A lawyer representing Mohawk Council of Kanesatake (MCK) grand chief Victor Bonspille sought to undermine a band council resolution to initiate preliminary work on the toxic G&R Recycling site, claiming that the majority of chiefs have been removed from office.
The correspondence between Bonspille’s lawyer and the federal government was revealed in a letter this week by ISC minister Patty Hajdu, which was obtained by The Eastern Door. The letter, which was sent to all MCK chiefs on Wednesday, said ISC will not take responsibility for interpreting whether or not the removals are valid.
“Should you not be able to resolve these disputes internally, you have the option of seeking a decision on the composition of Council from the Federal Court. An expeditious resolution will benefit the whole community,” writes Hajdu.
The letter focuses on the continued importance of the G&R file and encourages Council to move forward with steps to lay the groundwork as advanced in the resolution Bonspille opposed. This would be funded by ISC.
Passed on November 25, the resolution selected W8banaki to coordinate the characterization study for the site and to implement odour mitigation.
The remediation itself is expected to cost tens of millions of dollars.
“W8banaki could start the work on the site assessment and studies,” writes Hajdu. “If all chiefs, including the grand chief, agree to this option, it would not require the Council to take possession of the land at this time, or commit the community and Council to the associated financial responsibility.”
Bonspille has frequently argued that the acceptance of a transfer of the G&R land to the community by Robert and Gary Gabriel – which the majority of chiefs halted, citing liability concerns – is a prerequisite to moving forward, saying the other chiefs are solely responsible for obstructing cleanup efforts.
The land transfer is indeed a sticking point with the government, but it applies to the remediation itself.
“It’s just another step,” said MCK chief Serge Otsi Simon, who conceded it may be necessary to eventually accept the transfer of land. “We’re going step by step doing our due diligence. There are a lot of legal unknowns we might encounter, so we’re going at it very slowly.”
Bonspille did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.
“My initial reaction is it’s about as good as a response from the minister on the matters at hand as we can expect,” said MCK chief Brant Etienne.
“It’s confirmation that Victor’s been actively lobbying against our efforts to get this done. It was expected, but it’s nice to have confirmation,” he said. He also said he appreciated the confirmation that ISC has no interest in interpreting Kanesatake custom.
However, he suggested that all seven chiefs agreeing to move forward with preliminary steps as the letter proposes is both unnecessary and unlikely.
“That whole seven chiefs thing is untenable,” said Etienne, alluding to the complete breakdown of cooperation on Council.
Unanimous agreement had been a stipulation of the First Nations Quebec-Labrador Sustainable Development Institute (FNQLSDI), which was originally going to coordinate the preliminary work, but this has not been required by W8banaki, according to Etienne.
However, a non-interference letter signed by the Gabriel brothers, which has not been obtained at this time, will be necessary, Etienne said.
“It makes sense why any organization that would come in to deal with the rehabilitation would want that in place first,” he said. “We totally understand that.”
Five of seven MCK chiefs – Amy Beauvais, John Canatonquin, Denise David, Brant Etienne, and Serge Otsi Simon – were the subject of losing non-confidence votes at community meetings called by Bonspille in October and November, but the validity of these votes is far from clear.
The five chiefs dismissed the hand counts at the meetings as undemocratic and continued to work even as the band office was chained by a small group of Kanehsata’kehró:non in October.
ISC has still received no official results or details of the votes conducted in October and November, according to Hajdu’s letter.
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.