A letter addressed to the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake (MCK) regarding a specific land claim settlement has given rise to a myriad of questions from people in Kanesatake who recently began to share the previously unreleased document, dated March 25, 2021.
While the identity of the individual who first shared the letter remains unknown, there are Kanehsata’kehró:non who expressed that this action was the righteous thing to do.
“At first I wasn’t surprised when I found out about the letter, but after a while, it started to hit me,” said community member Kahontanoron Deer. “I was sad because this kind of stuff will never change – Otsi has been keeping information from the community ever since he became grand chief.”
The letter was in response to a request supposedly presented to the federal negotiation team assigned to work with the MCK to resolve the Commons of the Seigneury of Lake of Two Mountains specific claim.
The claim, initiated in 2008, seeks to resolve the historical grievance over the territory that has been part of a 300-year-old land dispute led by Kanehsata’kehró:non.
In the letter signed by a minister of the Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada, it stated: “I can assure you (MCK grand chief, Serge Otsi Simon) and your Council that you are free to share information about the claims negotiations with your community, pursuant to the Negotiation Protocol dated September 12, 2011.”
In spite of this assurance and the encouragement expressed by the minister to consult members of the community on the progress of negotiations, Simon said this answer proved insufficient.
“The letter from Indigenous Affairs falls quite short from what I was asking the minister,” he stated, adding that negotiators at the table had said on several occasions that conversations were confidential.
“There was always this process where we had to agree with the negotiators and ourselves over what could and couldn't be shared,” said Simon. “This has always been very irritating.”
The grand chief said that he and Council members were advised that the disclosure of information would lead to adverse consequences.
“The letter still doesn't give me the assurance that any kind of talks I have with the community
will not be deemed as a consultation, and that the negotiations will not then be ended,” he said. “The fact is, if I move ahead with informing the community, then this deal will become final.”
The Eastern Door reached out to Indigenous Services Canada for clarification about the letter and the confidentiality terms regarding the specific claim, but did not receive a response in time for publication.
Candidate for council chief Teiawenniserate Tomlinson said that while the topic of negotiations relating to land settlement claims are contentious, they are also necessary.
“For years the Council, under the administration of Serge Otsi Simon, has faced questions relating to this topic and every time the reply would be that a confidentiality agreement was signed,” said Tomlinson.
Although this has been the argument used by the Council to justify the closed door negotiation meetings and lack of information shared with members, the letter paints a narrative many Kanehsata’kehró:non find contradictory.
“We support your efforts to keep your community informed of the process,” reads the document.
“There’s nothing I would rather do than inform them of what we’re fighting for at that table and
I remain committed to this fight,” said Simon. “But under the conditions Canada is offering right now, I don’t see myself presenting this to the community.”
Yet, Deer conveyed that communication has long been a shortfall for MCK.
“I think a letter should have gone out to the community followed by a community meeting,” she said. “It really makes me angry to think he (Simon) would want to do this to his own community. He has failed us in so many ways.”
For Tomlinson, the Council inquiring about confidentiality terms at this point in time is a matter he called seriously concerning.
“They have been involved since 2011 in a process that they really don’t understand – they perceived there was a confidentiality agreement, which, based on that letter, there wasn’t,” he said.
The candidate said timeliness and transparency have also been recurring topics, causing uneasiness among members such as himself.
“They received this answer on March 25, yet, they never turned to the people to admit that they were wrong and that there was no confidentiality agreement,” he said. “This poses even further concerns of unethical nature as to why this hasn’t been acted upon.”
Meanwhile, one of two candidates running for the grand chief seat, Victor Akwirente Bonspille, said that the letter was never shared with him and other council chiefs.
“He kept spewing a lie saying we are under a gag order – he’s been carrying this with him without ever notifying the community,” said Bonspille, who has been a chief since 2014. “He has been putting fear in members, saying Canada was going to walk away and close the books on us when that’s not true.”
With the upcoming MCK elections on July 31, the Council and community members are optimistic that negotiations can resume.
“This is the grievance that really is at the basis of the biggest part of colonization, which is the disposition and separation of the Indigenous population from the land they occupy, that we are from, and which our relationship is intrinsic to,” said Tomlinson. “We’re setting the bar so low with this negotiation and that’s something we really need to work on.”
Laurence Brisson Dubreuil, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eastern Door