Kahnawake membership law complaints referred to Canadian Human Rights Tribunal

The Canadian Human Rights Commission has upheld a complaint filed by five Mohawks from Kahnawake in relationships with non-Indigenous people, who say the band's membership law is discriminatory.

Mohawks in relationships non-Natives say they're refused access to services, can't vote or own property

This sign is posted on a telephone pole in Kahnawake. (submitted by anonymous Kahnawake resident)

The Canadian Human Rights Commission has upheld a complaint filed by five Mohawks from Kahnawake, all in relationships with non-Indigenous people, who say the band's membership law is discriminatory. 

Under Kahnawake's membership law, a community member who is biracial or in a relationship with someone who is not Indigenous isn't entitled to live on the territory.

The complainants say they are excluded from voting and participating in political activities on the territory and refused access to services, education and property. 

The complaints included:

  • A Mohawk woman who was dating a black man claimed to have had to leave the reserve because of racist treatment.
  • Another woman who received an eviction notice worried for the security of herself and her family because of the tense climate on the territory.
  • One complainant said it was impossible to find work within the community.
  • A 12-year-old girl, whose mother is Mohawk, said she has physical and verbal abuse because of her mixed cultural heritage. She alleges that she and her non-Indigenous father cannot walk in Kahnawake without fearing physical violence.

The commission said there is enough substance to the complaints to refer the case to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. 

The tribunal has the power to rule the membership law discriminatory, if it finds it in breach of the Canada Human Rights Act, and it could levy fines against the Kahnawake band council.

Council of Kahnawake spokesman Joe Delaronde said the membership law does not stop people from participating in the community. (CBC)

'We've been down this road before'

Council of Kahnawake spokesman Joe Delaronde said the membership law has faced other legal challenges.

"We're not surprised, we've been down this road before," he said.

He also denies that anyone has faced harassment because of the law.

The membership law is a community law that is supposed to protect Mohawk identity and culture, Delaronde said.

 He said it has widespread support.

Delaronde said the law doesn't keep anyone from engaging with the community. 

"It doesn't say they can't participate, they can't work, they can't visit," he said. "It just says you can't live here." 

He added that many people who work on the reserve live outside of it, and members with non-Indigenous partners who move away are still respected. 

Delaronde said the Mohawk council will decide at a later date if it will recognize any decision made by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.

Major test case, says CRARR

The Centre for Research Action in Race Relations helped launch the complaint. 

CRARR's director, Fo Niemi, says it has the potential to be a major test case for First Nations in Canada. 

He said the five complainants hope Kahnawake's local government will accept mediation with the Human Rights Tribunal in a bid to find a solution to their concerns.