Canadian Conundrum: Mohawk Membership Laws Vs. Charter Of Rights And Freedoms

When the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake began presenting eviction notices this month to 25 non-natives living on their 13,000-acre reserve just south of Montreal, it sparked an outcry from non-Native human rights activists. The Mohawk Council’s priority is to protect their language, culture, and sovereignty, but outsiders have decried the action as a racist and illegal denial of Canada’s constitutional Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

A fundamental difference in view comes from perceptions of identity: the Mohawks do not see themselves as Canadians. The Council’s laws require a person to have at least four Mohawk great grandparents to live or own property in the Mohawk reserve. Any Mohawk who marries a non-native must leave. “Everyone knows the law: if you marry out, you stay out,” says Joe Delaronde, a spokesman for the Council. “If we don’t protect who we are, we will become Canadian citizens.”

The basic philosophy is embodied in the legal terms of the Kahnawá:Ke Membership Law:

We have consistently and historically exercised the right to determine our own membership. In recent times, we have been compelled to adopt measures that were necessary to ensure our continued survival as a Kanien'kehá:ka community.

This Law is another link in the unbroken chain of our historic struggle to survive as Kanien'kehá:ka of Kahnawá:ke. This Law is the result of a lengthy period of discussion and consultation within our community. It is an expression of the will of the Kanien'kehá:ka of Kahnawá:ke and is intended to reflect the values and principles described by the Elders of our community in their statement on membership: Entsitehwahahárahne.

This Law is an affirmation of our Indigenous and Treaty rights. This Law is essential if we are to survive and to thrive as Indigenous Peoples and as Kanien'kehá:ka of Kahnawá:ke.

The Kahnawake reserve was originally set up by the French in 1716, when the Mohawks were their allies against the British. Shortly afterwards, some French traders were asked by the Tribe to leave. In the modern context, evictions of non-Natives have been spurred by the fact that First Nations receive federal money for social services only for officially registered Natives. Canada’s minister of Indian affairs has stated the evictions make him “uncomfortable”, but says he can do nothing because First Nations have the right to say who lives on reserves. The Mohawk Chiefs deny the relevance of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, stating that their relations with non-Natives are actually governed by the Two-Row Wampum Treaty, agreed with Dutch traders in the 17th century. The Treaty called for mutual non-interference, or as the Mohawk Council spokesman stated: “We stay in our canoe and you steer yours.”

Back To The Future? Canadian First Nation To Implement Land Allotment Policy

Flag of the Nisga'a Nation (University of Victoria)

In a break from long-standing land control policies, the Nisga’a First Nation in British Columbia is set to begin allotting property to its members, who can then mortgage, lease, or sell it – even to non-Nation members.

The new policy is part of an ongoing effort to improve the economic circumstances of the Nisga’a. After three years of study, the Nisga’a government has concluded that restrictions on private property ownership by its members has been a significant obstacle to financial growth. The new policy will provide Nisga’a members with freehold title to their homes, which they can then sell or mortgage as they please, and the policy may soon be extended to the Nation’s commercial and industrial properties.

This new policy from a First Nation in Canada will contrast sharply with policies among Tribal nations located within the United States. The property allotment policy implemented by the federal government during the 20th Century is generally viewed as having been an economic and social disaster for Native communities. The selling off of Tribal lands, typically at below-market value in order to obtain much needed cash, resulted in the “checkerboarding” of Native reservations and an alienation of Native peoples from their traditional homelands. Tribes also lost control of significant mineral wealth and water/mining rights due to the loss of ownership of their lands.  Most Tribes within the U.S. have spent the decades since the end of allotment trying to regain lost lands and return them to permanent Tribal status.