In mid-January, Native police officers from 18 different reserves across Quebec arrived in Kanesatake Mohawk Territory for a classified operation. In the process, the Police Chief, Tracy Cross, was demoted for being too lax in crime fighting and replaced by former Kanesatake Police Chief Terry Isaac. Dissidents arrived and barricaded the police in the station. A two-day standoff ensued, and Chief James Gabriel’s house was burned down in the frenzy. Kahnawake Peacekeepers, who took over from the besieged Kanesatake Mohawk Police, have yet to arrest any suspects.
Incidents like these stem from years of power struggles within the community. The people that opposed the cops in this instance did so because they felt their “businesses” were threatened. The police are not immune to the struggle for power. Bad blood between families plays a large role in this struggle as well. Whatever your last name is, chances are you hold a grudge against another family.
The best way to describe the longstanding situation in this tiny Mohawk settlement of 1,800 people would be to compare it to the infamous feud in the late 1800s between the Hatfields and the McCoys. The feud had a common theme relating to present-day Kanesatake: control of land, and being able to flourish economically.
Whichever side of the fence you’re on, jealousy tends to rear its ugly head. Before cigarette shacks were littered all over the territory, jealousy was aimed at those precious few who were able to become relatively wealthy by having the gumption to start their own business on the reserve.
Those who chose to wallow in self-pity and spew hate towards the rest of the community, especially those who became successful, are some of the same people who are now dealing drugs, committing crimes, and causing a rift within the community. The economic power is shifting.
The Kanesatake I grew up in can be compared to the proverbial bucket of lobsters. Whenever one tried to climb out of the bucket (by making a better life for themselves), he or she would get pulled right back in.
Infighting is something both the federal and provincial governments promote quietly. This factor can almost single-handedly be blamed for tearing our Native communities apart from within. Divide and conquer is a tactic Native people know all too well. Voicing your opposition to something in a democratic way is the norm in almost every other city or town in North America, but in Kanesatake and a lot of other reserves, it is the exception to the rule.
Case in point: the situation at the police station in mid-January. Rumours abounded that 60-plus police officers were stationed in the Mohawk Police station and were getting ready to go after the criminal element.
To most people, this sounded like something that needed to be done. A handful of criminals refused to let this happen by becoming bat-wielding
vigilantes. The agreement Quebec signed to end the siege let all police officers go free, but they were told not to come back. This ridiculous response seemed to say, “If you don’t like something, take the law into your own hands and we’ll listen.” What did this say to the community and the rest of Quebec? The vigilantes had won.
James Gabriel was said to have been unhappy about the growing number of cigarette shacks in Kanesatake. I see nothing illegal in the sale of cigarettes. We’ve been put on these postage stamp size reserves with little or no natural resources. Profiting off of a product that people are going to buy anyways is the least of Kanesatake’s worries. Besides, we’ve been using tobacco as a means to barter with other Nations long before the United States or Canada even existed.
Getting rid of the drugs and criminal activity should be a higher priority. Criminal activity has terrorized the innocent people of Kanesatake for too long now. Residents are scared to go anywhere in fear of these thugs.
It’s a deeply troubling sign within the community now that these criminals realize they can bully the police as well, with the support of the Quebec government.