Home News Tree removal at cultural building shocks community

Tree removal at cultural building shocks community

Steve Bonspiel The Eastern Door

The community mourned the loss of a swath of mature maple trees this week, with the Multi-Purpose Building project team confirming more trees were removed than had been anticipated by the original plan.

The team was not able to specify by deadline how many trees were removed, citing project manager Louie John Diabo’s vacation, saying only that these numbers would be transparent to the community.

Fire-safety considerations and the need to regrade the site were blamed for the removal of additional trees at the location, the future home of the Kanien’kehá:ka Raotitióhkwa Language and Culture Center (KOR), Turtle Island Theatre, and Kahnawake Tourism.

As wáhta season begins and Kahnawake Tourism gears up for Maple Food Fest, tensions between two major cultural priorities – ecological preservation and cultural revitalization – fuelled the community’s social-media debates as Kahnawa’kehró:non wrestled with the news. Meanwhile, the project team emphasized its environmental mitigation efforts in defending the landmark project, which will become Kahnawake’s premier cultural hub and even home to a state-of-the-art museum.

“It’s scary to see, it’s shocking to see, and I get the reaction from the community,” said Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK) chief Jessica Lazare, who is on the Multi-Purpose Building file. However, she said care has been taken throughout the process to minimize the impacts of construction at the site, including tree-tagging and medicine walks to ensure valuable plant life is not wasted.

“We did it the best way we could, respectfully for the tree life and the plant life that are out there,” she said, noting a tobacco burning was held last summer before any work began.

The project team has committed to planting at least two trees for every one that was removed. While it has not yet indicated how many trees were removed in total, 74 trees have been set aside for transplant.

Aaron McComber The Eastern Door

“Unfortunately in this day and age we have to take down some trees for a little bit of development, but I know the project committee themselves, a lot of them are really culturally grounded,” said Lazare. “We did our best to do the best that we can to try to preserve our culture, to try to preserve Mother Earth.”

One of the groups most alarmed by the tree removal was the student body of Kahnawake Survival School (KSS), which is right next to the future Kahnawake Cultural Arts Centre (KCAC), as the Multi-Purpose Building will be known.

“I feel that it isn’t right for them to do something like that,” said grade 11 student Brayden Homer, who believes the project team needs to make things right with KSS students.

“The reason it’s so important is because maple water or maple syrup is important to our culture and is a form of medicine for us.”

“The trees were a concern because they are maple trees and home to wildlife,” echoed Sahanatie Matthew Leblanc, a grade 11 student at KSS who is a leader and spokesperson for the student council.

The student council had even planned a protest against the situation, but they were soon visited by the project team and given a chance to voice their concerns this week, although by then the trees were gone.

“We decided that it was already too late to protest, and the cultural centre was a good thing for the community,” said Leblanc, who added that students weren’t thrilled with all aspects of the delivery of the presentation. The students asked for concessions from the project team to address safety concerns and the environmental impact.

The project team is now planning to plant more than two trees for each one removed after discussions with students. They also committed to keeping an open line of communication; KSS students were last consulted on the project in 2018, a time when there was almost an entirely different crop of students.

“What was realized and agreed to was that we will provide direct updates and information to the students, instead of just Kahnawake Education Center or KSS administration, so they have it firsthand as the project continues,” the project team wrote in a response to THE EASTERN DOOR, adding that the students were respectful and open-minded.

“We can say safely that we have witnessed some awesome leadership for the future,” they wrote.

A major point of contention has been whether the tree removal will impact the KSS sugar shack program, a part of the land-based learning that is being embraced by the school to instill students with Kanien’kehá:ka cultural values.

“The project team confirms that there is no impact on the maple tapping activities,” they wrote. “It was acknowledged and agreed that the maples that were removed, that are being preserved, will be transplanted in collaboration with the students.”

While many community members expressed outrage, others shared more ambivalent reflections or defended the enormous cultural value the KCAC will bring to the community.

“I saw how much more was taken and I was like, it’s shocking, but stuff has to get done,” said Akwiratékha Martin, a Kanien’kéha translator and former language teacher. He said he is satisfied with the plan to plant more trees than were removed, dismissing complaints about the maturity of the forest by saying new trees will grow to maturity in time.

He believes tree removal happens more wantonly on a regular basis for private development, yet results in less backlash than a project he believes will advance the cause of cultural revitalization.

“We deserve our own space to protect our language, our culture from the past and for the future,” he said.

“We need it to continue because we can’t keep surviving in shit houses or dilapidated buildings. We’re not here to struggle. We’re here to survive. This is the only way to do it, basically.”

Lazare and the project team emphasized that community members are encouraged to reach out with questions or concerns about the project.


This article was originally published in print on March 1 in issue 33.09 of The Eastern Door.

Marcus Bankuti, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

Marcus is an award-winning journalist and 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.

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Marcus is an award-winning journalist and 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.