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Life in Canada's contraband country

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

Alvin Delisle, also a former iron worker, sees things differently. He can’t vote, receive any social assistance or be buried on the reservation, all because he has a white girlfriend. His family reported him to the local authorities.

A few days later, he is admitted to hospital for major valve surgery. His girlfriend Pauline Labelle must return alone to the reservation that night to look after his three dogs. “There are radicals out there, a lot of hotheads. I don’t want them to brick my window or burn my garage,” he says.

Tracey Deer, a local filmmaker and newspaper publisher, worries that the band council is playing with fire. “There’s a lot of anger, jealousy, hatred and sadness on [the reservation],” she says. The evictions campaign, which saw residents snitching on neighbors with non-native partners, has elements of a “witch-hunt.”

While Mohawk fights Mohawk, a pernicious underworld culture still oils the wheels of the local economy. Last year saw a major crackdown, with police and local peacekeepers raiding a tobacco and drugs fortress on the reservation, which they said was linked to the Hells Angels.

Outside police forces are not welcome, but the local peacekeepers — the reservation police — often seek out their expertise, especially in technical areas like forensics. Policing the unregulated tobacco trade is a constant battle, says peacekeepers chief Dwayne Zacharie. “The mafia relies on people not going to the police and bending to their will. When you remove one, something else comes up in its place.”

The storm of outside controversy over large-scale tobacco smuggling — mainly from the U.S. — has contributed to a siege mentality, fueled by access to the internet. (Kahnawake is one of the most connected reservations in North America, hosting hundreds of online casinos.) People appear genuinely hurt by some of the public commentary that has accompanied coverage of the evictions.

“The hatred is always going to be there. Any time there’s an article that mentions native people, there are always negative comments,” says local media entrepreneur Greg Horne. Even a story about the reservation’s successful H1N1 vaccination program last year yielded hateful reaction, he says. “Even if we embraced Canada and put on the maple leaf, there’s no way they’d accept us because of who we are.”

The yawning gap with the outside world is best symbolized by the 1990 Oka conflict, which saw Kahnawake’s Mohawks block the Mercier bridge spanning the Saint Lawrence River. “The Indians ain’t playing bingo no more, they’re playin’ bridge,” went the mantra.

“It’s always in the back of our minds,” says Thomas Deer, a local graphic artist and member of the "longhouse," a bastion of traditional power on the reservation, whose representatives are known as "warriors." Today, the continued tensions are such that any little issue has the potential to explode into something big, says Deer.

A recent edition of the local paper, Eastern Door, tells the whole story. A photo of a shapeless slab of concrete fallen from the Mercier bridge linking Montreal and Kahnawake graces the front page. The fragile connection between the two worlds is literally and figuratively crumbling.