Posted on December 9, 2009

In a Town Haunted by Oka, Nobody Is ‘Canadian’

Sean Gordon, Globe and Mail (Toronto), December 8, 2009

The precious cargo arrived in a nondescript blue rental car, unadorned by the usual travelling fanfare that surrounds its every movement.

Typically, the Olympic flame is accompanied by a phalanx of Mounties, and preceded and followed by heavily branded Vancouver Organizing Committee vehicles.

But Kahnawake is anything but a typical stop on the Olympic Torch Relay. By prior arrangement, and after lengthy negotiations–which dragged late into Monday evening–the RCMP stayed off tribal land, and so did the rest of the torch road show.

They did so with good reason: The lessons of recent history are still painful in this community, which sits across the St. Lawrence from Montreal.

Put simply, since the Oka crisis, everything has changed in Kahnawake, and nothing has changed.

The Mohawk community has become a huge global player in the online gaming industry and is clearly thriving. Yet it remains beset by continuing problems with poverty, addiction and crime, and then there’s the small matter of the continuing political stalemate between the band and the governments that would control it. Kahnawake is a place where the word Canadian is often set in quotation marks.

“If you go to any man, woman or child in this community, no one would tell you they’re Canadian,” said Michael Delisle Jr., grand chief of the Kahnawake Mohawk Council, who nevertheless said the torch is “a beacon of hope” to his community and that it was “a great day.”

And so the torch’s passage illustrates a mostly unspoken dichotomy: The Olympic ideal is held up as a symbol of hope and achievement to young people in aboriginal communities, but in Kahnawake that inspiration has little to no connection with the national celebration the 2010 Games organizers envision.

“You have a persisting disaffection with the federal government, and the claims to federal authority over Kahnawake. That hasn’t evolved much or at all since Oka . . . the Mohawk conception of national sovereignty is completely at variance with Canada’s or Quebec’s or with that of most of the Canadian population,” said Ronald Niezen, a native affairs expert who teaches anthropology at McGill University.

Though the 1990 Oka crisis primarily involved a dispute at Kanesatake, a Mohawk reserve northwest of Montreal, members of Kahnawake blockaded a bridge linking their community to the city in solidarity.

Those roadblocks prompted construction on what would become Highway 30, the proposed extension of which is currently being contested by the Mohawks.

The situation today is nothing like the simmering tensions of the summer and fall of 1990, but the political positions remain intractable.

Indeed, the RCMP and Sûreté du Quebec provincial police are not welcome in Kahnawake unless they seek permission and co-operation from the community’s police force, and the relay organizers were willing to make allowances to get the torch there, including shortening the original route.

“The goal, and we had the full support of the RCMP, is to find a way to make it all work. And there are a lot of very happy young kids today because we did it, and we’re very happy,” VANOC head John Furlong said. In the event, a crowd of several hundred school children and residents gathered under dazzling blue skies to cheer the relay.

Just before noon, the canister holding the flame–by then surreptitiously transferred into a Mohawk Peacekeepers squad car–was brought out to light a torch held by Kahnawake’s own Alwyn Morris.

The 52-year-old, one of two medal-winning Olympians to hail from the community of about 7,500, said “the torch relay is about unity, it’s about peace, it’s about bringing together family and friends and uniting the country.” He also expressed hope the day would help clear up a few misconceptions about his community.

“Unfortunately [the reserve] is given some very unappealing stereotypes. I was at the Olympic Games, I represented Canada at those Olympic Games, it didn’t take anything away from Canada and I’m also a Mohawk. It’s not something to be afraid of.”

The two-time Olympian is a fitting exemplar of his community for more than athletic prowess. After winning two kayaking medals at the 1984 Los Angeles Games–a gold and a bronze–he returned home to work in addiction counselling and as a senior adviser to the band council.

In 2007, he quit that post to found a company in the reserve’s booming industry, online gaming.

Kahnawake’s computer servers are home to more than 500 Internet casinos, an activity that is technically illegal under Canadian law (as is much of the community’s robust discount tobacco trade). But the gaming business has created hundreds of jobs and despite hefty federal funding for education and health, the general perception is Kahnawake has been left to its own devices.

“There’s so many things that are happening in the community in terms of economic development. A lot of it, unfortunately, is in spite of what comes in by virtue of governmental support,” Mr. Morris said.

Coincidentally, the first day the flame wasn’t escorted by Mounties was also the first day on which a protester was arrested. As Mr. Morris alternately walked and jogged the few hundred metres between a gas station on Kahnawake’s main drag and a school, a protester ran up and tried to hand him a stack of tracts. The protester was grabbed by a couple of burly Peacekeepers and after a brief scuffle was shepherded into the back of a squad car.

Just down the road, a traditionalist Mohawk group held a protest that comprised a handful of people holding bedsheets painted with slogans such as, “Remove the poison, remove the torch.” Demonstrators grumbled Mr. Morris was trying to drum up attention for his business interests, while passing band members replied with insults aimed at the protest. A few children even booed.