When an awareness campaign launched one week ago, Iris Phillips was among the first to sign up for the first of a series of three free workshops on estate planning.
“Personally I think it’s very important to have a plan set in place,” said Phillips. “No one likes to talk about death but we all know it will happen eventually. I would rather make sure my wishes are respected and all is set in place so there is no additional stress on my family.”
All 20 spots for the first workshop have already been filled.
The urgency of the matter propelled the launch of this campaign, which aims to entice community members to learn more about the importance of preparing a will.
According to Indigenous Services Canada (ISC), less than nine percent of First Nations people living on reserve in the country have a will when they pass away. Although data specific to Kahnawake is not yet available, Louise Mayo, who is spearheading the campaign on behalf of the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK), said the ratio of Kahnawa’kehró:non who have a will is still far too low.
She partly attributes this passivity to people simply putting off the task because it never seems to be a priority. But that approach has caught some off-guard, especially in situations of sudden illness or deaths.
“Everything seems to be going well, until you get sick, until something happens,” Mayo said. She said people also tend to underestimate their assets, but simply owning a car, furniture, or having some money in the bank are not to be overlooked.
Phillips suggests another common reason for delaying it. “We are very superstitious people and some believe that if we talk about death, it will come knocking.”
Nevertheless, she encourages community members to inform themselves. “It doesn’t mean you are committing to anything, just being knowledgeable about your options.”
ISC provided $50,000 in funding for the awareness campaign, which will go towards a total of six to 10 workshops over the next six months and to help develop a toolkit for Kahnawa’kehró:non to be shared online. This package will include additional information and guidelines about the basics of estate planning.
After the workshops, community members will have a chance to sit down with Tricia Collier, certified financial planner from the Caisse Populaire Kahnawake, a partner on this project, to finalize their will.
Should the demand for workshops arise, Mayo said organizers will be prepared to plan to accommodate as many as possible – prioritizing flexibility with the scheduling for those interested.
“I’m so happy that people are excited about it,” Mayo said, adding she was pleasantly surprised by the overwhelming response from the community.
The target audience for the workshops planned out so far includes those 50 or older who are retired or semi-retired, as well as young families and single parents. A later workshop in spring will focus on families of individuals with special needs, organized in collaboration with Connecting Horizons.
Those interested in learning more or signing up for upcoming workshops can contact Mayo directly at 514-793-0662 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The workshop will cover the ins and outs of estate planning and writing a will, what one can and cannot do with their land or property, and the different circumstances that may affect their eligibility.
Mayo also explained there are three types of will: a holograph will, which is handwritten; a will with two witnesses; and a will with a notary, which is recommended for more complicated situations.
When working with a notary, Mayo stressed it’s critical to see a notary who has knowledge and experience with jurisdiction under Indian Affairs.
Mayo said it’s important to understand that leaving the community – for a temporary move or to go to a medical facility, for instance – could lead to the individual being subject to provincial or state jurisdiction instead. “We’re encouraging and reminding people that it’s very important that you always keep your main residency as Kahnawake.”
The absence of a will upon someone’s passing has been at the root of family disputes in the community, sometimes even spanning years, especially when it comes to land as an asset. “Then eight people own a piece of property. And then that becomes an undivided interest,” Mayo said.
Complications can quickly arise when there is no will and no executor appointed to carry out the instructions of someone who passed away. Often, it has created a breakdown in the family. “The family has to guess what you would have liked to have, and then there’s hard feelings with family members or siblings,” Mayo said.
“Save your family the grief.”