By Joseph O’Connor
Violence erupted in Kanesatake on January 13 when protesters set fire to Grand Chief James Gabriel’s house. Fortunately the Chief, along with his wife and two children, had fled from the house before it was torched
Kanesatake is divided by the supporters of Chief Gabriel and his crackdown on pot growers and cigarette smugglers versus fellow councilor Steven Bonspille, who opposes the Chief’s tactics and extreme measures.
The council, which operates with a debt of three million dollars, has been deadlocked on most issues for the past year. Last week Chief Gabriel was able to pass the motion to replace interim police chief Tracy Cross.
The reason for the police chief’s dismissal was his so called lack of effort to prevent the drug trade on the reserve. There were no raids on pot growers; smugglers weren’t arrested.
A decorated soldier and veteran of two tours in Bosnia, Cross defended his record: “The accusation that was made by Mr. Gabriel that I was soft on crime is false and misleading. First of all, I was only in the position for seven months. I had to start right from scratch, to restructure the police department all over again. While I was doing that there was too much interference by the Mohawk council, by James Gabriel.”
Not only was Cross dismissed, his replacement, Terry Isaac, was not from Kanesatake; nor were the sixty constables who came with him. The new police force was enlisted from other bands and none were Mohawks. For the protesters, this was unacceptable. They surrounded the police station when Isaac and his constables arrived and would not let anyone leave.
“We have been barricaded in our own station,” Isaac said. “They tossed bricks to prevent us from leaving.”
As the siege prolonged, the mob got increasingly unruly. Trees were felled to block a highway near the reserve and Chief Gabriel’s car was destroyed and his house burned.
When the firefighters tried to enter Kanesatake to save the house, they were refused entry by the protesters. The fate of Isaac and his police force was headed for a showdown, until the Quebec government intervened and made a deal with the protesters to allow Isaac and his 55 constables to leave the police station unharmed.
“You have to deal with reality,” Quebec Public Security Minister Jacques Chagnon said. “We were in a dead end and if it wasn’t solved we would have spent a second night with armed people on both sides and the possibility of a bloodbath tomorrow.”
The deal had to be made. Grand Chief James Gabriel, who didn’t agree with Chagnon, saw the outcome as defeat for him and his followers.
“I won’t buy peace from a gang of criminals who make up their own rules and respect no authority.”
The Quebec government did what it had to do. Gabriel, who is now without a home may also be without a job. Steven Bonspille has been lobbying for an election that could see Gabriel ousted as Grand Chief
A fragile situation that doesn’t look like it will improve overnight may see crime on Kanesatake continue to prosper. James Gabriel may have wanted too much too soon, but considering the history of smuggling and crime that went unchecked for seven years after the Oka crisis, Gabriel’s policies were not without reason.
Unfortunately, it was too little, too late, the criminal element is already so entrenched at Kanesatake, that any attempt to stop it will meet the same violence that Terry Isaac and James Gabriel had to deal with last week.
When the CBC reported that things were back to normal, many residents of Kanesatake were infuriated.
“When a chief of a community has his house burned to the ground and escapes with the clothes on his back, it’s way beyond what I regard as normal,” said a resident who wished to remain anonymous.