Kanesatake Chief in Exile

IT SOUNDS like the naive script of a John Wayne-era movie: Good Indian Chief, chased from the tribe he is trying to save, vows to come back, challenge the Bad Guys and clear his name.

Kanesatake Chief in Exile

IT SOUNDS like the naive script of a John Wayne-era movie: Good Indian Chief, chased from the tribe he is trying to save, vows to come back, challenge the Bad Guys and clear his name. But it's the real-life ordeal of James Gabriel, elected grand chief of the MOHAWK community of Kanesatake three times. These Mohawks near Montreal have been bad news for politicians before - but not for one of their own. Now Gabriel is an outcast, his house torched on Jan. 12 following a botched police operation he initiated to "weed out the organized crime that has infiltrated our community."

Dark-eyed, square-jawed, articulate and fluently bilingual, the 37-year-old Gabriel has had the media swooning over his tale of a crime-busting hero turned victim of a ruthless power struggle in the twilight zone of Mohawk politics. "I was not born an Eliot Ness, I am not a compulsive righter of wrongs and I certainly could have done without all the attention," the expatriate chief told Maclean's in a recent interview in a downtown Montreal hotel. "The easy solution would be to move away and never have to worry about it again."

He won't. What drives him, he says, "is to help provide a healthy, safe and secure environment to raise my kids." That, and anger: "The arsonists had no way of knowing that my family and I had left the house in separate cars just minutes before. They wouldn't have minded if I had died." His family is now scattered in several safe locations, his political base is in jeopardy, his whereabouts are kept secret and two beefy Native bodyguards escort him everywhere he goes. But James Gabriel is going for broke: he is blowing the whistle on what he says has gone awry in his community. "Our special status as Natives becomes a handicap when it is hijacked by the wrong people," he says. "If there was no special status, people would not be able to wrap themselves in Native-rights issues when it comes down to protecting criminal activity - and that is what is happening right now."

In the embattled confines of Kanesatake, that sort of tale-telling is just not done.

THE GABRIEL CASE is now at the heart of an escalating political mess that has:

- the federal and provincial governments tiptoeing around the Kanesatake minefield, looking bad at every step;

- the Sûreté du Québec and the RCMP, frustrated by their inability to do anything, snarling like dogs in a cat pound;

- the Mohawk political leadership divided between modernists and traditionalists, crime fighters and autonomists;

- Kanesatake residents torn between crime and poverty, hope and fear, pride and despair.

The name Kanesatake was branded into the Canadian psyche in 1990. That summer, the military was called in to put an end to a 90-day standoff over a disputed golf course that saw one Quebec police officer die - and confirmed Kanesatake's reputation for volatility. Located at the far edge of the urban sprawl northwest of Montreal, the community of 2,000 has been a no-go zone ever since, avoided by politicians and watched from afar by the SQ and RCMP (Kanesatake has had its own police force since the mid-1990s).

And that's the source of today's problems, according to Gabriel. After 1990, he claims, some Mohawks turned the political and legal vacuum to their advantage. "They got organized during the cigarette contraband era," Gabriel says, referring to the period when name-brand Canadian cigarettes exported to the U.S. were brought clandestinely back and sold tax-free in Mohawk villages. "They developed trade routes, evasion tactics," Gabriel charges. "When tax rollbacks killed the cigarette trade, they recycled into booze, drugs, weapons, illegal immigrants, anything with a cash value."

They?

"There is a core group of maybe 30 criminals. I know who they are. Everybody knows. They are always the ones making the trouble. They have pretty much a free rein in the community. And they have become bolder when they had friends in the band council that are softer on crime. They think they are above the law."

Trouble erupted on Jan. 12, when 67 policemen from other Native communities, mustered by Gabriel and with special funding from Ottawa, invaded the police station in Kanesatake. They were circled by protestors who had been tipped off in advance. The mob closed off the main road, manned bonfires and hoisted the flag of the Mohawk Warriors, which flew with such prominence in 1990. Gabriel's house was torched during that tense 30-hour standoff.

"The Warriors' flag was crap," says Doreen Canatonquin, one of the chiefs on the seven-member band council and a Gabriel supporter. "This is not a Native-rights issue, not a territorial issue, it is a law and order issue. In 1990, the community was attacked by outside forces. This time, it is divided from the inside." The accession of Canatonquin, 48, to the council in a recent by-election tipped the majority of the chiefs back in Gabriel's favour. But while the grand chief now lives in exile under protection, Canatonquin lives alone. Pickup trucks peel rubber in front of her door at night. Another Gabriel council ally, Marie Chéné, has had her car and house pelted with eggs. "Some people like the status quo, they don't want things to change," Canatonquin says.

The standoff ended after a deal was reached with the protestors. The hostage policemen were let go. Peacekeepers from the nearby Mohawk community of Kahnawake became the interim police force in the village. The deal was hammered out by Jacques Chagnon, Quebec's public security minister, without Gabriel's involvement. "Chagnon panicked," he says. "There is no question that when the security minister makes a deal with the dissident chiefs or rioters, he undermines my authority and that of my fellow chiefs. I told Chagnon: 'You have turned our community over to a gang of criminals.' " (Chagnon turned down several interview requests from Maclean's, as did officials with the RCMP and the Sûreté.)

With the "foreign" cops gone and the investigation into the arson officially underway, Kanesatake is quiet again, and a reporter can drive around freely, looking for interviews. John Harding, Gabriel's chief opponent on the band council, is quite angry - at Gabriel, at Ottawa and Quebec City, at the media and at the other Native police forces - but he speaks in a slow, deliberate, argumentative tone. "You have been around here," he says. "Does this place look like a stronghold of gangsters? Were you attacked? Were you offered drugs? Guns? I live here with my two children, and I don't fear for them," adds Harding, a former policeman. "There are social problems, no doubt, but they are no worse than in neighbouring non-Native communities. The crime problem has been exaggerated by Gabriel."

Harding says that "Mohawks are proud people, very proud people. They don't like to be bad-mouthed - they like it even less when it comes from one of their own. They really don't like to see their patch invaded by outside cops. The problem is not a law and order issue, it is a political problem. James Gabriel is the problem." Gabriel, he continues, governs "like a white man. I don't think he understands the way the community operates. He thinks his majority in council gives him the right to impose what he thinks is best for the community."

Gabriel admits he did not consult with the three dissidents before calling in outside cops. "The discussion would have been pointless," he says, adding that he issued the order on the strength of his majority. But Harding says that's not the way Mohawks have governed themselves. "It is up to the community to decide on policy, and for the leadership to act on the decision. I am the peer of James Gabriel, his equal - James had no authority to do what he did." An election is due in July. The traditionalists are pushing for an early vote "because Gabriel has left the community and is governing by remote control, and the council is paralyzed," Harding says. Gabriel replies that holding an election before he could safely return home would be like "confirming a dictatorship based on terror."

A strong undercurrent in the debate is the question of who is a real Mohawk. Both Gabriel and Harding are half-bloods. But Harding's mother was a Mohawk, Gabriel's was not; in this matriarchal culture, Harding is a full-fledged member of one of the clans, Gabriel isn't. And who should have the right to vote? Traditionalists want to restrict it to residents of the territory. "Ethnic cleansing," Gabriel replies. "Eliminate the half-bloods, those who don't speak Mohawk, those who speak French and those living outside the reserve, and you get a tiny gene pool, unable to reproduce."

Here is the modernist's outlook: "We must take the best of our culture and also take the best of modern society, and build upon that," Gabriel says. As for the traditionalists: "We have been battered over more than two centuries, and we are rebuilding our nation," Harding says. "It is difficult, it brings many social problems, but it is up to us to govern ourselves, according to our ways." Gabriel says he is fighting crime "to give the power back to the people, not to bullies who run the show." Harding says Gabriel is putting Mohawk sovereignty in jeopardy by "making private deals with outside governments."

You don't need road signs to know you have reached Kanesatake. First, the light changes as you drive through the forest of tall pine trees made famous in news clips in 1990. Then you see the first discount cigarette shacks - you are now in Mohawk territory. With the barricade removed, motorists are again stopping to buy - illegally - the no-name cigarettes that the Mohawks continue to sell. But, for the time being, James Gabriel must pay the full price for his own du Mauriers, in the dépanneurs of Montreal.

Maclean's February 23, 2004