Members at a community meeting held Wednesday night by Mohawk Council of Kanesatake (MCK) grand chief Victor Bonspille voted in favour of launching an early general election, but it is far from clear that the call is valid.
“We are not going to be lending any kind of legitimacy to Victor’s illegal attempts at performing a coup,” said MCK chief Brant Etienne, who boycotted the meeting alongside MCK chiefs Amy Beauvais, John Canatonquin, Denise David, and Serge Otsi Simon.
Bonspille, meanwhile, characterized their absence as a sign of disrespect to the community.
“Now we have to go through this whole process once again due to the fact that they disrespected and disregarded the vote,” Bonspille said at the meeting Wednesday, referring to a non-confidence motion he presented against them at a public meeting on October 24, which led to the chaining of Council for over a week.
While that motion also carried, Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) continued to recognize the elected chiefs, citing a lack of certainty about the process’s conformity to the electoral code. The five chiefs succeeded in obtaining a Superior Court of Quebec injunction to reopen the band office and return to work.
Bonspille presented a second non-confidence motion against the same chiefs on Wednesday, but this time it followed a vote on a process for non-confidence votes.
“If you’re in favour to have this ratified and move forward with a vote of non-confidence, that would make it much stronger,” said Bonspille at the meeting Wednesday. The motion carried 35-1. A vote of non-confidence then passed 36-1.
Bonspille suggested the possibility this would make the five chiefs unable to run in a general election, as according to the Custom Electoral Code, being the subject of a non-confidence vote following due process makes candidates ineligible.
However, this due process still had to be established at the time the electoral code was ratified. The code refers to a process being developed by the Mohawk Council to be approved by the Mohawks of Kanesatake, but it never came to fruition.
The proposal for an early general election, which would otherwise be about 18 months away, carried 38-3 at the meeting. It had more support than the two other options for moving forward that Bonspille presented – a by-election for the five seats or for him and MCK chief Valerie Bonspille to finish the term with a hired administrator, which lost 16-10.
However, the majority of MCK chiefs remain dismissive about the validity of the votes.
“A community meeting isn’t the place to make decisions that affect the entire population,” said Etienne, who argued these do not give the whole community, including those who live off-reserve, an opportunity to have their say.
“A community meeting is generally maybe to look for advice, to gauge the temperature on a question of what the community’s views are. It’s to inform them, to give their opinions to us. It’s not to make governance decisions. That’s what an election is for,” said Etienne.
Meanwhile, the chiefs are continuing to work.
“I had a meeting this morning. Business as usual,” said MCK chief Denise David on Thursday.
“I don’t have the luxury or leisure to stay home and create fictitious rumours to get the community to hate someone,” she said. “I don’t have that luxury because I have to look for things for the community, for the kids, for the elders. We have to continue business.”
The chiefs are working with legal counsel to establish a mechanism for non-confidence votes that would involve a community-wide referendum to give all members a say.
While some Kanehsata’kehró:non have expressed outrage at the idea that the decisions made at community meetings are actually the domain of the elected Council, others see merit in the idea that democracy-by-community-meeting is not representative.
“Personally, I don’t go to the community meetings because a lot of the time it’s not productive whatsoever,” said community member Amber Hannaburg. “The same people talk and people become very hostile, and you just can’t say your piece without being called down or attacked, so I don’t attend.”
Hannaburg voted in the last election, she said, and believes a community meeting to undo her vote is undemocratic.
“I feel as though if I took the time to go down and vote at the polls, but don’t go to the community meetings, then my vote doesn’t count anymore, so I don’t count as a community member,” she said.
She would be in favour of a new general election if one were called, she said, but she portrayed the current impasse as bullying.
“I truly think all of this is ridiculous and the chiefs lost sight that it’s really us as a whole against the government,” she said, adding the conflict lets the federal government off the hook because it diminishes the community’s availability to fight for programs and funding.
The five chiefs released a communique this week in anticipation of the meeting in an attempt to clarify a narrative they say has become difficult to constrain.
“I think that confusion and unfortunate animosity that’s being brewed is the big deal, is actually something we’re having trouble dealing with,” said Etienne, a sentiment echoed by his aligned colleagues.
“The chiefs that are here right now have done nothing but uphold their functions, their duties, in the face of a grand chief who’s violating the rights of our community members, working behind our backs, trying to hurt the best interests of our community members in various ways,” said Simon.
“Why would the council here be subject to a general election? It really doesn’t make any sense.”
Given the procedural impasse, it’s unclear how the disagreement will unfold in the coming weeks. Bonspille did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.
A spokesperson for ISC said the department did not have enough information available to comment at this time.
Marcus Bankuti, Local Journalism Initiative
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.