Kanesatake weighs options as grand chief seeks to bring back local police force

Kanien’keha:ka territory northeast of Montreal looks to overcome often fraught recent history with law enforcement


Partying, homicide, reckless driving, arson: everywhere Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Simon looks, he sees figurative — and literal — fires to put out.

“[We’ve had] 14 arsons, five attempts, constant racing throughout the community, gunshots day and night,” Simon told APTN News.

“This has gotten to be a little too much for our community. It has to stop.”

But finding solutions to policing in the Kanien’keha:ka (Mohawk) community west of Montreal brings about its own set of complications.

Kanesatake is one of the 11 First Nations communities in Quebec that is currently patrolled by officers with the provincial police force, the Surete du Quebec (SQ).

The relationship between SQ officers and Kanesatake members has been strained since the 1990 standoff over an Oka golf course in which an SQ officer, Cpl. Marcel Lemay, died in a shootout following a botched police raid.

In the past, creation of a Kanien’keha:ka-owned-and-run police service did little to smooth over issues of organized crime and violence within the community.

From the late 1990s to the early 2000s the Kanesatake police service was rocked by allegations of fraud, high-profile firings and police station shootouts.

Former Kanesatake grand chief James Gabriel was threatened, and his home was destroyed by arson after ordering raids on his community’s cigarette shops.

The Kanesatake police force disbanded 17 years ago — but Simon sees little improvement under the SQ’s watch.

The final straw came a few weeks ago. Simon says the SQ failed to adequately respond when an area cannabis shop threw a raucous party for hundreds of people — mostly outsiders.

“The music could be heard as far away as two kms from the event throughout our community,” Simon explained. “[Residents] found coke bags, condoms. They even found a couple of syringes around our elementary and daycare schools.”

“The [SQ] was supposed to set up roadblocks at three area parts [or] access roads leading into Kanesatake. They only set up one, and that was after 10 p.m. No tickets were given, no arrests, nothing. These people come here, they create havoc in our community, and were allowed to leave without incident.”

The situation within the community only ramped up after July 1, when an alleged Hells Angels member was murdered at a cannabis shop also within community limits.

Simon took his complaint up the ranks to Quebec’s Ministry of Indigenous Affairs, and its Public Security Ministry, to ask for a renewed policing agreement and more boots on the ground in Kanesatake.

Quebec’s minister of public security has confirmed that discussions are ongoing but has also described them as “complex.”

In an emailed statement to APTN, a ministry spokesperson said they are waiting on Kanesatake to set a date for preliminary discussions.

“Every creature on this planet has the right to defend itself. And to protect itself,” Simon added. “A policing service here, like I said, is not an oppressive tool — it’s one that will protect and help us develop. It’s the main pillar of all development. If you can’t protect your people, you can’t protect your services, your projects.”

“It’s not dictatorship. It’s common sense.”

The plan to introduce an independent, Indigenous-run police service to Kanesatake is an ambitious one. Some call it unrealistic.

“You can’t believe that tomorrow, I have a magic wand and I bring in a police force that those things will mysteriously stop,” explained Kanesatake resident Teiawenniserate Jeremy Tomlinson.

“There’s a root cause to all the problems that are happening, and policing is not necessarily the solution to that.”

Tomlinson grew up in Kanesatake and is a recently retired RCMP officer.

In his time with the RCMP, Tomlinson filed numerous harassment and toxic workplace complaints alleging mistreatment as a Kanien’keha:ka man working in an outside police force.

“It’s been a very traumatic experience — psychologically and morally, what I’ve been through. But I think I’m in a better place in terms of what path I’m on. And I think it’s just going to get better from here,” Tomlinson explained in an interview with APTN.  

Given this past experience, Tomlinson thinks questions about non-Indigenous police forces patrolling First Nations territory are “loaded” ones.

“If I look at it in terms of purely operation policing, I mean, anybody can police any community,” he said.

“Now, if we look at it in terms of effective service delivery, there’s a lot of other things we need to look at. Other factors, you know? Culturally sensitive service delivery, are your employees able to connect with the community which they’re serving … these are all things that you have to look at [when] offering a community policing service.”

Kanesatake isn’t the only First Nations community in Quebec putting pressure on the province for personalized police services.

The Anishinaabe First Nation of Long Point, 600 kms northwest of Kanesatake, is calling out the SQ for dragging their feet on a recent emergency call — leaving citizens to disarm an armed man by themselves.

“Neighbours had to secure the road and prevent people from circulating on the road while others established contact with the individual to take his firearm,” said Long Point Grand Chief Steeve Mathias.

“Our people are not trained for that. It’s our people who put their own lives on the line by having to respond in that way.”

Mathias says he’s exasperated by Quebec’s perceived lack of motivation involving implementation, or creation, of Indigenous-specific policing plans.

Experts, however, say it’s a tricky process.

The Viens Commission report, a 488-page document sparked by reports of racist violence against First Nations women in Val d’Or, Que., explains Indigenous-led forces can’t be created “unless an agreement is reached among the communities, the federal government, and the provincial government.”

The report identifies a handful of other recruiting obstacles: small hiring pools and a lack of experience among candidates, low operating budgets, generalized mistrust in authority, and the simple fact that “young Indigenous people are not interested in the police profession.”

Even when forces are adequately staffed, having a localized police force gives rise to other issues, according to the Viens report.

“Interventions are made more complex by the fact that the police officers on duty frequently know the aggressor, the victim, and their respective families. Several witnesses […] identified this social proximity as a challenge,” according to a passage in the report.

To improve the on-the-ground policing situation, former judge Jacques Viens recommended federal and provincial governments “explore the possibility of setting up regional Indigenous police forces,” boost funding to “upgrade Indigenous police force wages, infrastructure, and equipment,” and amend Quebec’s Police Act to acknowledge Indigenous-led forces as “similar to those of other police organizations.”

Tomlinson sees a tall order to fill.

“I think everyone has public safety, and enjoying a quality of life on their minds – but nobody really has come together to have the discussions of what the implications would be to go about doing that,” he said.

“I think we can do a lot more, make a lot more progress, and be a lot more efficient if we come together and we discuss all these things, and we build them from the bottom up versus ‘here, this is my idea – eat it.’ You know?”

Simon, for his part, promises he will consult with the community if and when the ball gets rolling on the Kanesatake policing file.

Simon also assures the public the hypothetical police force will be totally independent from Mohawk council, and are looking to CALEA – the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies and so-called “gold standard in public safety” – to train its future recruits.

“We’ve learned from our mistakes that we made in the past. We’re not going to repeat them,” Simon added. “But the community does need a service that would protect everyone equally.”

Tomlinson is unsure whether it’s possible.

“Is a traditional model of policing even right for our people? Because if you look at us traditionally – pre-contact, or even post-contact – I’d say even just outside the last century and a half, really – policing was not a concept at all amongst our people.”

Reporter / Montreal

Lindsay was born and raised on the unceded territory of Tiohtià:ke (Montréal), and joined APTN News as a Quebec correspondent in 2019. While in university, she collaborated on a multiplatform project about the revitalization of the Kanien’kéha (Mohawk) language to commemorate the International Year of Indigenous Languages. Before APTN Lindsay worked at the Eastern Door, CTV Montreal and the Montreal Gazette.