Exile of a chief

James Gabriel is no Eliot Ness, despite media's take on Kanesatake flare-up

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Montreal – It didn’t take the mainstream media long to forge a consensus, when last month, Mohawk protestors at legendary Kanesatake near Oka laid siege to the native police station. Most journalists on the case saw the standoff, during which Grand Chief James Gabriel’s house was torched, as a heroic moment for a brave chief who risked his neck to clamp down on the lawless element in his community. A story in the Montreal Gazette even compared Gabriel to legendary Chicago lawman Eliot Ness, who collared Al Capone.

But as often happens in coverage of native issues, journalists jumped a little too quickly to the punchline. After talking to a broad spectrum of the players, I find the story seems more about the precipitous action of a tactically challenged chief.

Much of the latest tension dates back to 2001, when Kanesatake residents voted to turf Gabriel in a non-confidence vote. He kept his job after a court granted an injunction to put aside the referendum. But things really exploded after Gabriel signed a secret agreement last November with the federal government for $900,000 in “extraordinary and enhanced’ police funding.

It was a deal that left Kanesatake’s interim police chief and the band appointed police commission out of the loop – and one that greatly disturbed the Sûreté du Québec (SQ), the provincial police force.

Gabriel proceeded to quietly recruit 67 cops from native communities across Quebec for a mysterious police operation, the goal of which is still in dispute.

When word got out, the community was in an uproar. Rumours circulated that Gabriel aimed to close down the 14 tobacco vendors who sell native-grown and -rolled tobacco tax-free in little huts lining highway 344. The RCMP calls the tax-free trade illegal because of its non-native customers.

The chief, speaking from Montreal, where he has fled temporarily, insists his long-term goal is to crack down on crime in the community and that “it was never an issue of the cigarette trade. For me it’s always been about narcotics.” He does say, however, that he has a lot of concerns about the smoke huts. “The RCMP has come out very clearly and said selling tax-free to non-natives is illegal.”

Still, he says, “there was no plan to raid the cigarette vendors, nor was there a drug raid planned. The plan was to take control of the police station.”

This was essential, he says, because he was attempting to replace Police Chief Tracy Cross, who he believed was not fulfilling his mandate and knew there would be opposition. His appointees, Terry Isaac and Larry Ross, were both involved in an ill-fated 1999 raid in which Kanesatake cops shot Joe David, a well-known warrior involved in the 1990 Oka crisis. David was left paralyzed. Gabriel says he could not tell the police commission about his plans because it, too, “wasn’t fulfilling its mandate.”

But even the SQ thought Gabriel’s operation badly conceived. Says Daniel Thibault, speaking for Quebec public security minister Jacques Chagnon, “the SQ was opposed from the beginning” to the $90,000 deal with the feds and the planned manoeuvre.

The SQ felt, he says, that the money and the operation should have gone through an existing SQ-RCMP-Peacekeepers (native police) task force. “The SQ didn’t find (the operation) was appropriate and would not participate,” he says. “The best way to run an operation is with calm and discretion. Sixty-seven people to take charge of the post is not calm and discreet.” He also adds that the community’s police force is supposed to be overseen by the police commission.

Barry Bonspille, executive director of the band council and a member of the police commission, was shocked by a mobilization he knew nothing about. For years, he and other commission members had been asking the band council, the feds and Quebec for more money. Funds were so tight that cops had their power and phones cut off and had to take their vehicles off the road because their insurance had run out. Now, suddenly, Gabriel had enough cash for a secret mission. “It’s ironic that Canada would agree to $900,000 when so many police bills are not being paid,’ Bonspille says.

A vocal section of the community continues to insist that Gabriel’s mobilization was about clamping down on the selling of smokes, a very popular cause célèbre in the Mohawk world. “People confronted the police because of cigarettes, not because of dope,” says Ronald Giroux, a non-native retired tree surgeon who has lived in the community since 1980.

Selling smokes tax-free, says Kenneth Deer, editor of the Eastern Door, a weekly in nearby Kahnawake, is a widely held expression of Mohawk sovereignty. In his own community there are four times as many smoke huts as in Kanesatake. “Mohawks look at cigarettes as a political issue, not a criminal issue,” says Deer, who represented the Mohawks at the UN during the 1990 Oka crisis. “Everyone who is against James Gabriel is being painted as organized criminals and thugs,” he says. “It stinks.”

Gabriel, it seems, made another miscalculation during the police station standoff. He and his appointee Isaac called on Quebec to send in the SQ – the same force that precipitated the Oka crisis and that now treads lightly on Mohawk land. Protestors vowed to resist the SQ if they came.

Inside the police station, some of the cops mobilized for the action had misgivings. They had come thinking they were assisting in a narcotics raid but were surprised to find that the goal was to replace the police chief. Cree chiefs who had lent several cops to the raid sent a fax demanding the Cree officers be allowed to leave.

“It was a Keystone Cops operation. It was done very unprofessionally,” says Bill Namagoose of the Grand Council of the Crees. Namagoose is flabbergasted by Isaac’s decision to call in the SQ. “Talk about recklessness and endangering people’s safety,” he says.

In the end, cooler heads prevailed. Instead of sending in the SQ, public security minister Chagnon sat down with the Kanasatake police commission and leaders from Kahnawake and brokered a deal to give Isaac and his men safe passage out. The police commission restored Cross to his post, saying he had done a good job.

Gabriel, who did not participate in working out the truce, believes Chagnon betrayed him. “The Quebec government negotiated with people who had no legitimate authority. They turned victory over to the bad guys.”

Thibault, the minister’s rep, responds that it was appropriate to negotiate the truce with Kanesatake’s police commission. “It is a legally constituted organism,” he says.

The opposition Parti Québécois, most journalists and even the Assembly of First Nations sided with Gabriel. “What’s going to stop any group in any community now from seizing control?” asked the AFN’s Ghislain Picard at a press conference. (Picard cannot be reached for further comment.) The Journal de Montréal declared: “The Warriors have won.”

Police Chief Cross doesn’t think criminals have taken over, but he does believe police work has been stymied by the band council. Gabriel’s “stunt” has derailed a two-year investigation of organized crime in the community, he says. But, in general, crime actually fell by 65 to 75 per cent on his watch, thanks to jobs provided by the cigarette trade.

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