By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
The grand chief of Kanesatake, the Mohawk community once at the heart of the Oka Crisis, plans to hold a referendum June 15 to gauge the community’s confidence in the current band council which has been engulfed by internal divisions that now threaten the operations of the health centre.
The Kanesatake health centre is on the verge of going into third-party management as a result of a power struggle between a group of four chiefs who are tilting against Grand Chief Serge Simon and the two chiefs who still support him.
(In Kanesatake band councillors are known as chiefs)
The four chiefs have essentially launched a coup against Simon. Because the group forms a quorum, they’ve been able to pass band council resolutions, accepted by Aboriginal Affairs, which authorize expenditures, including spending band money on lawyers to fight the grand chief.
The quorum of chiefs recently stripped Simon of the land claim portfolio after he wrote a letter to the community accusing Ottawa’s chief negotiator of issuing a veiled threat.
The quorum has also launched court action against the health centre’s board and the ensuing legal battles led the board’s insurance company to drop its coverage.
Kanesatake has been hobbled by intense internal power struggles through a majority of its post-Oka years.
The last major band council crisis ended with the torching of former grand chief James Gabriel’s home. Gabriel, with Ottawa’s support, authorized what was interpreted as a federally-funded armed invasion in January 2004 when police officers from outside reserves entered the community under the guise of combating organized crime.
Kanesatake still bears the scars from that era and community members have persistently called for a public inquiry into the affair to uncover Ottawa’s true role.
The current tensions have not reached that level, but the situation has thrown the community into tumult.
Simon said he hoped the referendum vote would give the council a clean slate and a chance to start over.
The vote will feature a ballot with the name of each band council member beside alongside a box asking whether the voter has confidence in the individual.
“At the end of the night we will see who has more no’s than yeses and they will be basically out,” said Simon, who was elected in August 2011 to a three-year term.
Simon said the internal tensions have stalled progress and is pushing the band’s finances to the brink.
“If I can’t continue to save these services and work for the band in an ethical fashion, I would rather the community tell me to go home rather than sitting up here, powerless to stop it,” said Simon, who chose not to collect a salary as grand chief. “I don’t know what to say to my community anymore.”
His opponents on council, however, say they won’t acknowledge the results of the vote.
“It is going to be illegal…it is going to be totally challenged,” said Chief Sheila Bonspiel. “We are under a democratic system and it is not a dictatorship and he does not have exclusive and ultimate power.”
Bonspiel said her group of four chiefs has been working to create a governance code for the band council for the first time.
Chief Sonya Gagnier said the lack of a code is at the root of the political problems in Kanesatake.
“This is where (Simone) needs to go instead of going and splitting the community more,” she said.
The internecine political battle has spilled from the council chamber and engulfed the health centre. As a result of the insurance company’s decision to drop its coverage, Health Canada could soon move in to place the centre under third party management so it can continue to operate.
A Health Canada official told APTN it was monitoring the situation and evaluating whether intervention is warranted.
The move to third-party management would lead to layoffs and program cuts.
The health centre crisis was triggered when Simon pulled Bonspiel and Gagnier from their health portfolios, removing them from the health centre’s board. Simon put himself on the board along with Chief Clarence Simon.
The aim of the move was to revamp the health centre’s bylaws and depoliticize the health centre so band chiefs would no longer be able to automatically sit on the board, said Simon.
The plan was to have the board elected by community members, but candidates would first have to meet laid out criteria to ensure they were qualified to handle the file.
“This is the way things should have been set up in the first place so that the community is in charge, not a group of people that are hand-picked,” said Daniel David, who sat on the board temporarily in hopes of putting through the reforms. “We want to have people on the board who are qualified to be a board, not just a bunch of people who may or may not be qualified to sit on the board.”
Bonspiel and Gagnier, however, say that the board is illegal and doesn’t have any power to make the changes.
“They’ve gone rogue,” said Bonspiel. “If they wanted it to be run independently, then why is the grand chief so involved?”
Bonspiel said the current board structure was created when the health centre was incorporated a few years ago.
“We were not interfering. We were not involved in any of the operations. Council never interfered over there,” she said.