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Environment director under fire

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The director of the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake (MCK) environment department has been accused of cutting trees in the Onen’tó:kon preservation area established by a group of women committed to protecting the Pines.

The environment director, Eugene Nicholas, publicly denied that he has had any trees cut down in the area since he inherited the AAAA cannabis store from his late brother, Reuben Nicholas, who died September 10 of this year. The store is built on community-owned land.

“I cut nothing. It was my brother who cut it,” said Eugene in a comment on Facebook. “He passed away two weeks ago and he left it to me. Now I have stopped it all.”

Eugene did not reply to multiple requests for comment from The Eastern Door.

“Even just occupying the location, if he says, ‘Well, I inherited it, I didn’t do it,’ that doesn’t matter,” said MCK chief Brant Etienne. “He’s still profiting and benefitting from that destruction. That is completely contrary to what his position is supposed to be.”

Etienne added that he is skeptical of the concept of inheriting a business built on community land.

“Building on stolen land, in my opinion, should completely nullify any right you have to have your property there,” he said.

In any case, Dan Nicholas, who brought the matter to the community’s attention, does not believe Eugene’s explanation.

“He’s got all kinds of excuses,” said Dan, who claims he confronted workers over the weekend, who said they were working for Eugene. According to Dan, they had a wood splitter and were taking out cords of wood.

“He’s supposed to protect the environment – he’s in the Pines cutting trees,” said Dan, who added that the situation is out of control in Kanesatake, with others also engaged in tree cutting.

“We didn’t fight so a handful of guys could destroy the Pines,” said Dan, 58, referring to the Siege of Kanehsatake in 1990.

The situation is the latest in a years-long battle to protect sacred pine trees from being cut – itself emblematic of a fissure in the community between those who see the influx of cannabis stores on the strip as a harbinger of prosperity and those who assert that greed and lawlessness have seized Kanesatake, with even its core institutions unwilling or unable to intervene.

Most, if not all, of the stores in the area are built on grabbed land.

The accusation against Eugene led Karonhienhawe Nicole Nicholas, one of the women involved in the fight to protect the Pines, to reach out to him for a meeting in the Onen’tó:kon preservation area, which took place Tuesday evening.

The meeting with Eugene went well, Karonhienhawe said, yielding an agreement that no further trees will be cut in the zone, and that the wood from the trees already razed would be moved to the Longhouse for distribution to elders and those without the means to buy firewood.

“As for the rest of the Pines and shops that are destroying the Pines, we can never get back what was destroyed, but we will do our best to protect what is left,” Karonhienhawe said.

“It’s bad enough we are still fighting against land encroachment from the municipality of Oka all the time – we are fighting the same white greedy mentality of community members who are doing the same thing.”

She said all the shops need to halt further expansion and accept they have enough, echoing the thoughts of other women associated with the group.

“There’s this settler mentality around here that we should all just mind our own business and look the other way. And then I realized there are no Mohawk values here, there are no leaders, and the community is too scared to say anything,” said Julia Kanathiiostha Lazore, referring to intimidation and vitriol from some cannabis store owners.

“I’m scared too, but when I see men like Dan Nicholas standing up there supporting my little efforts, I feel as though not all hope is lost. We need real help now.”

The group of women have been fighting against continued development for years, but it still feels like an uphill battle, she said.

“Despite our pleas, multiple stores on the strip continue to cut and destroy our Pines. It’s been three years since we started this movement to save the trees, and it is far from over,” said Lazore.

Complaints about the inability or unwillingness of the MCK to confront the cutting of pine trees have been a regular refrain.

“We are looking at and doing work behind the scenes. It’s complicated,” said Etienne, adding that Council is well aware of the problem, which he noted police are unwilling to help address.

“We live here. We know this. We drive past it all day. We see people. We talk to people. We hear people. We know the concern is out there. We know people’s fear for their safety, for their wellbeing,” he said.

According to Etienne, Council is planning to send mailouts imminently regarding the cutting of pine trees.

This article was originally published in print on Friday, September 29, in issue 32.39 of The Eastern Door.

Marcus Bankuti, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

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Marcus is a journalist and 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.

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Marcus is a journalist and 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.