Out in the Open

The struggle to belong under Kahnawake community's 'Marry Out, Get Out' rule

"I've never felt like I had a place that is my home."
This sign is posted on a telephone pole in Kahnawake. (submitted by anonymous Kahnawake resident)

Update May 1, 2018: Quebec Superior Court has struck down part of a controversial membership law in Kahnawake, Que., saying it violates Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The Mohawk community of Kahnawake has a rule called "Marry Out, Get Out" as part of its membership law. It states that if a Kahnawake Mohawk marries a non-Indigenous person, the Mohawk partner loses their membership rights. They can't vote or live on the reserve.

If the couple fails to follow the "Marry Out, Get Out" rule, they risk facing immense backlash from the community. There are currently five complaints before the Canadian Human Rights Commission and one case before the Superior Court of Quebec, challenging the constitutionality of these rules. But these are the high-level battles; others affected by "Marry Out, Get Out" try to fight against the rule in their private lives.

CBC Montreal reporter Shari Okeke talked with two people, Benny and Jennifer*, both of whom describe themselves as "half-Mohawk." They discussed the challenges of feeling at home in a place that doesn't accept their Mohawk status.

Benny Garisto says he never quite feels at home because of his mixed background. (Courtesy of Shari Okeke/CBC)

Benny's mother had to leave the community when she married an non-Indigenous man.

I've never felt like I had a place that is my home.- Benny Garisto

"She still could go and visit, but she couldn't live with her own family, it kind of broke that family up," Benny told Shari.

Now 25 and back in the Kahnawake community, Benny said he still feels hated because of his mother's decision about her private life.

"I've never felt like I had a place that is my home," he said.

Jennifer's story is similar. She moved back to Kahnawake with her Mohawk parent after her parent's divorce and she didn't feel accepted by her peers. Before the move, Jennifer viewed her own mixed background as having the best of both worlds.

"And then when someone told me that being 'this' and 'that' isn't good, you've got to be just be this, it changed my outlook a little. Because from then on, it was like, 'Oh, I'm not quite enough.'"

Both Benny and Jennifer were bullied by other children in school. Even as adults, their membership to the community is constantly under question. Jennifer has applied for membership when she was 18, but her application was rejected.

"I just don't want people to look at me like I'm a half-breed anymore," she said.

For Benny, the constant battle to belong has gotten exhausting; he is considering leaving Kahnawake in the near future. Jennifer is continuing to fight for her Mohawk status to help eradicate the stigma against half-Indigenous community members.

*name has been changed due to the sensitive nature of the story