Montreal·My Community

By reconnecting with her language, this young Kahnawake chief has the next generation at heart

Mohawk Council of Kahnawake Chief Jessica Lazare is hungry to learn and better her community.

Jessica Lazare is bringing her hunger to learn and better her community to council

When Lance Delisle sat down to chat with Jessica Lazare, she was preparing chicken soup for a sick friend. (Lance Delisle/CBC)

Kahnawake Chief Jessica Lazare's kitchen smells like homemade chicken soup. Chopped vegetables sit on the counter as she prepares her secret ingredients for the aromatic broth bubbling on her stove.

"I just got off a Zoom call and I'm making chicken soup for a sick friend," says Lazare, laughing with her whole body as she lets me in.

"Don't mind the leopard skin print shirt!"

The 29-year-old has enough positive energy and youthful enthusiasm to fill far more than her modest kitchen. A single mom to two boys, she is passionate about the Kanien'kéha language and is steeped in two worlds. She's a council chief in the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK), but also learned traditional Haudenosaunee teachings from her family as a child. Both aid Lazare on her journey to serve her community.

She gives her all with everything she does — and that includes cooking the best chicken soup.

Last summer, Lazare received 728 votes in the MCK elections, coming in fourth place and earning a spot on council. A significant accomplishment for a political novice.

"It was a real surprise to me. I didn't even think I knew that many people!" she says. When I ask her why she thinks so many people voted for her, she replies right away with one word.

"Change."

She spent much of her youth in Kahnawake, but didn't attend school here.

"I needed to be more rooted in my community," she says. "I always wanted to have my own business. Something I could share."

So at 19, she opened up a café in Kahnawake. She knew the business; by the time she was 12 years old, Jesica was working at restaurants in the community alongside her aunts.

At her café, she was always ready to hear stories from the elders who would stop by. There were stories of where they worked, their relationships, their community. Those stories helped her feel more connected to Kahnawake, and understand the significance of her language and culture.

"I knew how important it was to preserve who we were as best as possible," she says. "It naturally directed me towards a political path."

She held onto that dream while she had two sons and made a home for her young family, knowing one day she'd make it a reality.

'I always spoke from the heart'

When her sons were old enough for daycare, she applied to the Kanien'kéha Ratiwennahni:rats immersion program in Kahnawake, an intensive two-year course in the Mohawk language. In her letter of intent, she wrote that she hoped to reform the MCK by incorporating traditional ideas and prioritizing inclusion.

She doubted that she would be accepted.

"It's a very difficult program to get into. So when I got the call [that] I got in, it was like something was going to change," she says. "Not just for me, but for my boys."

It was a much more emotional experience than she expected.

"It opened me to so much more than just my language and culture. It deconstructed who I thought I was, how I thought, how I carried myself, how I approached life, everything about me," she says.

"Who we are, our language and culture, transcends us to our past, present and future."

Lazare stops me to say she needs to stir her soup. She comes back to the kitchen table, with a small sample in hand. "It's heavenly!" I say, as she smirks as if she knew that all along.

After graduating from the immersion program, she felt she needed more tools to better communicate with outside government bodies, to help them understand "who we are as people."

So the fall of 2019, she enrolled in Concordia University's community, public affairs and policy studies program, with a double major in First Peoples studies.

"Because of her educational background and knowledge of Kanien'kéha, she's definitely been an asset to the council table," said Kahnawake Grand Chief Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer. "I think her youthfulness is a strength."

From November 2019 to March 2021, Lazare worked part time alongside Gerald Taiaiake Alfred on policies and a framework for governance. The experience pushed her to run for council, where she now leads the heritage portfolio.

"I always spoke from the heart," she says of her campaign, adding that she wanted to make it clear that she was sincere in her mission to improve her community.

She sighs, noting that there is a lot of pressure on her. But she welcomes the responsibility.

"I work for my community, but I [also] work for the future of my children, the youth of Kahnawake. They deserve a voice," she says.

"They need to be heard. If I can give them that, I will."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lance Delisle

CBC Columnist

Lance Delisle is from the Kahnawake Mohawk territory. He's been involved with broadcast radio and journalism for over 30 years.

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