Sûreté du Québec called into Kanesatake as tensions simmer

Anthony Fournier-Phillips mans a traffic control station on the Route 344 entrance to the Kanesatake Mohawk territory northwest of  Montreal Friday May 8, 2020.

Anthony Fournier-Phillips mans a traffic control station on the Route 344 entrance to the Kanesatake Mohawk territory northwest of Montreal Friday May 8, 2020. JOHN MAHONEY / Montreal Gazette

The Sûreté du Québec was called into Mohawk territory Friday as tensions between local business owners and Grand Chief Serge Simon are simmering.

Simon says he received information that cannabis and tobacco store owners were trying to depose him so they could reopen their shops. But opponents of the grand chief say he’s using emergency powers granted to him during the coronavirus pandemic to crack down on political dissent.

“To have to resort to calling in the (Sûreté du Québec), to me that’s a last resort, but it’s what I needed to do,” Simon told the Montreal Gazette. “I got information that the store owners are telling their clients I won’t be around for much longer, that they’ll confine me to the council office so they can reopen.”

Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in Quebec in mid-March, Kanesatake has put checkpoints in place to prevent outsiders from getting onto the Mohawk settlement. Sources say they turned aside 3,000 cars in two days, most of whom wanted to buy cigarettes or cannabis at one of the dozens of shops in town.

Council chief Garry Carbonelle says he found out about Simon’s decision after the fact.

“I got a call this morning that there were a dozen SQ cars outside the band office,” said Carbonelle. “So, in my rather blunt way, I drove over, walked up to an officer and said ‘What the f–k is going on here?’ They were called in by the grand chief without so much as advising his council.

“This thing about the grand chief being deposed, I haven’t heard anything about that. This is a small community and rumours travel fast. But you can’t take drastic, unilateral decisions based solely on rumours.”

Kanesatake hasn’t had local police since former grand chief James Gabriel tried to commandeer the department by force to carry out a drug raid in 2004. That culminated in Gabriel’s opponents surrounding the police station, burning his house down and driving him from the territory.

Since then, the SQ has patrolled the territory, but with a minimal presence. Their relationship with the Mohawk community has been strained since the 1990 Oka Crisis.

Simon says his foremost concern is that he keep coronavirus from entering the territory. So far, there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Kanesatake. The virus has killed more than 2,500 people in Quebec.

“If it’s a choice between calling the SQ and seeing mass death come to this territory, I’ll call in the SQ,” said Simon.

Simon was invited to attend a meeting of about 40 business owners in Kanesatake’s pine forest Friday morning but elected not to show up.

“We want to do things the right way, the safe way, but with the community’s input,” said Carbonelle. “(Simon) has a tendency of acting on his own and that’s not how we do things in Mohawk society. We have a responsibility to act as a community.”

But Simon says the tobacco shops can only be reopened when sister community Kahnawake decides to lift its moratorium on outsiders entering the reserve.

“If we were to open tomorrow, we’d be flooded with outsiders and so would Kahnawake,” said Simon. “And if the virus hits us, it’s not only going to affect Mohawks. It affects everyone who comes into contact with it.

“I’m not going to be the chief who allowed my people to die off.”

Walter David, who owns a coffee roasting business in town, said Simon is being unreasonable.

“This idea that there’s a group trying to throw him out is simply false,” said David, who runs the business with his wife. “The whole point of the meeting was to know — when things open and only when they open — what kind of procedures can we follow? It’s about safety and productivity.

“We’ve taken a big hit, financially, and we don’t have access to the same kind of financial aid that (non-Indigenous) businesses have. We know there is federal aid that’s being transferred to Indigenous businesses but we’re not getting any information about that from (Simon).

“There’s just really bad communication here.” SOURCE

ccurtis@postmedia.com

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