On October 25, Mohawk Council of Kanesatake (MCK) grand chief Victor Bonspille emerges from the Council building, messenger bag slung over his shoulder, thermos in hand, and locks the door.
Bonspille appears relaxed, his body language signalling it could have been any ordinary day at the band office. Except it wasn’t.
A small cadre of Kanehsata’kehró:non had assembled at the doors. The morning was young, and any community servants who had already settled into their duties had been sent home by the grand chief, at least some without explanation, according to a public notice from MCK’s Lands, Estates, and Membership Office.
After locking up, Bonspille chats with community members, pivoting to make room for Kanehsata’kehró:non Guy Cataford, who wraps a bulky chain around the door handles of the Council office and slaps a padlock on it.
Moments later, the two men share a fist bump.
“I don’t know who locked it or put chains on the door,” said Bonspille last week in an interview with The Eastern Door, suggesting he managed to facilitate access to staff to retrieve supplies on October 31 simply by calling a random community member.
But security footage obtained this week by The Eastern Door shows otherwise.
“This video is a direct contradiction to everything he said happened on that day. He was an active participant,” said MCK chief Brant Etienne, one of five MCK chiefs targeted the night before at a community meeting called by Bonspille.
The chain was finally cut Monday morning after a temporary injunction authorizing the MCK to remove it was granted by justice Andres C. Garin of the Superior Court of Quebec on November 2.
The extraordinary closure, which saw the Council building chained up for more than a week, was precipitated by a contentious community meeting on October 24, where Bonspille presented a motion of non-confidence against Etienne and fellow MCK chiefs Amy Beauvais, John Canatonquin, Denise David, and Serge Otsi Simon. A hand count showed 42-0 in favour, with no abstentions.
These chiefs had recently announced an intention to launch a community-wide referendum on Bonspille’s leadership following the discovery that the grand chief had asked Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) to put Kanesatake under third-party management, which would have seen the MCK yield authority over the community’s financial affairs.
ISC denied the request, but in doing so alerted the five chiefs, who framed it as the final straw after many months of dysfunction. Bonspille responded by proposing the non-confidence motion targeting the five chiefs opposed to him.
Minutes before the chaotic vote on October 24, Bonspille told the boisterous crowd, which included people affiliated with cannabis stores, that the five chiefs had asked the Councils of sister communities Kahnawake and Akwesasne and their police forces to intervene in Kanesatake.
“And I don’t know what that means,” Bonspille can be heard saying in a recording obtained by The Eastern Door. “Maybe come in and break in and do raids on us?”
Evidence suggests Bonspille knew this was false. As reported by The Eastern Door last week, Kahnawake Council chief Ryan Montour, who leads the public safety portfolio, said he told the Kanesatake Council at a meeting attended by Bonspille this summer that nobody had asked Kahnawake to intervene.
The Peacekeepers also confirmed that no such request had been made.
“Victor has been making a big show trying to justify his actions with blatant falsehoods,” said Etienne.
“How much more does it take for people to realize that the person they put into office as grand chief is an outright liar?”
After the vote, a community member can be heard suggesting to applause that the crowd physically prevent the five chiefs from returning to work.
“That’s something that’s out of my hands,” Bonspille replied. “It is a community building.” He added he would not tell community members what they can and can’t do.
“He likes to accuse others of breach of trust, but it seems there’s a double standard that when he does it, it’s completely justifiable, a little like Trump in the United States,” said Simon, who accuses Bonspille of incitement.
He said the community members who chained the building were misled, urging them to reconsider their position. “I’m really hopeful that maybe some peace and reason is going to prevail here. Acting out on someone else’s lies, it never has a good result,” he said.
“Honestly, if there was truth, if there was some wrongdoing this Council has done, I would accept my punishment without question,” said Simon. “But the fact is, it’s all one big manufactured lie, and we’re not going to submit to that.”
Cataford said he was motivated by a belief that the five chiefs have to go. He was at the meeting the night before and voted in favour of non-confidence.
“First of all, they’re still digging inside, they call it, the cookie jar,” he said, echoing words Bonspille had used at the community meeting.
“I didn’t see all the documents there,” said Cataford, “but he’s saying they have things they would have to take care of, and apparently they’re not taking care of it for the population. They’re doing what they want to do.”
Cataford, who owns a cannabis business, predicted that if sister communities raided community stores, as Bonspille apparently falsely suggested had been requested, that it would provoke another so-called Oka Crisis. However, he said this not being true wouldn’t have altered his vote.
“It’s time for a change,” he said.
He said Bonspille did not ask him to lock the band office and that Bonspille’s participation was limited to asking staff to leave. “The only thing Victor asked, he said they had people working that morning and he asked them to leave the building,” said Cataford.
He is in favour of new elections, a mandate sought at the next community meeting called by Bonspille, which is slated for November 22 after two postponements. The agenda contemplates a general election, five by-elections, or the two Bonspille chiefs serving out the term with a hired administrator.
Despite his support for elections, Cataford doesn’t believe replacements will be any better. “Once they’re in, it’s like they’re all thinking about their pocket,” he said.
Although Bonspille insists the October 24 non-confidence result is valid, the next meeting’s agenda includes a ratification of the process and another non-confidence vote for the same chiefs.
Bonspille has repeatedly characterized votes conducted at community meetings as binding by custom, even though they are often attended by a tiny minority of members – the latest counted 42 votes, but the band list includes 3,000 people.
“That’s not democratic, that’s not fair, that’s not right in any way,” said Etienne.
Bonspille has pointed to the Custom Electoral Code to defend his position, presumably the following clause: “The participating majority of adult members are the final authority in all matters pertaining to all Kanehsata’kehró:non and their territory,” but the document is far from clear on defining a process for making such decisions.
ISC has reviewed an October 26 notice from Bonspille on Council’s Facebook page announcing the results of the vote, but the government is not convinced the vote is valid following a review.
“According to the advice obtained from Justice Canada, the grand chief’s publication does not provide sufficient details to determine the legitimacy of the non-confidence vote and the respect of the process for removing a chief in accordance with the community’s customary code,” said ISC spokesperson Anispiragas Piragasanathar in response to questions from The Eastern Door.
The results of the vote were not reported to ISC, Piragasanathar said on November 3. Regardless, it is up to Federal Court, not ISC, to weigh the arguments of the two factions, according to Piragasanathar.
“In the meantime, ISC continues to work with the elected band council,” he said.
As for third-party management, the community continues to deliver services, precluding ISC from appointing a third-party administrator, which Piragasanathar reiterated is a last resort.
“We are closely monitoring the developments in Kanesatake,” he said.
Bonspille did not reply to request for comment. Chief Valerie Bonspille, the only other MCK chief not named in the non-confidence motion, declined to comment.
She can also be seen in the video with Cataford as he holds the chains, although she appears to be speaking to SQ officers in the parking lot at the moment the doors were chained.
On that day, SQ spokesperson Marc Tessier told The Eastern Door that police were not there to intervene, a message also delivered to concerned chiefs, who were told removing the chain could result in property destruction charges, according to the application for a temporary injunction filed by the MCK.
Asked whether this claim is true, Tessier said, “In all cases, if we are called for a possible criminal infraction, we will take the report. It will be sent after to the crown attorney, and they will decide if charges can be laid.”
The injunction issued last week is in force for 10 days. A second filing due November 9 was expected to be on time.
This article was originally published in print on Friday, November 10, in issue 32.45 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.