Home News Big turnout for Meet the Candidates night

Big turnout for Meet the Candidates night

Election officer Angus Montour draws the name of the next candidate to speak. Marcus Bankuti The Eastern Door

The Knights of Columbus was packed to the brim Tuesday night as Kahnawa’kehró:non gathered to hear the 21 candidates vying to fill out the next Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK) in an event that lasted more than five hours.

Two of the biggest themes of Meet the Candidates night – the main opportunity for voters to learn about the candidates’ platforms – were a need for transparency and a return to traditional government, recently endorsed by the MCK after the years-long Kahnawake Governance Project presented its recommendations.

Many other issues were touched upon in the candidates’ speeches and the question-and-answer period that followed, especially housing, land, language, and public security.

The candidates for grand chief – Gina Deer, Cody Diabo, and incumbent Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer – were given 10 minutes apiece, with the 18 Council chief candidates receiving five minutes each, followed by a question-and-answer period.

The candidates are presented in order of appearance.

Gina Deer

Deer, who has been away from the MCK for three years, emphasized her past experience as a Council chief and a desire to right the ship for projects she had worked on during her tenure, which she argued have veered off course.

“As an administrative body that is taking care of the different services that are going out to the community, I really believe we could be doing better by this community,” she said.

She advocated for a return to traditional government, a more aggressive approach to land back, and ensuring the rewards of MCK’s revenue generation projects are used for community services and to better meet people’s needs.

She also argued that Council meetings should be filmed.

“In light of everything that has happened in the recent years with the lack of transparency, that also moved me more to look at running again,” she said.

Cody Diabo

Diabo used his time to advocate for collectivity. “We must stand together as one if we want to survive, prosper, and seize our opportunities,” he said.

He linked this vision to a need for economic prosperity.

“We have suffered for so long, but it is time to start building ourselves up. It is time to start investing in our people, our businesses, and our future,” he said.

He highlighted the need for more services, including dental coverage, medication costs, and housing programs, as well as infrastructure such as centralized water systems and improved septic systems.

“These are the basic necessities that all community members should have, and I will prioritize these improvements to enhance quality of life” he said.

He also talked about the need for local food and energy projects, better transparency, and strength when facing external governments.

“I will not back down or avoid confrontation when it comes to defending our rights and advancing our community’s interests,” he said.

Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer

Sky-Deer began her speech in Kanien’kéha before thanking the community for electing her as grand chief three years ago, using her time to highlight Council’s accomplishments and Kahnawake’s standing among First Nations.

“We are those trailblazers that others are looking toward,” she said, noting governance, the landmark Hertel deal with Hydro Quebec, and the Kahnawake Cultural Arts Centre that is being built.

“I heard you loud and clear, during our last election cycle, that our language and culture was at the heart of our existence as Onkwehón:we, as Kanien’kehá:ka.”

She said the community needs more buildings and infrastructure and more housing, highlighting that she brought the board of the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation to Kahnawake to explore new programs.

She also invoked intergovernmental relations. “We’re constantly fighting for our rights,” she said, mentioning border crossing, gaming rights, and tax exemption.

She highlighted the declaration on traditional government.

“I think right now it’s our time to take a different path,” she said.

Melanie Morrison

Morrison invoked her advocacy for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG). “Through that, I’ve learned a lot about listening to the people,” she said.

She said working at the Caisse Populaire she learned a lot about community needs.

“It’s very apparent we need housing, we need a larger Elders’ Lodge.” She advocated for palliative care and allocating funds to education and other community needs.

“I’ve said before that the community needs to have a say back at the table,” she said.

Noting the presence of outsiders putting women and children in danger, she advocated for improved public safety, suggesting a paid community watch.

Robert Kennedy, Jr.

Kennedy pledged to work to abolish the band council if elected.

“Do we even want a band council, do we want an Indian Act in Kahnawake?” he said, calling for a referendum on the subject.

“One of the things I’m going to do if elected is every weekly meeting I’m going to call for us to abolish our own offices so we can return to traditional government,” he said.

“We’ve got to put together the clan system and get that going so we can have our own sovereign government back.”

At the end of Kennedy’s speech, Kiona Akohseràke Deer protested his inclusion on the ballot.

“On behalf of all the women you’ve been harassing in town, we would like to ask you to step down from your candidacy,” she announced from the aisle to applause before walking out of the building.

“No,” replied Kennedy.

Screenshots have circulated on Facebook in recent weeks of hateful and vulgar messages that appear to have been sent by Kennedy.

Carla J. Diabo

Diabo focused on community solidarity in her speech. She said that although she has heard people say there is no such thing as 100 percent consensus in Kahnawake, she believes it is possible.

“Let’s prove them wrong. Our kids are watching. Our kids learn from us. Let’s prove to them that we can do it.”

She objected to people having to pay mortgage interest and advocated for evictions under the Kahnawake Residency Law. 

“Evictions are long overdue,” she said.

She said accountability could be improved by having monthly follow-ups. “We work for the people,” she said, adding her day doesn’t stop at 4 p.m.

Ryan Montour

Montour focused squarely on progress on the housing file.

“I live, breathe, and eat housing,” said the incumbent housing portfolio chief.

He cited the restructuring of the Housing Unit, involvement of local contractors, and 32 new units planned for 2025, 12 of which will be accessible.

“When I got there, 92 people were waiting for a house. It’s 47 now,” he said.

He also mentioned roofs that were put in.

“We hear you, we need you, we’re going to service you. Call me on the side, I’ll talk public safety and I’ll talk about how we got the police,” said Montour, the public safety portfolio chief, in reference to the coming Highway Patrol Division.

David A. Diabo

Diabo spoke about how his First Nations engagement and project management experience would guide him as a Council chief.

“It’s a serious job, as I’ve said before, for serious people,” he said.

He promoted the idea that modern thinking and traditional principles can work together as Kahnawake tackles new challenges. “We do need some fresh blood on the table. We can’t use old thinking to solve new problems,” he said.

“The current administration is doing a hell of a job, I think, in addressing all of the issues, but as we move towards a traditional style of governance, I think this is going to be our biggest challenge.”

Iohahi:io Delisle

Delisle used his time to talk about the systemic erasure of Onkwehón:we by outside governments.

“I’d like to focus on two subjects right now. One being identity security, and governance,” he said.

The incumbent said in his time in Council he has experienced suppression tactics from Quebec.

“This is their mandate in Quebec, this is what I’ve learned, to try to take our identity and really put us down as minorities within our own lands.”

He said this is one reason he has been a strong supporter of the Kahnawake Cultural Arts Centre project.

“I’m very passionate about defending our inherent rights, asserting them too.”

Stephen Angus McComber

McComber spoke about his passion for food sovereignty and reconnecting to the land and cited his work experience promoting traditional teachings in federal prisons.

The incumbent said he believes Council has a role in promoting these.

“I hold fast to these ideas, and I am running for Council to be part of a team for direction given by the people of our community. We need a political push to make some of these things happen,” he said.

He mentioned container gardens, aquaponics for food sovereignty, and traditional farming as needed projects. “This thing is possible that will help feed our elders, our community. The prices of food are going up,” he said.

Marnie Jacobs

Jacobs began by talking about land. “We see neighbouring communities building up on the land in the Seigneury, and something needs to be done about that. We need to stop them,” she said.

She emphasized cleaning up toxic areas and finding food security solutions, such as greenhouses and a food forest.

“No family should have to struggle and decide if they’re going to pay a bill or buy fresh food and vegetables for their children,” she said.

She said more needs to be done for elders and people with mobility issues.

“I love our community and I want to see it grow and prosper,” she said.

Myles McComber

McComber said his interest in Council goes back to listening to his grandmother’s radio as a Kateri School student. “I would take everything into consideration,” he said.

He said more demands need to be made from external governments and bodies.

He said Council should have extracted concessions from Hydro Quebec to stop power outages in the Hertel deal, which he suggested would help elders.

In Council, he would listen attentively and treat people with respect, he said.

He is especially at odds with Council’s handling of the gaming file, he said, objecting to the MCK launching a lawsuit.

“My idea is to stop asking them for our rights and just live our rights,” he said.

Arnold Boyer

Boyer highlighted the need to support elders and those with special needs, noting the need to make community buildings accessible.

“My mindset is community comes first,” said the incumbent. “This includes community members with special needs, the elderly, and the generations yet to come.”

He noted he wrote an accessibility policy and that Council has taken steps like installing special needs area signs and paving access ramps. 

He also spoke about healthcare issues, including a recent call for dialysis treatment to be made available locally, vowing to pursue resources to make this a reality.

He advocated for speed reductions during school hours near Survival School.

Jeremiah Johnson

Johnson advocated for transparency and accountability at Council. “I hear a lot of people here talk about the leadership, that this table is the leaders, and they’re not. The people are the leaders,” he said.

In his work volunteering with Kahnawake Community Watch, community members have told him of their concerns, especially security concerns, he said.

“I’m here to try to put in every effort that I can to address the issues that are affecting us,” he said.

Council’s job should be to facilitate public hearings, he said, and take direction from the community.

Kakwirakeron Ross Montour

Montour spoke about his role asserting Kahnawake’s self-determination in his current term as Council chief and his support for a return to traditional governance.

“We’re talking to Canada about the full return of Seigneury lands, not money, not involving the surrender of title, or a grant of finality and certainty, which is under the domain of the Mohawk Nation,” he said.

He said with the memorandum of understanding on Kahnawake-Canada relations now signed, negotiations can begin on lands, environment, registration, and gaming.

“With your support, I will continue to serve Kahnawake with my eye fixed on the faces yet to come,” he said.

Joshua Mayo

Mayo told the crowd how his recovery from addiction informs the point of view he would bring to Council.

“Sobreity has taught me to be proud of who I am, my past, my present, and my future. I want to see that more and more in Kahnawake,” he said. He said outside forces have sown discord in the community.

“Kahnawake needs to heal as a whole. That’s the only way we can go forward.”

He portrayed his passion and his energy as his strengths.

“I can’t promise you anything because I don’t know what to expect,” he said. “If I get in, what portfolios come my way, I’m going to work my damn hardest to see it get done.”

Paul Rice

Rice said his experience as executive financial officer at the MCK, and subsequent business success, will empower him to ensure money flows from the budget into the community.

“That’s why I’m running for Council. We need projects, we need infrastructure, we need to support businesses.” He said while Kahnawake’s financial position has changed, its needs haven’t been fulfilled.

“There’s a disconnect between the community and the council about what the needs are,” he said.

“My platform has five key points,” he said. “Protecting jurisdiction and rights, growing the economy and supporting businesses, creating jobs and housing, ensuring public safety and security, and improving quality of life.”

Tonya Perron

Perron said after six years on Council, her reasons for running have only become more numerous. “I realize there’s still so much of myself that I want to give,” she said.

While speaking favourably about the vision for a return to traditional government, she highlighted her involvement in helping to define what Council governance should look like in the meantime.

She advocated for an omsbudsperson who could navigate community concerns and complaints to ensure they’re addressed. She also proposed a report card system for Council members.

“My goal is to move that legislative process further away from the Council,” she said. 

She also advocated for improving the local court system and keeping matters internal.

Nihawennah Lahache-McComber

Lahache-McComber spoke about his accomplishments in the MCK Housing Unit, including contributing to the special needs accessibility of some upcoming units, but also noted his emphasis on transparency.

“I’m here today running for office for the simple reason that we talk accountability, we talk transparency – I don’t see any of it. I really don’t,” he said.

“We always find out information afterwards when it’s too late to do anything.”

He said MCK needs to respect the community and improve community engagement but highlighted the contributions of operations staff.

“Kahnawake actually doesn’t need to have Council chiefs or grand chiefs to make decisions. People said it up here, the people have the power.

“It’s time to give them their voice back.”

Sha’korontakehtats Jeffrey Diabo

Diabo highlighted the importance of taking back Seigneury lands.

“To me, we should be doing more to acquire those lands and use them,” he said.

“Our responsibility is taking care of the land for future generations. That’s why we say it doesn’t belong to us. It belongs to them.”

He also talked public safety, advocating for checkpoints and patrols. “It wasn’t without problems, but it worked,” he said.

He said Council needs to be more transparent and better involve the community in decision-making.

“To me, that’s what transparency’s all about,” he said. “It’s about being accessible.”

He also suggested the Hertel deal should have included a benefit for Kahnawake such as free electricity.

Blue Sky

Sky portrayed a return to traditional governance as necessitating a return to a traditional way of life.

“I’m hoping that if we’re going to traditional government, we’re going all the way. A dry community, a cannabis-free community, because that’s in the law to be dry,” she said.

She criticized how much of the community’s emergency response resources are used to serve the gaming facilities on the territory and called for more ambulances.

She also said the Council needs to be more transparent.

“I don’t believe in confidentiality. I never did for anybody or anything,” she said.

“Our people need to hear what’s happening more.”

Question period

Much of the night was dedicated to a Q&A that enabled community members to seek answers from candidates about any issue, with many questions garnering answers from several hopefuls.

Bill 96 and youth engagement

“I firmly believe we should give more support to our students.” -Gina Deer.

“If we really wanted to get an exemption, (Hertel) was the project to leverage because Legault himself had stated this was going to be billions of dollars to the Quebec economy.” -Cody Diabo.

“I think we really have to get aggressive with this law because it affects us every which way.” -Marnie Jacobs.

“This is one of the most spoken about subjects at our table. Bill 96, the Quebec government, and how they’re using this bill as a leverage mechanism to suppress our community, and I see it.” -Iohahi:io Delisle.

“They’re part of Canada. They’re on our land. They don’t have a right to dictate what to do with our children’s education. Whatever candidates make it to the table they need to put it as a priority.” -Melanie Morrison.

“We can come at this from all angles, but I think we need to do it collectively, collaboratively, and I think the youth need to lead, so we’ll be looking forward to hearing your direction, mobilize them, and give us what you think how we can stand together and support you.” -Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer.

“I think the answer to the question at a high level starts with leverage and making sure outside governments respect Kahnawake and in this case fear Kahnawake.” -Paul Rice.

“I think we need to open up that space, create that space at the Council table for a spot for youth to come bring to us what it is you’re in need of support of, you’re concerned of, something’s impacting you, and then we figure out a plan moving forward of how to address it.” -Tonya Perron.

“Legault calls Council, ‘I want to book a meeting.’ And Council accepts. That boycott did not last long. I would have said, ‘Are you crazy? We just went public about a boycott, and now we’re going to accept his invite on his terms?” -Myles McComber.

“It’s us against them.” -David A. Diabo after reading out a quote from Pierre Elliot Trudeau about assimilation.

Non-local workers and mandatory French for local jobs

“For me, it’s very important that we have our own taking care of our own.” -Gina Deer.

“I believe that we need business compliance laws in this community to help us deal with a lot of those issues of making sure that we have the right amount of people working in our community.” -Jeremiah Johnson.

“The key is the language law here and making it law, and not from the Council to say we’re opposing this. It’s got to come from the community as a law.” -Cody Diabo.

“It’s not just the businesses in Kahnawake. MCK itself is outsourcing itself. … MCK itself needs to lead by example.” -Nihawennah Lahache-McComber.

“This is our community. They should be taxed.” -Blue Sky.

Who went to meetings before joining Council?

“Whether I get in or not, I am still going to do that because this is still my community, and I still will fight for our community.” -Marnie Jacobs.

“I always stand with the people.” -Jeremiah Johnson.

“I would be ashamed to not meet with the people and have this position.” -Myles McComber.

Language and culture

“This language is our identity. I take that very seriously.” -Iohahi:io Delisle.

“Let’s have more programs so the kids use it every day and they don’t just speak it in school, but certainly it’s very important for us all.” -Gina Deer.

“I’m all in favour of all our schools learning nothing but that. Why have the French in our schools, why? Even the English too, get it out. French and English banned.” -Joshua Mayo.

“How do we best do that, to preserve the language? I think Karihwanó:ron is one of the best ways we can do that. We need to see they have a home.” -Kakwirakeron Ross Montour.

“I would like to get more money for the language programs in the community.” -Marnie Jacobs.

“It might take two or three generations, but hopefully our collective community will be able to be strong in Kanien’kéha and our culture once again.” -Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer.

“The language programs have been on shoestring budgets year after year after year, but that needs to stop, and we need to start putting the resources into those programs.” -Cody Diabo.

“How do you have a $10 million surplus, and you can’t find some money to invest in language and culture?” -Paul Rice.

Asbestos remediation

“I got reprimanded for (going outside Council to deal with asbestos). I’m not scared to say it, but it needed to get done. After a while, it was determined to be moved into operations…. I’m not going to shift blame on anybody else. It was mine, and mine not alone, but I will own that. And I want to make it right.” -Cody Diabo.

“My opinion, politically, it fell by the wayside. And it’s still sitting in operations. And it’s not to make excuses. It just needs to be reinvigorated with new leadership and someone to champion it.” -Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer.

Sixplex still without a generator

“I agree the elders do not have enough. We need Hydro to stop the Hydro from going out.” -Myles McComber

“With all that extra revenue that was generated, that revenue was generated to go back into the community to fill all those needs, like elders needing generators, like education, dental, all the things we had talked about. Instead, it was put into an investment fund.” -Gina Deer.

“Elders usually have families they go to during crisis. Myself, I go and check on my father during a power outage. He doesn’t have a generator. He has candles, flashlights. He gets by.” -Arnold Boyer.

“This is definitely part of the disconnect I was talking about.” -Paul Rice.

“Everybody should get a Generac system. What’s good for one is good for all.” -Ryan Montour.

Checkpoints

“I would like to have a feasibility study on checkpoints in the community. That way we could see exactly how it would work or if it won’t work.” -Marnie Jacobs.

“I support checkpoints personally…. It’s completely doable, but if the community wants it. The community has to show that they want it.” -Jeremiah Johnson.

“I’m going to tell you right now: checkpoints are not the answer. Investment in essential services is the answer.” -Ryan Montour.

“I think tolls is something we should revisit in this community. Stop using our highways for free.” -Gina Deer.

marcus@easterndoor.com 

This article was originally published in print on June 28 in issue 33.26 of The Eastern Door.

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.