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Human rights case calls for mediation

Community members took the streets to protest non-Native residents and express their support for the Kahnawake Membership Law during February 2015.  (Daniel J. Rowe, The Eastern Door)

Following a yearlong investigation, the Canadian Human Rights Commission has decided to uphold complaints of five Kahnawa’kehró:non against the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK).

The complaints were filed in August of 2015 because the group feels they are being excluded from certain programs, services and benefits based on racial discrimination stemming from provisions in the Kahnawake Membership Law.

“It’s the first hurdle and process that we have successfully underwent to have the Canadian Human Rights Commission uphold the complaints and to find sufficient important issues of discrimination being raised, as well as other legal issues that would warrant the cases being referred to the tribunal,” said Fo Niemi, the executive director at the Center for Research-Action on Race Relations in Montreal.

The five Kahnawa’kehró:non, who range from pre-teen to 50 years of age, approached Niemi’s team at CRARR for support to file the complaints. They claim discrimination from community members and council because of their biracial backgrounds or because their partner is non-Native.

“I’m a white guy living on the reserve, and I’m a savage off the reserve. It’s been tough,” said one of the complainants, to reporters following a press conference on December 21.

Like the rest of the complainants, the man is listed on the federal registry as a status Indian of Kahnawake, but is not recognized on the Kahnawake Kanien’kehá:ka Registry (KKR), in accordance to the Membership Law.

“I have two passports. I have a Canadian passport and a Haudenosaunee passport, which is the traditional, real Mohawks, so I’m accepted in the longhouse where I’m from but not accepted in the Mohawk Council,” he said.

“I’m just trying to get what’s right for myself, my daughter, my grandchildren and my mother.

Another complainant, who also wished to remain anonymous, received an eviction letter because she is living with her non-Native spouse.

“I go out in the community, I feel like I have to put my head down,” she said. “I’m just hoping that we get accepted and everything will just be fine and dandy. I don’t want anything. I just want to be left alone.”

The complainants also alleged that the MCK failed to protect them from intimidation, and that it also “contributed to the creation of a racially poisoned environment that jeopardized these residents’ right to physical and psychological security.”

“They would like to be given full and equal access to rights and services like any other members in the community because for many of these people, they were either born there, raised there or lived there most of their lives and feel that they are Mohawk and should be a part of the community,” said Niemi.

The group was notified at the end of November by the commission that their cases would be referred to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal in the New Year for “further inquiry.”

The commission has also identified constitutional jurisdictional issues, such as whether the application of the CHRT on First Nations governments would infringe on Indigenous Peoples’ right to self-determination.

It’s why Niemi said the group believes mediation before the human rights tribunal will lead to more a consensual and constructive resolution of the issues.

“Hopefully it will be consensual and could work out in benefit of everyone involved,” said Niemi. “They want an opportunity to sit down to discuss and see if they can work out something. Before, they could not even attend consultation or hearings or meetings because they’re not considered full members.”

According to the Membership registrar, there are 6,614 people listed on the KKR. It’s a stark comparison to the 10,970 people identified as status First Nations of Kahnawake, according to the federal government’s band list.

“They’re being excluded in some way or another and that’s a very big amount of people,” said Niemi. “What people seem to deplore the most is that they don’t have the opportunity to really engage in a dialogue with decision makers in the community. They’re excluded from the outset and they’re afraid that this large number of people will be left out.”

Joe Delaronde, the MCK’s press attaché, said the door for mediation is still open for council to consider, as well.

“That’s certainly one of the things that we would consider, but it hasn’t been decided yet. As it is, chief and council in the first place already remind CRARR and others that their complaints are under the Indian Act. The issue is of course that we have our own law,” he said.

All three parties had until January 3 to decided whether they will opt for mediation.

“We were notified by the commission at the end of November, and the tribunal wrote to all the parties on December 9 – giving us practically a month to inform the tribunal if we’ll go to mediation,” said Niemi.

Delaronde, however, said the date is too soon for council to provide an answer. Their offices were closed for the holidays until January 2.

“Really, that’s unreasonable. To get something two-three days before Christmas and everyone goes on holiday,” said Delaronde.

“We need a little time to digest this and the fact that it’s coming out now, they can’t expect that we’re going to have a decision made on January 3. People are on vacation, people are on holiday mode.”

This story was originally published in the December 23, 2016 issue of The Eastern Door.

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