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Life in Canada's contraband country

Movement to evict non-natives from Mohawk reservation dredges up ancient animosities.

KAHNAWAKE, Canada — Bad blood flows down the river separating Montreal from Kahnawake. Recent moves by the Mohawk reservation to evict non-native residents have dredged up old animosities, some of which run extremely deep.

From the other side of the icy Saint Lawrence River, the tiny, but feisty reservation — population 7,500 — is seen as a seething morass of tobacco and drugs smuggling, where natives rub shoulders with gangsters.

In Kahnawake, there reigns an atmosphere of suspicion toward the outside world. “I wouldn’t let anybody see you take notes,” says the owner of a cigarette shop on the outskirts of the reservation. “There could be trouble.”

His warnings are not borne out. But, it’s clear, the frustrations of this close-knit reservation bubble just beneath the surface. As the community has grown economically stronger off the back of questionable activities, so too has it become more isolated.

There’s excitement in the air at the band council, an official body composed of elected Mohawk chiefs. Grand chief Michael Delisle is in great demand — the evictions, based on blood quantum laws determining rights of residence on the small reservation, have attracted a lot of national media attention.

“We’ve been compared to the Third Reich,” he says. “I take great offense … We’re not going on raids and massacres. We’re not killing anyone.” The council had to carry out the will of the people, he says. One hundred residents requested the evictions.

The council may be the vessel through which federal subsidies flow, but it derives great satisfaction from thumbing its nose at Ottawa. Delisle says that the reservation will one day achieve full sovereign status, with its own courts, police force and education system.

The quest for blood purity on the reservation is enshrined in federal legislation defining native status — the 1876 Indian Act — and self-imposed by wary residents who frown upon marriage with outsiders for fear that dilution of the race will lead to a loss of rights, territory and, ultimately, identity.

On the surface at least, most locals agree that outsiders should leave. “Just because you go and live with the horses, doesn’t mean you become a horse,” says Pete, a Mohawk iron worker who recently returned to the reservation after years working on New York construction sites.