In the end, barring federal appeal, of course, Derek White beat both Quebec and Canada at their own game, in their own courtrooms, and made history in the process.
All that was left to do was to triumphantly dance out of the courtroom. But Derek White doesn’t dance.
By beating both levels of outside government on trumped-up charges that included gangsterism and evading excise tax, White stamped Kahnawake’s name on a case that hasn’t been this big from town since the Paul K. Diabo case.
If you don’t recall, the Paul K. Diabo case was a hugely important one that showed the border did not have the same hold on our people as it did on Canadians and Americans, while using the Jay Treaty as the backdrop. Diabo was also met with a mix of similar support, derision, and meh from the community, but he kept fighting, facing deportation from the US.
Those who know Derek know he has many businesses in Kahnawake and gives back to many causes, and for this case, he went it alone (along with Hunter Montour, of course), as they took down overzealous agents in a courtroom he was supposed to lose in.
Justice Sophie Bourque, who is retiring in December, put out her one last shot in what will surely be a case heralded, lauded, and studied by people for many years to come.
But like we said at the beginning, not everyone agreed – the Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs, for example, who stepped in to argue sovereignty and collective rights over individual ones.
Others in the community thought he should give up, call it a day, and do jail time, pay a fine, and kowtow to the government.
But they don’t know Derek. And it wasn’t their money he was using; it was his own.
These charges put a heavy damper on his NASCAR racing career – and he said he would appeal to get back behind the wheel after he was unceremoniously suspended because of the charges – but they also took a heavy toll on his family life, wallet, and overall mental health.
And how could it not?
What it showed, and what the judge focused on, is we have rights that were asserted by treaties – in this case the Covenant Chain – and we have inherent rights as Indigenous Peoples that need to be respected.
Much like the Tsilhqot’in ruling in B.C. in 2014, which gave that nation title to over 1,700 square KMs of land, this one will have a larger impact for the future, no matter what the government’s next steps are.
And one thing it shows is we should take the government to court more often to gain better results. Because the alternative – waiting eons for land claims, for example, while getting nothing in return – isn’t working.
Sure, we could lose, there’s always that chance in anything we do. That’s life. But not trying is a form of losing too. And man have we been losing enough already as Onkwehón:we.
Besides, we were born fighters and right now we’re not doing much of that, with far too many of our so-called leaders more worried about money and image, infighting, and personal gain, than actual sacrifice and real gains for all.
You know who they are because it’s all of them.
The ones who supported Derek had faith he would win, but even we were surprised by how much Bourque bought into it all. We have never seen a judge express those types of sentiments about our history, rights, and culture, and we’ve been around a long time.
No matter what we all think about any of it, a precedent has been set and there will be more positive that comes out of this than negative.
Now let’s get our gloves on and get ready because we still have a lot more ground to gain in this so-called era of reconciliation.
Eastern Door Editor/Publisher Steve Bonspiel started his journalism career in January 2003 with The Nation magazine, a newspaper serving the Cree of northern Quebec.
Since that time, he has won numerous regional and national awards for his in-depth, impassioned writing on a wide variety of subjects, including investigative pieces, features, editorials, columns, sports, human interest and hard news.
He has freelanced for the Montreal Gazette, Toronto Star, Windspeaker, Nunatsiaq News, Calgary Herald, Native Peoples Magazine, and other publications.
Among Steve's many awards is the Paul Dumont-Frenette Award for journalist of the year with the Quebec Community Newspapers Association in 2015, and a back-to-back win in 2010/11 in the Canadian Association of Journalists' community category - one of which also garnered TED a short-list selection of the prestigious Michener award.
He was also Quebec Community Newspapers Association president from 2012 to 2019, and continues to strive to build bridges between Native and non-Native communities for a better understanding of each other.