By: Michael Rice
Tekanawita, a Huron-Wendat, brought the Great Law of Peace and ended civil war amongst the Mohawks. His words offer a possible solution to political divisions in Kanesatake.
The Great Law is the social, political and spiritual constitution of the Six Nations, the Mohawks, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora Nations. Tekanawitas’ words have been passed down orally and have become part of the cultural fabric of the Kanienkehaka people. This system of traditional government and chiefs exists in most Mohawk communities. However, it is not recognized nor supported financially, politically or legally by the Canadian government. Nevertheless, it is recognized in most Mohawk communities as the legitimate Mohawk government by the majority.
The only First Nations governments recognized by the Canadian government are the elected band councils. Band councils are a British colonial creation designed in the 1840s to undermine indigenous government systems and substitute them with a municipal form of government. Band councils are composed of a grand chief and a number of chiefs depending on the populations of the band. The Grand Chief is essentially the mayor, and the chiefs are councillors. The term “chiefs” is only cultural icing for a municipal council.
The Canadian government supports band councils financially, legally and politically to deliver programs, services and information to First Nations peoples. Band councils may pass municipal by-laws only, subject to the approval of the Minister of Indian Affairs, provided they are not considered unconstitutional. They do not violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
This is a democracy, according to Canadians, their leaders and the media. It is not a democracy, according to First Nations peoples. The Dominion of Canada’s intentions in 1867 was to thrust “democracy” on Mohawk communities and implement it by force if necessary. The Dominion Police, the RCMP, Provincial Police forces and Federal law attempted to abolish First nations forms of government-provided that force. Those that refused “democracy” were branded and treated as “criminals and hotheads”. Thus, creating the stereotype of Native Peoples that resisted the coercive policies of the Government, the Churches, and the law as threats to “law and order.”
As hard as the Federal government, Police and Church-run residential schools tried to suppress First Nations socials, cultural and political structures; our people secretly kept our languages and cultures alive. Part of that cultural transmission was chiefs were chosen to represent their people. That included consulting the wishes of the people and making decisions in their best interest.
If a chief or chiefs ever lost the esteem of their people, the people could ask the clan mothers to remove the offending chiefs from office. Mohawk society is matrilineal, and women pass on their clan and citizenship to their children. Once a chief was removed from office, he never regained it as his removal was considered a disgrace.
According to Mohawk society, this is a responsible government, as their leaders remained leaders as long as they worked for the welfare of their people and held the popular support of their people. However, once they no longer worked for the welfare or lost the esteem of the people, their horns of a chief’s office were removed, and they were forced to step down as a chief.
The band council system introduced by the Indian Act of 1876 changed this to chiefs being elected by popular votes, with the candidates winning the most votes becoming elected leaders. Consensus in Mohawk society was replaced with the creation of opposing parties. The party having the quorum or majority of seats has the political power and recognition of the Department of Indian Affairs to pass by-laws. Once the chiefs have been elected, they are no legal obligations for the party having the ability to consult with their constituents.
Thus, a handful of “chiefs” can negotiate an agreement with the Federal government without obtaining the approval of the opposing party of chiefs and the people living on the reserve. And this is the root of the political problems in Kanesatake.
The people living in Kanesatake want a responsible government that listens, consults and follows the community’s wishes. And if its ruling party fails to do that, to have the right to call for a non-confidence vote to remove their leaders from power.