Home News St. Nicholas Island stolen, but not forgotten

St. Nicholas Island stolen, but not forgotten

St. Nicholas Island as seen from the shore of Johnson Beach.  Courtesy Daniel Rück

Archives recently made public thanks to an access to information request shed light on why St. Nicholas Island is no longer considered part of Kahnawake. Historian Daniel Rück received the documents after discovering Canada’s Department of Justice held a large, restricted file on the island.

Historically, the band council in Kahnawake – then known as Caughnawaga – claimed it as part of its territory. At that time, Canada also recognized the five-acre island east of St. Bernard Island as Kanienʼkehá:ka land. 

The community lost it, however, after the Quebec government staked claim to it and sold it in 1906. The band council immediately demanded the Department of Indian Affairs (DIA) take action to see it returned to them once it became aware of the sale. 

About 400 pages of previously restricted files paint a behind-the-scenes look at how the department was responding internally to those calls. They also reveal the department was woefully unprepared to defend the community by the time it took Quebec to federal court over the issue in April of 1917 – a case it lost because it couldn’t prove Kanienʼkehá:ka were living on the island year-round. The family the province sold it to, who had a cottage there, wouldn’t have either.

Rück said the DIA decided to escalate to a legal challenge only after Kahnawake’s band council visited Ottawa earlier that winter to fight for the island’s return. The department did so begrudgingly – in the decade since the sale it had been banking on the community surrendering and selling the island. 

Historian Daniel Rück led a discussion about the island on April 18 at the Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Center (KOR). Miriam Lafontaine The Eastern Door

“You can tell that the DIA doesn’t care. And even worse than that, wants to lose,” said Rück, also an associate professor at the University of Ottawa.

In 1918, the DIA appealed to the Supreme Court, which upheld the federal court decision. The department had tried to convince the court the Kanienʼkehá:ka had continuously occupied the land since time immemorial, and that its ownership of it was protected by the terms of the Royal Proclamation of 1763, but ultimately failed. The judge ruled there was no proof the Kanienʼkehá:ka had possessed it in 1763.

Rück believes the DIA was likely more interested in staking its claim to Crown land than protecting the interests of the community. He also suspects the department only pursued the legal challenge so that on the surface it would seem like it was doing something about the land theft.

An internal memo sent by a federal Department of Justice clerk following the Supreme Court decision seems to suggest so. “You will remember that this case was taken to appeal before the Supreme Court more as a matter of policy towards the Indians than because the judgment of the Court below was considered wrong in law or in fact,” it read.

Rück said he’s still in the process of trying to piece together what the DIA’s strategy was, adding that has been complicated by sections of the archives that are redacted. 

“Sometimes it looks like there’s collusion between the governments to make sure that Kahnawake loses. Sometimes it looks more like incompetence,” Rück said. “Those are the questions I’m investigating.”

The professor recently visited Kahnawake for a talk at the Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Center (KOR) about the island, where he announced he’ll be writing a book about it. He’s also in the process of interviewing elders in the community about their memories of the island. 

“I’m quite curious to know what people in the community know about the history of the island because I know the colonial archives miss a lot. They tell the colonizer’s story,” Rück said.

In his youth prior to the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway, Winston Standup often went to the islands surrounding Kahnawake to catch minnow – St. Nicholas Island included.

“We would go out and drop our anchor and fish all afternoon there. At least once a month we would do that,” said Standup, who was born in 1943, adding they fished for minnow at the islands when they needed bait. 

Affidavits filed prior to the 1917 court case from community members also testified to the island being used to cultivate corn. Joseph Lazare, a 52-year-old man then, told the federal court the island belonged to a woman named Elizabeth, “sister of Ohahakete George Wood and daughter of the late Sakoiatetha,” according to one of the affidavits.

“There’s proof it was part of our livelihood. We considered it ours,” community member Lynn Beauvais said. 

She said instead of forgetting about the island the community should erect something on it and claim it. 

“It would set the pace and break trail for bigger land claims,” Beauvais said. “Just go out and do it. Tell them we’re taking it back.”

The Kahnawake Warrior Society occupied the island in the summer of 1989 after there was talk in the press of possibly widening the Seaway channel, said Angus Hemlock, who was among a dozen or so that took over the island that summer. A warrior flag was erected then using a 50-foot light pole found on Highway 132, he said.

“At that time, we released a statement that the island belonged to Kahnawake,” said Hemlock, who was in his late 20s back then. “It was never ceded or surrendered.”

He said when they arrived they found it ridden with poison ivy, stinging nettle, and field mice. They also found a wooden structure from what was once a cabin, as well as a cement stairway. He said elders have told him there used to be a castle-like structure there.

The society occupied the island again in 1992 in response to the Canadian army stationing itself there in the summer of 1990, during the midst of the Siege of Kanehsatake. Hemlock didn’t participate in the 1992 occupation, but said he witnessed the army using it as a lookout during the siege. At the time, Kahnawa’kehró:non had been using the river to get supplies to Kanesatake. 

The authorities didn’t intervene in either occupation by the warrior society, he said.

As it stands today, the Quebec government describes the island as a piece of “non-organized territory,” part of the regional county municipality of Roussillon.  

The Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK) could not be reached to confirm whether it considers the island as being part of the Seigneury of Sault St. Louis granted to the Kanienʼkehá:ka by France in 1680. To this day, Council continues to have an active land grievance against the federal government over land never ceded from the Seigneury.


This article was originally published in print on May 3 in issue 33.18 of The Eastern Door.

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Miriam Lafontaine is a reporter with the Eastern Door. Her work has appeared in Le Devoir, CBC Montreal, CBC New Brunswick as well as the Toronto Star.

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Miriam Lafontaine is a reporter with the Eastern Door. Her work has appeared in Le Devoir, CBC Montreal, CBC New Brunswick as well as the Toronto Star.