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Elections in Kanehsatà:ke: Real Change?

by Dan David

Mohawks from Kanehsatake and non-natives march to commemorate the 20th year anniversary of the Oka Crisis in July, 2010.
Mohawks from Kanehsatake and non-natives march to commemorate the 20th year anniversary of the Oka Crisis in July, 2010.

I’ve never voted in band council elections—ever. I can’t. My conscience won’t let me participate in or support a racist system that’s deliberately designed to deny me of my political, social, religious and spiritual rights. This same system hems me in with regulations that continue to treat me as a “ward of the state”. It puts ultimate power over my life from birth to death and beyond in the hands of some white person in Ottawa. But if that’s my only reason, then it’s a biggie.

The Minister of Indian Affairs grants the right (love that phrase) to band councils to implement the Indian Act locally. Thus, band councils have replaced the Indian Agent. Band councillors (that’s what they are) merely continued the role of the Indian Agent, often acting just like the Indian Agent but looking like and speaking just like Mohawks.  

The Federal Government provides transfer payments to pay for schools, education and training, housing, social supports and other community programs on the Rez. These services and programs are supposed to be delivered locally to everyone via the band council, according to policies passed by the band council and overseen by Indian Affairs. I know that every three years, the players—old and new—pledge to continue this system after each band council election.

My problems with the above, and some of the candidates—incumbents and newbies alike—may be summed up by the following:

Contrary to widely-held myth, the Indian Act does not encourage or foster local democracy. That’s a load of horse crap that provides a façade of democracy with band elections every three years. Each time, however, it allows the Indian Affairs Minister to wash his hands of responsibility for problems on reserves without actually giving up any real authority; all that for a few table scraps of power handed to local band councils. If something goes wrong, they take the hit. It’s an age-old trick played by colonial masters around the world. It works only if there’s a willing tool to be used. With Indians on-reserve, that tool is the band council.

The identifying mark of any democracy should be accountability, openness, and integrity. Voting in band elections is just a mechanism. Elections by themselves don’t make democracy. A cynic would suggest that election only take place to that voters can select other people to ruin their lives for them. 

For example, people participate in elections because they fall for the illusion:
    •    that the people they vote into office will be accountable to them and their community;
    •    those elected will be open, fair and transparent in their dealings;
    •    that councillors will provide sufficient information so people can make informed decisions;
    •    that their councillors will take direction from the community; and finally
    •    the individuals seeking (re-)election are honest and will work for the betterment of all.

If you actually believe all of the above, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn that might interest you.

Sadly, something ugly happens when people get elected to the band council. They turn into idiots. I’ve blamed the water at the band office, but it’s really the Indian Act system. It infects and rots the brain. It turns normally nice people into greedy, secretive little twits.  It turns nasty and fundamentally dishonest people into overbearing, arrogant arses who say one thing but do another while bullying employees for the fun of it.

Candidates for band council court voters at every election, telling people “look at me, look at all the stuff I’ve done, I promise to listen to you, to take your direction, and to be good for all of you”. They do everything except go around kissing babies. Actually, they do everything except kidnap your baby or your dog to make sure you’ll vote for them… or else.

Take a look at their election material, especially the “experience” and list of accomplishments. The incumbents (those seeking re-election) didn’t do all that work—the employees did. The employees provided information to people, met with committees, consulted with the community. Employees then wrote reports and presented their recommendations to someone on band council. The councillor might have attended a few meetings, but that’s all. Yet they claim to have done all this work. Dog poo. In some cases, they gave thumbs up to the employees’ work only to give thumbs down after they got back to the band office.

What changed their minds? Other councillors who didn’t attend those meetings—that’s who. What was proposed didn’t fit in with their plans. These councillors didn’t attend those community consultations, didn’t meet with employees for information on the work, and didn’t give two hoots for anything the community or experts recommended.

What was the band council’s justification for shooting down those recommendations? They didn’t give any. They just had other plans, and the community’s recommendations screwed up those personal plans for world (or community) domination. They felt they didn’t have to justify their decision to anybody.  Think about that long-promised, much-proposed, and just as often shot down or spun-around daycare building. Depending on which councillor was in charge, it was going to be here, then there, and now nowhere. Actually, the latest word is that council may put the kids into either a windowless basement or some mouldy old building. Yep, that’s putting the community’s best interests—not to mention the health of these children—first.

There’s a saying spread across Indian Country: “If you want something f**k’d up, give it to the band council.” This is unfair to the many band councils that have earned the respect of the people in their communities. Unfortunately, Kanehsatà:ke’s band council isn’t one of them.

Here, what the individual councillor wants —or whoever screams insults the loudest at council meetings—will often override what the community has indicated over decades through numerous consultations, in study after study, with various reports and recommendations. Nope, that’s just piles of paper meant to get dusty and mouldy. What takes place instead isn’t well-considered, evidence-based decision-making. It’s the opposite. It’s band governance that ignores existing policies and instead relies on personal bias and desires, family loyalties and hatreds. It’s the very essence of lousy governance; unprofessional, inept and open to abuse.

There must be rules before effective, honest and responsible governance can take place. But band council after band council has ignored the rules (policies) because the rules would restrict their personal freedom to do whatever they damn well want. Rules? How inconvenient!

Instead, each band council at Kanehsatà:ke wants to ignore what the community has decided - time after time, election after election. This had led to frequent law suits, the occasional occupation of the band office, and tons of swear words hurled at various local potentates.

How can this happen in Canada, a democratic country that claims to be be guided by the “rule of law.” Well, one theory is because the people at Kanehsatà:ke’s let the band council get away with it. Another theory, uttered by one of the present candidates some years ago, is that the band council “wants to keep people stupid.” Both theories hold some truth.

Another theory ties both together like Siamese twins connected at the brain. According to a list from 2001, there were sixty (60) band policies and protocols in existence; 21 were “currently in development”; being “revised”; needed “community ratification”; had been “approved-in-principle”; or needed to be “approved” by the band council. If you’re keeping count, according to this list that’s one-third (⅓) of all council policies sitting there doing sweet-F-A.

Here’s a sampling of four of these inert polices and protocols:

  • Kanesatake Charter
  • A key governance document that will establish the powers and authorities invested by the community for the administration of community matters.
  • Operational Protocol for Council
  • Operational guidelines for all aspects of Council operations including meetings, roles and responsibilities, transparency, and conflict of interest.
  • Electoral Code
  • A document that defines the process and procedures to be followed for the selection of community leadership.
  • Membership Code
  • Document that defines the eligibility requirements for community membership.

The Operation Protocol was “approved in principle” in 1999. The Electoral Code was “adopted in principle” in 1992. the Membership Code was “Completed, pending community ratification” years ago, but without a date. These aren’t minor policies—they’re vital to ensure efficient operation of the band council but also to protect of the rights of all Kanehsata’keró:non. Nothing makes sense if there are policies sitting but nobody knows what they are and the band council doesn’t follow them.

Other policies or protocols on this 2001 list deal with the “administration of justice,” “management of community lands and resources”, “strategic planning”, terms of reference for a “Housing Committee”. This last one was completed in 1999. It’s been waiting for approval by the band council ever since.

Dozens of people have pleaded with the band council, some for more than a decade, for house repairs but are forced to live with mould, leaking roofs, rotting windows, leaking bathtubs, broken water or septic systems. Why? Because Housing councillors—past and present—refused to answer their phone calls or letters.

Occasionally, someone refers to the existence of a list for new home construction or for house repairs but that list is never made public. It makes some people wonder if thus list exists at all. It makes some people wonder what their rights are, or if they have any rights at all, without a housing policy. Apparently, this policy exists but the band council has never made it public. (Although one or two councillors say they’ll slip a copy to you quietly. Just don’t tell anybody else.) 

As a result, councillors and their immediate families have received quick house repairs even if their homes don’t qualify. There are a lot of other people who’s homes are in much worse condition. Housing recently sent back to Ottawa $150,000 for some mysterious reason, but certainly not because there isn’t a housing crisis at Kanehsatà:ke. This example shows why it’s important for people to have immediate access to band policies. Given the upcoming election, access to band policies would allow voters to better judge why present and former councillors deserve support or not.

Chief band councillor, Paul Nicholas and fellow councillor Sonya Gagnier are both seeking re-election. They’ve been in office since 2008. Some other candidates running for re-election sat on past councils since 1999; Doreen Canatoguin, John Canatoguin, and Clarence Simon are three of them. That these policies have sat around all of that time should raise serious concerns about every one of these councillors. If they weren’t working on policy - the main role for a councillor and for the existence of the band council - then what were they doing instead? What were they getting paid for? Many were not qualified to be supervisors or directors of departments. (Portfolios, but more on this in another post.)

These candidates may point accusing fingers at each other and claim that this work should have been done by a previous band council. The fact is they were all responsible while in office to get this work done. They didn’t. The voters should judge them on this record - not on the claims they print on their promotional material or the promises that come out of their mouths. Judge them by their action and inaction; by what they’ve done or failed at doing.

Many of the social problems at Kanehsatà:ke—identified by the community—are a lack of housing and housing repairs, substance abuse, violence or other criminal activity. This has been identified in several reports, including a recent First Line Services Survey. This isn’t news, certainly not to anyone who’s been to a community meeting in the past two years. One of the reasons why these are critical or serious problems, some say the main reason, has been the lack of clear policies (rules) developed by the community and given to the band council to carry out.

Here’s the problem in a nutshell. The band council does not make public its policies. Without clear policies, people don’t know the rules or standards of behaviour that the community finds preferable or unacceptable. This policy vacuum may not have created lawlessness or violence in the community but it’s certainly allowed them to flourish. For example, people fought to preserve the Pines for everyone in 1990. But the lack of public policies sparked a land grab, followed by a sudden proliferation of smoke shacks, and the rise of pushers and bootlegging in the community. Each one of those in turn made possible—even probable—the next.

Clear guidelines and rules on where and what types of building the community would permit—a land and resource management policy—do not exist because the band council ignored this responsibility. This allowed people to move onto common land, land that belongs to all of us. They cut down trees, bulldozed areas, erected smoke shops and restaurants without asking for permission to anyone because they didn’t have to. Because the band council wasn’t doing its job.

People didn’t pay for the land—they just squatted and claimed it for their own. They did the same thing on parcels of land bought by the Federal Government up the Bay and in the Avenues. They’re digging up and selling gravel, cutting down and selling wood, from the Blue Mountain as if they own these resources as well. There’s a casino going up, a cigarette factory built, junkyards and toxic dumps here and there across the Territory. Band councillors don’t want to regulate these activities by passing policies because—let’s face it—their relatives or friends are involved. This is why policies never gets passed by the band council. 

Think back to those series of meetings about violence from the winter, spring and summer of 2009-10 in the community. A hit and run, home invasions, assaults with and without deadly weapons, threats to life, arsons, vandalism to cars and homes, shootings, drunk driving and speeding—these all got people demanding action but only after they were directly affected. Some people, however, started some things on their own because they knew that, if they didn’t, nobody else would.  They started phone trees and intervention groups. Most people, however, waited until things go so bad, then they demanded the band council do something.  Things had gotten so bad by then that they even raised banishment to re-establish peace within the community.

Everyone heard statements from each band councillor committing the council to establishing better policing with the SQ, looking for a re-built Kanehsatà:ke police force, seeking legal opinion on banishment, and a lot more. The band council—Paul Nicholas, Sonya Gagnier, Sheila Bonspille, Gordie Oke, Michelle Lamouche, Marie Chéné, and Barbara Simon—promised to get back to the community. That was at two meetings in the spring of 2010, more than a year ago.

People forgot to make the band council accountable—to do the work it promised.  The band council avoided accountability, and hoped people would forget. And they say you get the government you deserve.


Dan David is a printer, inker, drinker, stinker. He is Mohawk from Kanehsatake, and has been a journalist for more than 30 years. For more information about a campaign to protect the Kanehsatake Health Centre, visit this blog.

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