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James Gabriel was Grand Chief of the Mohawk community at Kanesatake (located near Oka, Quebec) from 1995 to 2004. His tenure in office was controversial, marked by bitter divisions between his supporters and opponents.
The 1700-member community began holding elections for tribal office in 1991, following the Oka Crisis. A number of issues have increased political competition in the community.
Gabriel promoted opposition to drug trafficking and organized crime in Kanesatake. In his campaign against these, critics suggest he and supporters unjustly branded several community members as criminals. Gabriel agreed with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) that the community's tobacco stores (in which cigarettes of disputed origin were sold tax-free to non-natives) should be removed. With strong disagreement over this decision by other council and community members, a protracted dispute ensued which eventually involved both the provincial and federal authorities.
In a 2001 referendum, 61% of Kanesatake voters approved removal of Gabriel from office. He kept his position following his victory in a court appeal. The reasons for Gabriel's unpopularity in this period are disputed. His supporters in 2003-04 claim that he lost popularity by not adequately confronting organized crime, while his opponents claim his unpopularity resulted from his promotion of bill S-24 (see below)m which changed conditions for the settlement in relation to other levels of government.
Policing and conflict
In late 2003, Gabriel arranged with Canada's Indian Affairs Department for an emergency loan of $900,000 to the community's police force. Gabriel secretly hired aboriginal policemen as special forces for an anti-crime, drug raid. Opponents believed Gabriel intended to use these officers against the local cigarette dealers. (He informed his supporters on the band council about the planned actions, but not the three council members who opposed him.)
On January 12, 2004, Gabriel bypassed the Kanesatake Police Commission and led a force of 67 police officers to the local police station to take control. (The community's police chief, Tracy Cross, was not a supporter of Gabriel and opposed these actions). Many local residents resisted this effort, and a standoff resulted.
Gabriel's allies requested assistance from the Sûreté du Québec (SQ). The police had been involved in the prolonged 78-day Oka standoff of 1990 and not been able to keep control. Fearing renewed violence, the provincial authorities refused to send in the SQ. They negotiated an agreement by which the private forces were given safe passage out of the community. On the same night, Gabriel's house was burned down. The grand chief sought safety in the neighbouring community of Laval.
Disputes continued through 2004 over the leadership of the Kanesatake police force. Gabriel's status in the community after the raid was a matter of controversy in 2004-05. Some believe he was legitimately removed as Grand Chief in January 2004, while others (in and out of the community) rejected this interpretation. In any event, Gabriel was defeated 375 votes to 344 by Steven Bonspille in the June 26, 2005 election. The six band council members elected alongside Bonspille were Gabriel supporters, leading to difficult governance.
In early June 2005 the Sûreté du Québec Command testified to their understanding that the tobacco/drug raid was intended to replace both Police Chief Cross and the Police Commission. The S.Q. and RCMP Command had both argued with Gabriel against conducting the raid. They testified that it was poorly planned and that Gabriel relied on dubious evidence in his decisionmaking.
Some aboriginal groups in Canada, including the powerful Assembly of First Nations, have openly sided with Gabriel in this dispute, as has the Parti Québécois. Gabriel's supporters believe that the provincial government capitulated to organized crime in early 2004. His opponents argue that his rule over the community was heavy-handed and arbitrary. They said his efforts to stop the cigarette trade were an intrusion into accepted community practices.
Gabriel was involved in other controversy during his tenure as Grand Chief. He helped to negotiate the passage of S-24, a federal bill which, according to its backers, was meant to clarify the community's relationship to the federal government. Because Kanesatake is not a "reserve" but a "settlement", it has not been subject to the provisions of Canada's Indian Act. Opponents of S-24 believe that the bill was intended to reduce the community's autonomy.
A community referendum narrowly passed the bill by two votes. Many residents boycotted the electoral process entirely. Some believed Gabriel intended to convert Kanesatake into a municipality under Canada law. Such action would have increased the powers of the federal and provincial governments over the community.
Outsourcing control of finances
In 2002, Gabriel allowed the federal government to hire the private firm of PriceWaterhouseCoopers to assume control over the band's finances. (He claimed the decision was necessary in light of the band's $1.2 million deficit).
- Johansen, Bruce Elliott (2004). Enduring legacies: Native American treaties and contemporary controversies. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 22. ISBN 978-0-313-32104-7. Retrieved 14 April 2011.
- Paterson, Alex K. (2005-09-01). My life at the bar and beyond. McGill-Queen's Press - MQUP. p. 137. ISBN 978-0-7735-2988-5. Retrieved 14 April 2011.