Memo to the Government of Canada regarding the Wet’suwet’en affair: Listen to Grand Chief Joseph Tokwiro Norton

ABOVE: Two young Indigenous protester stand in solidarity with the Wet'suwtan'en of British Columbia (March 1, 2020  PHOTO: OLM STAFF)

Grand Chief Joseph Norton of the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake is one of the great Aboriginal leaders in North America. An eloquent, effective and innovative leader, he has a proven track record and more experience than anyone today regarding the most practical ways to achieve reconciliation between Canada’s Indigenous people and its citizens.

I have known Chief Norton (Joe) for many years. He is kind to a fault, firm and unpretentious. He is one of those people who walks into a room and eyes gravitate to him. He is, in presence and in person, a leader.

In 2003, I attended a meeting with Chief Norton in Ottawa to explore the possibility of the Mohawks being involved in bringing e-health platforms to Indigenous communities across Canada. Chief Norton was working with an American firm  who had developed transformative e-health technology. During the meeting one of the two federal officials, representing what was then a new government of Canada e-health agency, made an exceptionally patronizing and off-the-cuff racist comment. Chief Norton responded to them with a terse firm comment and the meeting ended shortly thereafter. I left feeling angry that these two 'executives' were representatives of the federal government.

Afterwards, as we walked down Sparks Street I was expressing my shock dismay at what I had just witnessed. Chief Norton said, “Dan welcome to our world. That was mild to some of the comments we get. I've learned to quickly assess who we can deal with and who is not worth it.”

I never forgot his words and more importantly the dignity of the way he expressed them — dismissing their ignorance like water off a duck's back. Chief Norton had more class in his pinky than those two idiots who had control of a large part of this new federal file.

Grand Chief Joseph Tokwiro Norton has seen a lot in his life. He carried the Mohawks through the fires and fury of the 1990 Oka Crisis, and many will tell you that the only reason that tinderbox did not explode was because of his leadership. Despite the tension, it was Norton who kept all sides of the racial, governmental and linguistic divides calm as he worked with the Mulroney government, the RCMP, the Canadian Forces, his community in Kahnawake and the adjacent communities of Kanesatake and Oka to bring a peaceful resolution to the matter.

Working tirelessly and with great integrity, Chief Norton brought calm back to Oka, Kanesatake and Kahnawake. In the years that followed he would be a key partner in creating what would become a world-leading telecom firm, Mohawk Internet Technologies (MIT). The company would go on to employ over 100 Mohawks in Kahnawake and bring millions of dollars in economic development to the region. Ironically, MIT would  employ hundreds of non-native residents from the Montreal suburb of Châteauguay which was at the heart of the Oka Crisis. That alone did more for post-Oka reconciliation than any government program or initiative. Chief Norton was also the  founder and chair of the Tewatohnhi'saktha Economic Development Commission that currenlty employs 500 band members and has brought additional prosperity to Kahnawake.

For decades Chief Norton’s presence and endorsement has been sought by candidates running to be the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, whether it was Ovide Mercredi, Matthew Coon Come, Phil Fontaine, or even the current Chief Perry Bellegarde. Norton’s leadership in confronting and resolving many of the hurdles, controversies and challenges faced by the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake without compromising the Mohawk people’s principles or his own is what makes him a person who should be listened to today as we seek solutions to the current Canada- Wet’suwet’en crisis.

When Chief Norton's community faced racism and prejudice from the Quebec government and the Sûreté du Québec (Quebec Provincial Police), he ensured the Kahnawake Police Force were present and properly trained to adjudicate matters in Kahnawake. He is responsible for significant advances for Kahnawake in health care, education, care for seniors and in culture and recreation. He approaches every discussion and negotiation guided by the traditional Mohawk Confederacy belief that people negotiate government to government and always with tolerance, acceptance and a concern for mutual understanding.

Grand Chief Joseph Tokwiro Norton of the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake

Chief Norton and the Mohawks are once again key players on the national stage in the current dispute with the Wet’suwet’en Nation in northwestern British Columbia. Their  Hereditary Chiefs have clashed in recent weeks with the RCMP who are trespassing on their traditional territory in support of  the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline project.In a show of solidarity to support their western kin, the Mohawks put up rail blockades on their territory in Ontario and Quebec stalling the movement of goods across Canada.

For Mohawks in Quebec and Ontario, the Wet’suwet’en pipeline dispute evokes memories of the 1990 Oka Crisis when Kahnawake blocked access to the Mercier Bridge between July 11 and August 29, 1990 in solidarity with Kanestake's opposition to a golf course expansion project on disputed land.

The Wet’suwet’en Nation conflict has heightened tensions in the country mainly due to a breathtaking lack of leadership by Prime Minister Trudeau and his federal officials who are seemingly  incapable of resolving the contradictory interests between factions of the Wet’suwet’en Nation who want the pipeline and those who don’t, and those in British Columbia who are committed to building the pipeline.

The crisis has caused great economic stress nationally as goods and passengers moved by rail have been slowed to a halt from coast to coast. The most high-profile solidarity demonstration was on the Canadian Pacific-owned tracks running through Kahnawake which led to the suspension of Exo’s Line 4 Candiac — a commuter train line which shuttles thousands of south shore commuters to downtown Montreal each day — for two weeks. A protest further down the line on rail tracks near the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory in eastern Ontario continues and has already forced the temporary shutdown of most of the Canadian National Railway’s network east of Manitoba, as well as the suspension of most Via Rail services.

As the Kahnawake protests started to impact, many Canadians reverted to the worst behaviour as racial and other derogatory slurs surfaced. Norton responded to this racism calmly, telling his community (and the media) that, “It's a good thing to show this strength, but we have to have good minds. We must be careful when we take actions like this. We must weigh and judge how much we can do. We have to take care of ourselves," adding, "it's fine to get out and protest but we have about 200 children who go to school off the territory. Our children could possibly face some backlash. We as individuals could face backlash.”

In contrast to the confusion and incongruous meanderings of the federal government, which have only exacerbated the matter, Chief Norton communicated early and often that he was hopeful the ongoing demonstrations would not go on for too much longer. He made a point of making statements like, “we care about the reaction of our neighbours,“ but was unequivocal in expressing the frustration of all Indigenous people (and many Canadians) noting that some governments have continued to act as though calls to “respect the rule of law” do not apply to Indigenous laws and Indigenous territory.

“People should come to the table on a level playing field, rather than the federal and provincial governments saying,‘We’re the law,'" said Norton. “Those days should be over and done with.” He told reporters last weekend that, “We’ve been working night and day to come to solutions, to come to a mind where there’s an ability to identify what needs to be done at this moment. Norton says that, “Once this situation is over, it doesn’t mean it’s the end of it,” saying that discussions between Indigenous peoples and governments need to continue beyond the current crisis.

The Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs are demanding the RCMP leave because they are not wanted, liked or trusted in the community. It was Grand Chief Joe Norton who suggested his community’s police force, the Kahnawake Peacekeepers, head up a temporary Indigenous force to patrol the Wet'suwet'en territory until calm is restored. “The key demand is for the RCMP to leave, but there is a need for policing services to offer assistance in everyday matters,” said Norton. “We feel this can lead to an immediate de-escalation of the current crisis.”

There is precedent for this as Kahnawake Peacekeepers were used in January 2004 to take over policing in Kanesatake, a Mohawk community about 45 minutes north of Montreal. Norton even said it was possible that an Indigenous force could work with the RCMP. He noted that the Kahnawake Peacekeepers are recognized as federal police officers who enforce the Criminal Code of Canada and that officers in the force complete the six-month RCMP training program in Regina.

Typically, the governments’ Public Safety Minister, Bill Blair, rejected the offer saying that the RCMP is the best service to patrol traditional Wet'suwet'en territory and telling reporters that, “The RCMP are the police of jurisdiction working under police contract with the B.C. government in that territory and in most of non-urban British Columbia.” He went on to say that, “the RCMP are very good and competent police service and the people in that territory deserve the very best in police service that can be provided. And today that's by the RCMP."

This, of course, is false. The RCMP are widely distrusted by the Wet'suwet'en people and have a horrible record of police mismanagement and misconduct in  communities across  Canada. The previous Commissioner, Bob Paulson and his Deputy Commissioners were found guilty in 2018 by a provincial court judge of violating the Canadian Labour Code and the national police force was ordered to pay more than half a million dollars for their incompetence that contributed to the deaths of three Mounties in 2014. The RCMP have such a serious misogyny problem in their own ranks, that over 2000 current and former members are suing them in a class action lawsuit.This, despite the Trudeau government paying a $100 million taxpayers in compensation to hundreds of former female Mounties subjected to abuse and misogynistic while serving in the force. The government did not fire or charge any of the perpetrators in the force involved in the  crimes against these former members when doling out the compensation. Then, there is the case of Peter DeGroote who was hunted down and killed by an outlier RCMP unit in British Columbia in 2014. The 'investigative' report into the misconduct that lead to his tragic and unnecessary killing has yet to be released. There have been multiple calls by numerous groups for civilian oversight of the RCMP for years. Yet, despite the insurmountable evidence and proven record of systemic misconduct by the RCMP management, Bill 'Blinders' Blair thinks it is reasonable to tell the Wet'suwet'en people that the RCMP will "continue to do their work." They obviously don't agree.

Blair's dismissive and patronizing comments towards Norton’s offer of a "possible solution to address one of the most problematic issues in the Wet'suwet'en situation" did not go unnoticed. Chief Norton’s solution would allow for the RCMP to leave while ensuring the need for policing services in everyday matters for the Wet'suwet'en remained. Norton proposed the force would be led by Kahnawake Peacekeepers and include members of other Indigenous police services "We did a similar thing in Kanesatake in 2004 when requested to come and help to ease a very tense situation there," Norton said. "We stayed for a while and helped calm things down, restore peace."

The head of the Kahnawake Mohawk Peacekeepers, Dwayne Zacharie, who is also president of the First Nations Chiefs of Police Association, had already contacted other Indigenous police chiefs in order to be ready to send an amalgamation of officers if the proposal was accepted.

Trudeau’s Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett embarrassed the government and frustrated everyone further when she attempted to explain an apparent interim deal with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary leaders on March 2, 2020. She was so incoherent that it left most to wonder if Bennett even knew what she had agreed to, or even understood what she was talking about. Prime Minister Trudeau could do himself, his government and the people of Canada a big favour by focusing on the wisdom and counsel of Grand Chief Joseph Tokwiro Norton of Kahnawake. He solves problems by being flexible and works from a set of principles designed to achieve the best outcome.

It’s called leadership and the government would be wise to follow his lead.