Why drugs raids in Kanehsatake feel like police invasions
by DAN DAVID (originally published in 2011 in The Dominion)
KANEHSATAKE — “You didn’t see anything?” my neighbour asks. Apparently, another big police raid is taking place. We stop to listen for a second but hear nothing. Nobody phoned. I hadn’t listened to the radio all morning. I’ve been mowing the lawn. I haven’t seen or heard anything unusual. I haven’t seen a single police car. Looking up, we hear a helicopter. It doesn’t sound like a police chopper. We’ve learned to distinguish the sounds of military, police and civilian helicopters.
“It looks more like a news chopper,” I say.
My neighbour says news reports estimated that a combined force of 500 police officers were raiding Kanehsatake. We agree that a drug raid is long overdue, but we question the numbers and the need for such massive raids. The numbers imply a ratio of about one cop for every three Mohawks—man, woman and child—living at Kanehsatake.
My neighbour tells me the police hit a well-known drug joint in the Pines. “Lots of people go in and out of that place all the time,” she says, “and everyone knows why.”
That phrase gets lots of mileage at Kanehsatake. Everyone knows who’s into cocaine, and who’s dealing oxycontin to kids at the high school in full sight of the band office. Everyone knows who’s selling weapons, booze, and pills. Everyone knows where the pushers of hard drugs live. Everyone knows but few do or say anything until it affects them or their immediate family. Otherwise, most people mumble and complain.
The police arrest eight people at Kanehsatake this time, including an elderly mother. She had the bad luck of being at her son’s house when the police came to arrest him. The police, though, give reporters the name of only one of the arrested: 43-year-old Tyrone Canatoguin.
Because "everyone knows," everyone also has suspicions about this raid. Rumour has it that someone flipped. Everyone knows there’s competition between a few individuals, and possibly their families, over drug dealing. Rumour has it someone, perhaps someone facing jail time, cut a deal in exchange for reduced charges. Rumour also has it that the raid presented a chance for this individual to use the police to take out the competition.
None of that is reported by the news media for several reasons. First, rumours are almost impossible to verify. Second, most Mohawks won’t go on the record, especially to the Montreal-based media. They blame reporters for demonizing their community with sensational, superficial and negative coverage. Third, most reporters don’t look beyond “officials” for comment, as though average Mohawks have nothing relevant to say. Most reporters are fixated on confrontations between the Mohawk and police and everything else gets in the way of “the story”—a story that Mohawks feel has already been written.
Reporters don’t look for other stories or spend much time at Kanehsatake. They arrive when the police raids happen, and leave after they get the story they want. Reporters may not have the time to look deeper into the story. Certainly, most newsrooms are understaffed and reporters stretched too thin. They may also lack basic journalistic curiosity or interest in Indigenous issues, or maybe they’re satisfied to confirm Mohawks as fundamentally criminal, and to reinforce those stereotypes. Harsh? Not really, given the stories I read after a raid.
Newscasts on the morning of June 14 put 500 police at Kanehsatake even though there are raids taking place at Akwesasne, Oka and villages in the southern Laurentians. The numbers just don’t add up. The next day many news-sites, newscasts, and newspapers still put 500 police at Kanehsatake. It takes a small community paper, L’Echo de St. Eustache, to ask a simple question and get a more realistic number: 200. This helps explain why some people hardly noticed the June 14 raid at Kanehsatake.
Almost no context accompanies the stories after the raid. Reporters re-jig Surete du Quebec (SQ) handouts, quote police spokespeople and "balance" those with quotes from Mohawk band councillors. Police are portrayed as wary but professional, putting on brave faces while enduring insults. Reporters portray themselves in much the same way, especially after a La Presse reporter is spit on. Not a single story, however, questions the methods, the cost, the effectiveness or the impact of the raid on ordinary people living at Kanehsatake.
Do such raids instill confidence or fear in the police? Consider how police conduct drug raids elsewhere. They obtain warrants naming specific individuals. They isolate the address specified in the warrant. They execute the warrant with a minimum of inconvenience to the neighbourhood. Even during raids in a small village similar in population to Kanehsatake, police are careful not to disrupt daily life in the community. Often, the police alert the media beforehand so they can transmit the proper message: crime doesn’t pay.
A raid at Kanehsatake is different. The whole community—on every junction of every road—has a police roadblock. All Mohawks are considered suspect and potentially dangerous. This explains why the police presence is massive. There may be helicopters with snipers hovering overhead. The disruption to the community is huge.
Maybe the police get a kick out of these raids—the big operation, the cute title and all the big shiny toys they can muster. It may make them feel a lot safer. But imagine what it’s like from the inside when hundreds of heavily-armed people in uniforms move into your community and treat you like an inmate in a penal colony. The fact is that the majority of people at Kanehsatake don’t commit crimes, don’t own weapons, don’t do drugs. They might go a little over the speed limit every now and then, but they don’t deserve to be treated like criminals.
May of 2009 was the last “raid” in Kanehsatake. It was more like an invasion. It stretched over several days and involved a combined force of about 300 SQ and RCMP officers, dozens of squad cars and large SUVs speeding up and down the territory. A helicopter provided air cover while a police boat patrolled the Ottawa River. An armoured personnel carrier was on hand. Police arrested 12 Mohawks that time, although one escaped from the back seat of a police car, barefoot and handcuffed.
I described that drug raid as an “invasion”—a hugely expensive and wasteful farce. After several days, numerous searches and what must have cost several hundreds of thousands of dollars per day, the police confiscated about 100 tomato plants. Reporters came for the first day but decided there wasn’t anything newsworthy in the days after. Not a single mainstream reporter questioned the conduct of that raid—then, or since.
One woman felt her house shudder from a low-flying helicopter. Looking out a window, she saw a police chopper hovering above roof-level with snipers hanging out the side hatches, weapons pointed at her home and others nearby. Luckily, her children were at school. A few other people reported similar experiences. It made people wonder how the police get their information, what judges require from the police to obtain warrants for raids at Kanehsatake, whether the warrants are executed properly and if civil and human rights are different when it comes to Mohawks.
Plausible rumours after each raid have a long shelf life and wide distribution on the Rez. There’s also little effort to dispel rumours because there aren’t many credible or reliable sources of information at Kanehsatake. There are no local newspapers or other forms of independent journalism. People have few chances to meet, discuss or debate local issues. So the community lives on rumours.
Official sources of information, such as the police, governments, and Montreal newspapers, have little credibility among Mohawks. The police and governments play up their seeming infallibility while depending upon ugly attitudes about Indians in general and Mohawks specifically to justify their actions. To them, this is a problem community that they wish would just go away. As a result, they don’t get involved in working with the community toward long-term solutions, and instead use short-term thinking and flashy, expensive, and ultimately useless raids over and over again. It’s progress in reverse.
The mainstream media seem to share the attitudes of governments and police about Mohawks at Kanehsatake. So they don’t waste a lot of time questioning authorities about strategy or tactics. One can almost hear the sighs from newsrooms and the plaintive whine from reporters begging not to be sent on this never-ending story. As a result, little is done to offset sensational and superficial media coverage often driven by and reinforcing negative Mohawk stereotypes.
Of course, stereotypes go both ways. Mohawks don’t trust, like or respect the SQ or the RCMP because of past confrontations. Police are not seen as people trying to help but uniforms with weapons. On the other hand, the police haven’t tried much to build trust. Stories abound on the Rez about the SQ laughing at Mohawks trying to file complaints for assault or attacks on property, only to be told much later that their complaints don’t exist or are missing.
Mohawks at Kanehsatake may trust the Aboriginal Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit even less. The A-CFSEU is a collection of native constables drafted from reserve police forces across the province. The federal and provincial governments first tried this type of combined native force at Kanehsatake in 2004. It didn’t work.
Former chief councillor James Gabriel fired his own Mohawk police force and dismantled the community police board. He didn’t trust his own cops to "weed out the organized crime that has infiltrated our community." Gabriel then hired about 40 Native constables from across Quebec and brought back a former chief of police that the community despised.
In a 2004 Maclean’s magazine article, Gabriel explained his reasoning.
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 US 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."
Given Gabriel's statement, it’s understandable why many people on the Rez became convinced that Gabriel wanted to eliminate all of the smoke shacks at Kanehsatake. Such statements might have played well with outside governments, police and media but it set off alarms inside Kanehsatake. People feared Gabriel intended to use this private army to attack not only crime and dope dealers but his personal and political opponents as well.
The tobacco shacks that lined Route 344 just west of Oka were an economic shot in the arm where there had been almost no growth for decades despite a booming population. The shacks brought in money and created jobs. For many owners of those shacks, it meant new homes, a new car, a chance to pay bills or set up a small business. For those they hired to work in the shacks, it meant a job at home with decent pay instead of commuting or moving to Montreal. There were political implications too because, for the first time in a long time, a growing part of the community was no longer dependent upon, and dictated by, the band council.
Some of the money generated by the tobacco trade began to stick around Kanehsatake. In the past, money—usually in federal grants—would flow through the band office and almost immediately to outside businesses such as those in Oka. Now, there was a growing economy in Kanehsatake. Outside governments and police might not have liked it, they may have even wanted to eliminate the tobacco trade altogether, but they would have had to acknowledge that the entrepreneurial smoke shacks were creating a local economy where none existed before.
There were downsides too. Some parents worried that their children were quitting school to work at these shacks—not exactly a stable career choice. Other parents worried that sitting behind a counter all day didn’t instill in children the same work ethic as their ancestors had. Many parents recognized to some extent that the tobacco trade might end someday if the police and governments had their way.
People also began hearing rumours that some shacks were dealing drugs, weapons and booze. Parents worried that their children might be involved. Sadly, some other parents even encouraged their children to participate and take advantage of the “legal vacuum” that James Gabriel described.
At least that’s what everyone says because everyone knows.
Gabriel’s hired guns drove into the Kanehsatake police station in early January 2004. The reaction to the sudden arrival of foreign cops—Algonquin, Cree, Innu and Mi’kmaq—was swift and angry. They were quickly hemmed in by dozens of angry Mohawks. After a few days, they had to be rescued by Kahnawake’s Mohawk Peacekeepers. An angry mob then marched to Gabriel’s house, burned it down and drove him into exile. Gabriel’s force of Native constables spent the next few months collecting salaries doing nothing, sitting in their vehicles outside the territory.
Safety and security within the community went downhill ever since, coming to a head in 2009. Several people had nearly been killed in a series of violent incidents involving a specific group of men and women. People started calling them a gang. People began to organize their own self-defense groups and community meetings. At these meetings, people condemned police inaction and the band council’s willful blindness to this group’s violence. They began to demand the option of banishment. The band council was forced to meet with the community.
At a meeting in January 2010, the band council said it was working with the SQ to gather complaints including assault, arson and dope dealing. The council assured people they could lodge charges “anonymously” with the band council, which would then file them with the SQ. Of course, that wasn’t possible—legally—but no-one challenged the chief councillor, Paul Nicholas.
The band council also promised to seek legal opinions on banishment, safety and security and formation of its own police force. It promised to report its findings and decisions to the community within a month. Three months later, at a second community meeting, the band council said it was still studying these issues and would convene a meeting “within three weeks.” Since then, more than a year later, not a peep from the band council about any of these topics has been heard. It’s something the present band council hopes people forget as the community heads into elections this summer to choose a new council.
By now, you’ve figured out that Kanehsatake is a community going nowhere fast. Things are put off by the band council either because it’s incompetent and unable to deal with the issues, or it’s handcuffed by government policies and unable to do anything to effect change. Either way, nothing gets done.
The massive raids are merely a symptom of more fundamental problems that don’t or shouldn’t involve the police except as a partner with Mohawks in the community. Policing that doesn’t involve the community, that doesn’t reflect the will of the majority of people, just won’t work. It never has and never will—anywhere.
But giving Mohawks control over policing will take a leap of faith by all parties: the federal and provincial governments, the SQ and RCMP, and most importantly, the Mohawks at Kanehsatake. Individual Mohawks are frustrated that they’ve expressed over and over a wish to be involved. Federal and provincial officials have attended community meetings where speaker after speaker demanded to know why their governments were prepared to spend millions treating them like criminals but nothing to identify and address the root issues that provide the perfect environment for such behaviour.
For a long time, people in the community have been asking—demanding—change, and for some body to act. The band council is useless. Government bureaucrats listen but do nothing. Police seem to like the big show of strength. And the mainstream media puts out the same-old instead of trying to understand why Kanehsatake is in a downward spiral.
Somebody, I fear, is going to get killed, but that won't spark change or interest. I suspect it'll be seen as yet more evidence that Kanehsatake is a basket case and that Mohawks are destined to be hoodlums. In short, a painful reminder that Kanehsatake deserves nothing but the status quo.
Dan David is a printer, inker, drinker, stinker. He is Mohawk from Kanehsatake, and has been a journalist for more than 30 years.