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Council descends into deeper chaos

Courtesy Serge Otsi Simon

A fractious term of Council has hit a new low, with the doors of the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake (MCK) in chains as MCK grand chief Victor Bonspille insists that his opposition – five of seven MCK chiefs – are no longer recognized after a community meeting in which 42 people raised their hands in favour of a non-confidence motion.

Bonspille is accusing the five chiefs – Amy Beauvais, John Canatonquin, Denise David, Brant Etienne, and Serge Otsi Simon – of disregarding the will of the community by continuing to claim authority.

“Now (the community) made a decision and those chiefs said they weren’t going to adhere to it. I think the community is just fed up that these chiefs are being so disrespectful they think they’re all lined with teflon and they can’t be touched,” said Bonspille.

“The community finally got fed up, and they took it into their hands, and they decided to lock up the office again.”

The five chiefs counter that the motion is illegitimate, with at least some accusing Bonspille of using underhanded tactics to fight against their bid to make him step down or face a community-wide referendum after his attempt to put the community into third-party management with Indigenous Services Canada (ISC), which would have seen Council cede control of the community’s finances.

“It was a freak show,” said Canatonquin of the public meeting. “What can I say? It was one-sided. Everything was illegal.”

He said the majority of chiefs still intend to move ahead with the referendum, which he said will be done legally.

“Last night was just a show of hands. Some of them, maybe they were not band members. How do we know? That’s not the way to do something.”

The total number of votes in favour of the motion Bonspille presented represents less than a quarter of one percent of the community. However, Bonspille contends the number is not relevant.

“I’m sure the other Council chiefs, the ones voted out, will try to manipulate this and turn things around in their favour,” he said. “The fact is the people spoke, whether it’s 50 or 10. People were advised and notified of this coming, and the ones that came out to vote are the majority members present to make a decision, as is our custom.”

The shuttering of Council by a handful of community members on Wednesday morning followed a raucous public meeting on Tuesday night, a portion of which was live streamed by Anientha Simon, a founding member of the “Youth Council,” a grassroots group of young Kanehsata’kehró:non. She is also the daughter of MCK chief Serge Otsi Simon.

“I only started recording during the second half after I was called a skank,” said Anientha, noting that she believes public meetings should be accessible online to boost community engagement and encourage people to behave.

“I felt very ashamed of how my community was talking, acting,” she said. “It was very hostile. Very aggressive. Very childlike. I was actually there with my 16-year-old nephew because he wanted to partake in the community discussions. He was left very distraught. He did not get much sleep because of how upset he was about the meeting.”

Shouting and derisive laughter can be heard as the meeting progressed to a vote, presented by Bonspille, to declare no confidence in the five chiefs who are opposed to him.

After the vote, a community member can be heard asking, “By having this vote of non-confidence, what does that mean? Are they being … removed from office, or just the people don’t believe in you?”

Someone else can be heard proposing that community members physically prevent the five chiefs subject to the vote from returning to work.

“​What do you think, should we all show up there tomorrow and not let them in? Are you guys in?” the person said. The suggestion was met with applause.

“That’s something that’s out of my hands,” replied Bonspille. “It is a community building.”

He noted it’s been done before.

“That’s a community band office. I’m not going to tell you what you can and can’t do,” he said.

On Wednesday, a handful of community members showed up at the band office to chain the doors, grinding community business to a halt. According to Canatonquin, the finance chief, this is likely to cause delays in Kanehsata’kehró:non receiving their social assistance cheques or other monies administered by Council.

“To lock the door like that, no. You’re putting in danger innocent people who need their cheques next week,” he said. According to Canatonquin, he, David, Beauvais, and staff member Ami-Lee Hannaburg are the only signing authorities at the MCK.

Ratihén:te High School, across the parking lot from the band office, was closed Wednesday as tempers flared at the steps of the band office. The Surete du Quebec (SQ) was present to observe, but there were no interventions, according to SQ spokesperson Marc Tessier.

“I really don’t like school, but I was looking forward to going (Wednesday) because I had science, and I need to catch up on my science to graduate, and cancelling school just because of that was not really necessary,” said Ratihén:te student Tara Bonspille.

The school closure is said to have been requested by David, the education portfolio chief, citing fears of violence or other behaviour youth should not be exposed to, a position Victor railed against publicly and in an interview with The Eastern Door.

“She went there and she put fear into our school system, into our children, when there was nothing to be afraid of,” he said. He said he subsequently instructed the principal of the high school that only the grand chief’s office can order a closure.

Beauvais, Canatonquin, David, Etienne, and Serge all signed a communique affirming their support for the measure due to safety concerns.

Serge also suggested the closure could be a ploy to convince the government to put Kanesatake into third-party management, which it declined with a letter outlining the exceptional circumstances required, including an unacceptable disruption of services.

“I told the chiefs look at this, the minister just sent him a road map on how to put us in third-party,” said Serge.

“The timing of it, we’re close to the end of the month, the band office is chained up,” he said.

Victor said the MCK office will remain closed by him until a followup community meeting can be held – a meeting he speculated could lead to a general election. If it were the community’s will, he said, he and MCK chief Valerie Bonspille would complete the last year-and-a-half by themselves, possibly aided by an administrator.

Victor pointed out that the Custom Electoral Code, as it stands, leaves the process of a non-confidence vote undefined, a clarification that was deferred by the document.

“It’s swiss cheese,” said Victor of the electoral code. “It’s a piece of garbage in my view.”

He has accused the majority of chiefs of holding up the process to update the code by withholding funds from the lawyer working on the file.

The other chiefs, however, accuse Victor of simply working to achieve his own ends with the community meeting held this week.

“​​Flat out, Victor is afraid that he’s going to be removed by our referendum from his position as grand chief, so he’s trying to protect it,” said Etienne.

“I think this intimidation tactic is just a feeble last attempt on their part to try and get their way when they know in the end their days are numbered in office.”

Since the shuttering of the Council building, Kanehsata’kehró:non on all sides have vented their frustration with Council, with a higher number of anonymous posts on the community Facebook page than usual.

This article was originally published in print on Friday, October 27, in issue 32.43 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.