Montreal

Kanesatake grand chief retracts comments on rail blockades after Mohawk community protest

The grand chief of the Kanesatake Mohawks has retracted his plea for protesters to end the ongoing rail blockades across the country, following an outcry within his community that led a small group to padlock his band-council office.

Serge Simon apologizes, says he fully supports Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs

Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Simon apologized for any harm or confusion caused by his comments and said he fully supports the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs who are opposing the Coastal GasLink pipeline project that is to run through their traditional territory. (Jonathan Montpetit/CBC)

The grand chief of the Kanesatake Mohawks has retracted his plea for protesters to end the ongoing rail blockades across the country, following an outcry within his community that led a small group to padlock his band council office.

"It is not my place to make such judgment," Grand Chief Serge Otsi Simon said Wednesday, after spending much of the morning speaking with the group who had locked him out.

"I have nothing but respect and admiration for the Indigenous people taking a stand to defend their rights."

On Monday, Simon gave an interview to CJAD 800, a Montreal radio station, in which he called on protesters to remove the barricades that went up nearly two weeks ago in support of the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs in British Columbia, who are opposing a pipeline project slated to go through their traditional territory. 

As Simon traveled to Ottawa on Tuesday, where he repeated his comments at a news conference with Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde, a half-dozen protesters gathered outside his office, saying he wasn't speaking for the community.

"They decided that my comments were irresponsible or not called for, that I didn't consult with them before I said anything," Simon said Wednesday outside the Kanesatake band council office, about 65 kilometres northwest of Montreal.

"But I was acting in the best interest of my community and the safety of my community."

He apologized for any harm or confusion caused by his comments, adding "I made an error, I guess, in trying to bring some form of good faith. Maybe it wasn't right timing." 

Some of Simon's critics had called for him to resign. It's not clear whether they are satisfied with his response.

The group protesting outside his office declined to comment on Simon's retraction, but did eventually remove the padlock.

Simon's leadership has frustrated community members in the past. Several residents told CBC News that he and the band council routinely fail to consult the community before taking major decisions, such as when Simon invited a mining company to make a proposal to the community in 2016. (The project was abandoned amid protest.)

The unease over Simon's comments also stemmed from a sense that the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs deserved the support of Kanesatake Mohawks, after having backed the community during the 1990 Oka Crisis, the 78-day standoff prompted by a planned golf course expansion onto sacred Mohawk lands.

"In 1990, we had the support of Indigenous people from the whole country. So we wanted to tell our brothers and sisters that we're in solidarity with them," John Harding, one of the demonstrators outside the band council office, said Tuesday.

A delegation of Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs plans to visit later this week the Mohawk communities of Tyendinaga, near Belleville, Ont., and Kahnawake, south of Montreal, where blockades have halted rail traffic in much of Eastern Canada.

The purpose of the trip, said Wet'suwet'en Hereditary Chief Na'moks, is to thank the Mohawks for their support.

Legitimacy of band councils questioned   

Another issue underlying the controversy in Kanesatake is the perennial question of the legitimacy of the band council itself.

As in Wet'suwet'en, a significant number of Kanesatake residents consider the band council to be simply an extension of the federal government and having only limited authority.

"It was a system that was imposed upon us. It replaced the Indian Agent and it follows the agenda of the minister of Indian Affairs. [Band councils] are basically service providers," said Ellen Gabriel, a prominent Mohawk activist and member of the longhouse, the traditional Mohawk form of government.

Protesters called for Serge Simon to step down, saying he does not represent the interests of the community.  (Jean-Sébastien Cloutier/Radio-Canada)

Even some business owners in Kanesatake are inclined to steer clear of the band council system, feeling it lacks accountability.

"I'm more for hereditary leaders, just because it brings us back to our customs. The voice goes more to the people in that system," said Dave Belisle, owner of The Medicine Box, one of the larger marijuana dispensaries in Kanesatake. 

In the Mohawk longhouse tradition, women are given equal say as title holders to the land and decisions are made through consensus.

"What it can do is also say 'We're going to protect the medicines, we're going to protect the trees and [remind us that] we're not the most important species living here," Gabriel said.

Simon said he believed band councils will remain important institutions of First Nations government in the future. He said that while their legitimacy issues need to be addressed, that process must be driven by First Nations themselves.

"That's an internal reconciliation that needs to happen," he said. "How that's going to take shape ... we don't know, because we need to have that time for ourselves to try to resolves those issues."

Simon's call for an end to the barricades were picked up by Premier François Legault to justify his impatience with the protests.

The Oka Crisis began on July 11, 1990, and lasted 78 days until September 26, 1990. (CBC Archives )

On Wednesday, Legault said the federal government needed to set a deadline for the protests, after which Ottawa should co-ordinate a police response.  

"Trudeau needs to prove his leadership," Legault said. "It needs to be fast — as in, days, not weeks."

But the prospect of police intervention raises fears in Kanesatake about a repeat of Oka, which began when a Sureté du Québec officer was killed while enforcing an injunction.

"I would urge the premier to further think on it before he starts making more statements [about police intervention]," Simon said.

"Just like I did with my own statements," he added with a chuckle.

Francois Legault told reporters in Quebec City that the deadline should be the same across the country 2:04

About the Author

Jonathan Montpetit is a journalist with CBC Montreal.

With files from Kate McKenna