05/03/2014 01:04 EDT | Updated 07/03/2014 05:59 EDT

Kanesatake Mohawk council rifts force early election

Mohawks in Kanesatake go to the polls to elect a new band council leader today, five months earlier than planned after the existing council disintegrated into factions, paralyzing decision-making.

Grand Chief Serge Simon, elected in August 2011 on a platform of unifying the community, lost the balance of power more than a year ago and often saw his faction’s decisions overturned as a result.

With the council at an impasse, the chiefs agreed to hold a decision as quickly as possible rather than wait until the scheduled election in October, in order to resolve the crisis.

“We spend our time arguing,” Simon said. “Who wants to come invest in a community like that?”

Good governance a priority

For Simon, like the other two candidates running for grand chief, revisiting the governance model remains the priority.

“What message are we sending to our youth?” asked candidate Sonya Gagnier, one of the dissidents on the current council. “We’re telling them that there’s no future here. We need to work together for the good of the population.”

Robert Gabriel, a former band council chief who arrived late to the race, agrees that elected officials need to work hand-in-hand. But Gabriel said he considers economic development and land claims to be the real priorities.

“My community is broken,” Gabriel said. “People have to be able to earn money, to work. For that, we need to take advantage of our land and the financial compensation we would get from the federal government if we were able to hold negotiations.”

The governance issue has been a thorn in the side of the community for decades — complicating negotiations over Kanesatake’s unresolved land claim and exacerbating tensions in 1990. That’s when a dispute over the neighbouring town of Oka’s plan to expand its golf course led to a blockaded highway and the 76-day standoff now known as the Oka Crisis.

“In 1991, they changed the voting system,” said political scientist Pierre Trudel of the University of Quebec in Montreal’s (UQAM). “At that time they were supposed to clearly define the roles of the chiefs and of the grand chief and name an elders’ council. But that was never done.”

Conflicts have multiplied in the decades since then — coming to a head in January 2004 when dissident community members took over the band-supported police station and set fire to the home of former grand chief James Gabriel.

Traditionalists don’t vote

Elections in Kanesatake are rarely popular. In the 2011 band council election, under 30 per cent of 2,100 band members deemed eligible to vote actually cast a ballot.

According to candidate Gagnier, this speaks to “voters’ lack of interest and the large proportion of traditionalists.”

Traditionalists reject any form of election that falls under the Indian Act and call for a return to the matrilineal system of government that existed before Canada was settled by Europeans.

“Our ancestral methods allowed the tribes’ mothers to choose the leaders from among the children they saw grow up and become adults,” said John Cree, a man considered by many Mohawk traditionalists as their spiritual leader.

“I don’t vote because I don’t recognize this voting method, which divides more than it brings people together,” he continued.

Even so, Cree said he hopes the incoming chiefs will be able to restore harmony to the community.