Life in Canada's contraband country

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.

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.