Akwesasne to hold own referendum if Quebec pursues sovereignty

The Mohawk Council of Akwesasne says it will hold its own referendum and decide its own future if Quebec calls a vote on independence.
Residents of Akwesasne do not consider themselves as belonging to any one province, and are protective of their rights on their land, as in 2009 when they staged a protest over the arming of border guards. (Rebecca Zandbergen/CBC)

With referendum talk in the air, many people on the Mohawk territory of Akwesasne say they don’t see a place for themselves in any future Quebec nation.

The reserve south of Cornwall, Ontario straddles the provinces of Quebec and Ontario as well as New York state. Approximately two-thirds of its Canadian land mass is within Quebec, including the village of St. Regis on the south shore of the Saint Lawrence River. The village can only be reached overland from Canada by crossing through New York.

In a written statement, Grand Chief Mike Kanentakeron Mitchell of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne warned: “If Quebec ultimately chooses to separate, I would advise our Council and community to hold our own vote in order to determine whether we would stay within the borders of Quebec or separate ourselves.”

“With the potential threat of this region’s culture and language becoming distinctly French, we must concern ourselves with the reality that there is not even one percent of the Akwesasne population that speaks the French language. The every day languages are still Mohawk and English.  An additional concern we’d have is that much of our vast territory in Quebec would be subject to new, more stringent laws that are alien to our culture.”

French language absent

On the streets of St. Regis, stop signs use the Mohawk word ‘Tésta’n’ instead of the French ‘Arret’. The vast majority of signage is in English. French is essentially non-existent, and cars have either Ontario or New York license plates.

Quebec’s provincial police, as well as its language police, typically stay out of Mohawk reserves.

But Francine Thomas, who runs a convenience store in the village, says Quebec separation could change the status quo.

“I would be kind of scared, because I’m used to how it is now. I was born in the States and I was raised here, and this is my home. And everything I have says Quebec on it: my status card, my health card. I do my taxes, it’s Quebec.

“I don’t speak French, and I don’t really know anybody that speaks French. I think a lot of people would be lost.”

Not bound by a Quebec Referendum

Chief Brian David said Akwesasne would not consider themselves bound by the results of a Quebec sovereignty referendum. (CBC)
Chief Brian David represents the Kawehnoke or Cornwall Island portion of the territory. He says the Mohawks would negotiate with Quebec if a referendum were called, but would not consider themselves bound by its results.

“Akwesasne was here before Quebec. Quebec didn’t create Akwesasne as it did Laval, Trois-Rivieres, the other municipalities. This is not a municipality, this is a first nation with a territory that’s belonged to the Mohawk nation since time immemorial. We’ve been sitting on this land since long before the Europeans ever came.”

Chief David says Akwesasne does not want to have an adversarial relationship with Quebec, and it would make more sense for separatist leaders to recognize that they have little interest in trying to coerce the territory into a country it does not wish to join.

“What we’re talking about here is the very western portion of Quebec. Do you really want to engage in an antagonistic activity for this portion? Is that where you want to make your political investment? Is it worth it?”

He said a Mohawk referendum would be the only one Mohawk leaders would take into account when deciding the fate of the territory.

“Ultimately for an issue as serious as that, it doesn’t matter to me how other people think or what they do. What’s really important to me is what people out here think. Because that’s where the decision is going to be made.”

Chief David says the likely result would be separation from Quebec. “That’s what that would lead to.”

Issue unites normally divided mohawks

Local politics in Akwesasne are often dominated by a split between those who follow the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne and vote in its elections, and traditional longhouse followers who adhere to customary Mohawk usages, in which decisions are reached by consensus among the three Mohawk clans.

“We argue too much. We argue about little things.  We don’t come to a consensus,” says Longhouse follower Stacey Boots.

Stacey Boots said while Mohawk communities differ on many things, they are in agreement about not wanting to join a separated Quebec. (CBC)
But on this issue, Boots says, Mohawks agree.

“When push comes to shove I guess we’re all gonna stick together, and I don’t see how much trouble Quebec can give us in Akwesasne.

“I’ve been through borders all my life, and I don’t wish to see another border. I'm not going to argue about them separating. Go ahead, if that’s what they want to do. But don’t stop us from separating either.”

About the Author

Evan Dyer

Senior Reporter

Evan Dyer has been a journalist with CBC for 18 years, after an early career as a freelancer in Argentina. He works in the Parliamentary Bureau and can be reached at evan.dyer@cbc.ca.