting. A conflict had erupted between the two,” he said.
“I’ve seen it in my 10 years, not having the resources to address these matters. Sometimes it boils over into direct conflict between people,” he added.
“I was telling John, ‘Where does it end? If everyone uses that reason, where does it stop?’ John was very adamant that he’s not going to stop regardless of what happens. He was going to take those lands and that’s it.”
The flashpoint brings to the surface tensions that have long existed in the community, where widespread annexing of a limited amount of community land – the Kanesatake Interim Land Base – in the wake of 1990 has pervaded unfettered even after a 2011 moratorium pronounced an end to the practice.
This moratorium, effected by Council, was supported by a majority at a well-attended public meeting in 2010, according to the document.
The practice of appropriating community lands – known as “land grabbing” – has been exacerbated by a failure of Council to allocate the vacant lands under the controversial Kanesatake Interim Land Base Governance Act. Some, such as Nicholas, argue the practice of taking land has been so widespread that they ought to have the right to take land too, even after the moratorium.
Simon, the former MCK grand chief, acknowledges that he himself has occupied a federal house since 1993. He claims he tried for years afterwards to purchase it but that its status meant there were no guarantees, adding a lot of people are in a similar situation and that they didn’t take more than what was needed.
There are other chiefs who occupy federal land as well.
Land is sometimes taken for housing, but it has often been taken for businesses, a situation common for cannabis stores, although Nicholas said he purchased the land where MedPharma is located.
When community land is appropriated, Council and other levels of government have been unable or unwilling to intervene using institutional methods, leaving MCK chiefs who wish to enforce the moratorium with – apparently – no better way to do so than to show up and protest.
“On that day, I felt that was my only option,” said Beauvais, who, like Etienne, is in her first term as an MCK chief. She said stopping the practice of land grabbing was an important campaign issue.
“At some point we’re going to have to say that’s enough, this needs to stop,” she said. “And that’s what we were trying to do on Saturday. We said look, we’re the guardians of this land. We’re not protecting it. We have to protect what’s left. We can’t allow the few that have the money and the resources to take over and build to keep doing this because there won’t be anything left for those that can’t do that.”
However, Beauvais said she has some sympathy for the position of community members such as Nicholas.
“If I look at it as they were making a statement, they’re right in that sense, because there’s only so much left, and this community member that was trying to land grab, their display was just mirroring what was done to our people in the past. I have to say, the action is unacceptable, but the statement it makes – well, you’re taking too long, so I’m just going to take it – I understand that.
“We don’t have something in place to actually help the situation right now.”
She said it is a touchy subject – how could the MCK roll back the occupation of community lands when there are so many people involved? “It’s not going to be an easy process, and that’s why there needs to be open communication to start discussing what the community as a whole thinks the best solution for this is,” she said. “What would the best solution for this problem be, short of getting enough land for everyone?”
Nicholas takes issue with the fact that decision-makers are implicated in the situation themselves.
“I figure if it’s good for the goose it’s good for the gander,” he said.
“Some people take more than others. If it’s good for them, why not for me? It’s very small compared to what others have taken. I’m taking it for the future, for my kids, so they can have a place to stay.”
What’s more, with Kanesatake possessing such little land, it is not often available for sale, he said. “There are people that have land, but they don’t want to sell it,” he said.
While the appropriation of community land in Kanesatake is extensive, the practice is unheard of in nearby Kahnawake, according to Kahnawake Peacekeepers spokesperson Kyle Zachary.
“The situation in Kanesatake is pretty unprecedented,” he said. “I can’t recall a situation like that ever happening here. We do deal with land disputes from time to time. Those are typically disputes over property lines and are usually handled by the Lands Unit, as they are a civil matter rather than criminal.”
Etienne created a poll Thursday on the Kanesatake Facebook group asking whether it is acceptable to take community lands. At the time of writing, 96 percent of people voted no, with 43 respondents. However, multiple comments objected to the question.
This article was originally published in print on Friday, June 16, in issue 32.24 of The Eastern Door.
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.