Quebec and Oka have expressed concerns to the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake (MCK) that the current political dysfunction is delaying important files, notably the remediation of the toxic G&R Recycling site, which is expected to cost tens of millions of dollars.
“The money is there, the feds are present. So this is an opportunity we can’t miss,” said Ian Lafrenière, Quebec’s Indigenous affairs minister, in an interview with The Eastern Door.
Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) has not budged in its requirement that the MCK take possession of the G&R Recycling land from owners Gary and Robert Gabriel before a government-funded cleanup can proceed. MCK grand chief Victor Bonspille had attempted to transfer the Oka letter to the MCK, but the majority of chiefs intervened, citing liability concerns for the community.
“Now because of the whole political situation, let’s call it, nothing is going further,” said Lafrenière. “I received, believe me, many messages from community members distressed about the situation. They want something to happen for the G&R Recycling site.”
Lafrenière said he has been in touch with MCK grand chief Victor Bonspille and MCK chief Serge Otsi Simon about the issue. On November 8, Lafrenière sent an email to the grand chief and the five chiefs in opposition to him at an email address they created after a small group of community members chained up the band office. The minister included a handful of other politicians in CC in the email, which was sent in reply to the five chiefs.
Lafrenière said in the letter, obtained by The Eastern Door, that it is up to the federal government to analyze whether a vote of non-confidence at a community meeting on October 24 against Simon and fellow MCK chiefs Amy Beauvais, John Canatonquin, Denise David, and Brant Etienne conformed to the Custom Electoral Code. However, he outlined the ministry’s intention to continue discussions with both groups.
“Some questions now warrant the band council’s urgent attention,” he wrote. “This applies to the health of the Kanehsata’kehró:non. I urge you to set aside your differences to deal immediately with the G&R Recycling question.”
Lafrenière told The Eastern Door his role is as a facilitator and that he is optimistic about the federal government’s approach. He does not believe the liability question should be an issue, he said.
“The federal government’s not going to support or fund a cleanup of that magnitude while it’s in private hands, so it needs to be reverted back to Council,” said Bonspille in an interview with The Eastern Door on October 26.
In the same interview, Bonspille acknowledged the Center Road site is also in need of remediation. “That one’s pretty bad too,” he said. “That’s going to be part of the next phase.”
Simon suggested the MCK could be stuck holding the bag in the event of a change of government, highlighting his belief that Council cannot accept the Oka letter transfer of the G&R site. “That’ll never happen,” he said.
He characterized ISC’s requirement as a show of bad faith. “It’s a matter of mistrust, I think, between our Council and the federal government,” he said.
He noted that he hunts and fishes on the territory and worries himself about the ongoing impact of G&R.
“I don’t want to feed my family with contaminated fish,” he said. “But there’s other interests here. Putting the future of the children in possible jeopardy because of the federal government’s manipulation of this? No. That can’t happen.”
He said it would be a show of good faith for the government to provide better assurances to the MCK about a cleanup, claiming ISC did not firmly commit to the remediation even if the MCK did take over the land.
“They said we will consider. That is a very shaky promise,” said Simon.
The mayor of Oka, Pascal Quevillon, has also been in touch with the MCK to try to arrange a meeting on G&R, although the chiefs have not agreed to meet with him.
“I’m not biased towards one or the other, but they have to talk to each other,” said Quevillon in an interview with The Eastern Door. “Even if they disagree on certain points, act as elected representatives and then continue to work on the important issues.”
He believes the MCK should not get hung up on liability issues in accepting the land transfer.
“They’re not the ones who contaminated the land. It’s not the band council that’s responsible, it’s the occupants of the land who are responsible,” he said.
The dysfunction at Council is touching upon other files, too, according to Lafrenière. He said it has been difficult to parse who Quebec should be listening to when it comes to files that should be routine.
“I can’t say status quo, because believe me, it’s a nightmare. It’s not the status quo. It’s a very difficult situation,” he said, although he added that he has so far been able to manage the divide by seeking common ground between the two sides.
“To be perfectly clear, I’m not taking anything for granted. Each time I see something, I double check with both.”
In speaking with The Eastern Door, Lafrenière also reiterated fears that Kanesatake’s political instability could embolden organized crime, a concern he has spoken out about in the past.
“It’s almost like an invitation to organized crime because they see a weakness,” he said. “They see that people don’t get along, and this is where organized crime are so good at it. They see a vulnerability, and they jump in.”
This article was originally published in print on Friday, November 17, in issue 32.46 of The Eastern Door.
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.