Mohawk leaders blast Legault's 'disrespect for minorities' as premier refuses to apologize for AK-47 claims

Premier François Legault is refusing to apologize for his incendiary allegation about the presence of AK-47s in Kahnawake, further driving a wedge between the Quebec government and leaders of the Mohawk community.

'Facts are facts,' Legault said, doubling down on vague allegation of assault weapons in Kahnawake

The barricade in Kahnawake, south of Montreal, went up Feb. 8 in support of Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs in British Columbia who oppose the construction of a natural gas pipeline through their traditional territory. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Premier François Legault is refusing to apologize for his incendiary allegation about the presence of AK-47s in Kahnawake, further driving a wedge between the Quebec government and leaders of the Mohawk community south of Montreal.

On Thursday morning, standing by the blockade in Kahnawake that has halted freight and commuter rail service on the Canadian Pacific line, Mohawk leaders said they hoped Legault would retract the comments he made Wednesday.

"I think Mr. Legault owes an apology to the people of Kahnawake for insinuating that we are armed, or that the demonstrators and protesters are armed," said Kenneth Deer, a Kahnawake elder who has been acting as a liaison between reporters and the activists at the barricade. 

"I think that's very dangerous, and he was ill-advised to make such a statement."

Legault told reporters Wednesday that provincial police hadn't yet dismantled the blockade, which is the subject of an injunction, because of "information that confirms there are weapons — AK-47s, to name them."

Mohawk elder Kenneth Deer, who has been speaking for those at the Kahnawake blockade, said Thursday the premier's comments about AK-47s were 'ill-advised,' and suggested François Legault owes the Mohawks an apology. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

The premier did not specify whether he was referring to weapons located at the blockade itself or in the community at large.

In Kahnawake, Legault's were comments were widely taken to refer to the blockade, and his claim was immediately denied by several Kahnawake leaders, who accused the premier of stoking tensions.

Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer, an elected member of the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake, said "using terms like 'armed' and 'AK-47s' is extremely inflammatory and, in fact, dangerous. It could be interpreted as an intent to incite a response."

Const. Kyle Zachary, a spokesperson for the Kahnawake Peacekeepers, the local police service, said the premier's "irresponsible" comment has left people in the community feeling angered and alienated.

"He doesn't understand what it is to be a native person, to live on a reserve, in this day and age," said Zachary.

But Legault has refused to back down. In a terse statement to CBC News on Thursday, his office said:

"The premier will not apologize. It is a very delicate subject, but the premier made a point of informing Quebecers. Facts are facts. We reiterate the urgency for the federal government to resolve the crisis."

Parallels with Bill 21, says Mohawk elder

For Mohawks in Kahnawake, Legault's aggressive language not only hinders efforts to resolve the current crisis, but also damages ongoing work to build better ties with the provincial government.

"Having that attitude and posture doesn't help," said Sky-Deer.

She said Legault's insinuation about the presence of assault weapons in the community was likely to encourage negative stereotypes and increase the chance of backlash from intolerant Quebecers.

A Mohawk woman walks past a protest sign near the barricaded railway in Kahnawake, south of Montreal, Wednesday. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Kenneth Deer, who also serves as secretary for the Longhouse, the traditional Mohawk political system, drew parallels between Legault's refusal to apologize and Bill 21 — the government's controversial ban on religious symbols in parts of the civil service.

"This is the same government that [passed] Bill 21 — a lot of disrespect for minorities and other peoples," Deer said Thursday afternoon, following the premier's statement.

"By not apologizing, it means he doesn't care about how we feel. It's about him, it's not about us."

"It's not a bridge-building sign by the premier of Quebec."

Signs of progress from B.C.

The barricade in Kahnawake went up Feb. 8 in support of Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs in British Columbia who oppose the construction of a natural gas pipeline through their traditional territory.

Earlier this week, Canadian Pacific Railway sought and obtained an injunction ordering all blockades on its rail lines in Quebec to come down. The Quebec government supported the injunction.

But Mohawk Peacekeepers have said they have no intention of enforcing the court order. And on Thursday, the SQ said it will not enter the territory unless the Peacekeepers ask for assistance.

As it stands, the injunction against the Kahnawake barricade has not been served, Zachary said.

The Mohawk activists at the barricade have indicated they will wait to see what emerges from the talks between the federal and British Columbia governments and the Wet'suwet'en chiefs before deciding whether the lift their barricade.

The two sides in the B.C. dispute agreed to meet today after the company behind the pipeline temporarily halted construction.

"It would be wonderful if they settle today, but that's not the normal course of action in these kinds of negotiations. They tend to take a little time," Deer said.

With files from Kate McKenna and Sudha Krishnan