Elected Mohawk Chiefs call for Canada to respect traditional leadership and “see beyond the Indian Act”
AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde held a press conference attended by Mohawk Band Council Chiefs from Tyendinaga, Kanesatake, Kahnawake and Akwesasne.
OTTAWA – On Tuesday morning, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde held a press conference with Indian Act leaders from four Mohawk communities to address the growing crisis that was sparked on February 6, 2020 when the RCMP invaded unceded Wet’suwet’en territories. Journalists pressed the Chiefs for their position on the rail blockade at Tyendinaga and how it could be ended. The Chiefs neither denounced nor intervened in the current disruption of Canada’s rail lines. Instead, they called for the traditional leadership of the Wet’suwet’en to be respected, and saw Canada’s failure to do so as the origin of the crisis.
“People are taking action because they want to see action, and when they see positive action by the key players… people will respond in a positive way,” AFN National Chief Bellegarde said in his opening words.
With pressures mounting on all sides for a resolution to the crisis, Bellegarde focused his comments on the demands of the Wet’suwet’en people, which he said were “simple”: the removal of the RCMP from Wet’suwet’en territory; that CGL explore other options for routing its pipeline; and that the Crown formalize relations with the Wet’suwet’en nation’s traditional leadership.
Joseph Norton, Grand Chief of the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake, who held the same office during the Oka Crisis of 1990, expressed sympathy with the trauma the Wet’suwet’en people have experienced at the hands of the RCMP and drew parallels with what the Mohawk people experienced thirty years ago. “We know what it is to be imposed on. Our brothers and sisters in Wet’suwet’en territory out in BC are suffering the same circumstances.”
The Kahnawake Grand Chief blamed the current divisions within Indigenous communities on “the implementation of the Indian Act” – a revealing position to take considering that Norton and his counterparts draw their authority from the Indian Act.
Referring to “our people out here” – those on the lines and their much wider base of sympathizers – Grand Chief Norton added: “We feel the pain and anger, and we are prepared to defend ourselves too.”
Contrasting with his peers was Grand Chief Serge Simon of the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake, who was the only leader to call for the rail blockades to be taken down as “a show of good faith.” Grand Chief Simon expressed concern that the current crisis could set back relations between Canada and Indigenous people “ten years.”
“I am simply pleading with the protestors, ‘Have you made your point yet?’”
Grand Chief Simon also mentioned that he had been locked out of his office by people in his community of Kanesatake for taking this view. The doors to the Band Council were chained shut all day Tuesday, and a group of community members stood outside and ensured that no one entered the building.
Aside from Grand Chief Simon, Bellegarde summarized the consensus in the press conference when he called on “all the parties to come together” in order “to get this dialogue started in a constructive way.”
By “all parties” Bellegarde clarified that he meant “Aboriginal rights and title holders” – referring to the traditional hereditary leadership of the Wet’suwet’en nation.
Concerning the blockade, the AFN National Chief even went so far as to say that this whole crisis has “brought awareness” and that “our relatives and brothers and sisters can hold their heads high. They’ve elevated this issue to a national and international level.”
“It’s not about blockades,” said Don Maracle, Chief of the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte. “Fundamentally what’s at issue is the decision-making rights of the traditional leaders in the Wet’suwet’en nation. That’s what’s not been respected and that’s why we have this conflict that’s going on.”
Maracle legitimized the stance of the Wet’suwet’en nation’s hereditary leadership with reference to the Royal Proclamation made by the British Crown in 1763. “We never gave our consent to have our traditional land or resources transferred to the provinces… As a matter of fact, it flies in the promises of the Crown that were made in the Royal Proclamation of 1763.”
Former Grand Chief of the Akwesasne Mohawk Council Mike Mitchell added to the legal arguments made by others with a more philosophical and universal framing: “There are people who are not sitting here who believe that the Earth is our mother… They have a spiritual philosophy that we are all related and that we respect all of creation. They need to be here.”
As pressure on the Federal government mounts to act, and with the Federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer and much of the conservative press calling for repressive action, those present at the AFN press conference took the position that Canada must take a new approach to traditional leadership is required.
“We have to see beyond the Indian Act,” Mike Mitchell stated in his final words. “Inside our nations, our traditional leaders are our leaders as well. We need to regroup and give recognition back to them.”
“It was fundamentally wrong to go along with a resource development when there was strong opposition within the leadership,” Maracle concluded. “So we find ourselves in this situation not because of protestors but because of the way the whole thing was handled in the first place.”