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This Unrecognized Aboriginal Community Is Pissing Off Quebec Mohawks

Indigeneous leaders say the Mikinaks are making a mockery of their struggle.

by Brigitte Noël
Aug 22 2016, 4:58pm

Chief Lise "Canard Blanc" Brisebois holds up her community's flag. All images by VICE Du Jour

Lise Brisebois said she always felt "Indian."

"Go into the woods, go speak to a birch tree, tell it about your day, your misfortunes. You'll see what you feel inside," the 57-year-old daycare owner told VICE. "When you're Aboriginal, what you feel inside is a drum, the music starts going, your feet start going too."

Brisebois—who says she is the descendant of an Algonquin grandmother—is the chief of the Mikinak community, a group formed in January 2016 and established mostly in and around Beauharnois, a middle class suburb near Montreal. "We're all different nationalities," she said of her membership. "I've got Hurons, Algonquins, Mohawks, some Abenakis." Basically, anyone who can demonstrate aboriginal ancestry—through DNA or simply by showing genealogical documents—can apply for a Mikinak "status" card, which costs $80 and promises its holder a series of "rights."

"This card attests that the bearer is an Aboriginal within the meaning of the article 35 of the Constitution Act of Canada (1982) and can exercise applicable Aboriginal rights," states the back of the plasticized card, followed by a list of rights: the right to hunt, fish, and trap for food, "trans-border trade and mobility rights in North America," and "treaty-based rights to trade traditional goods."

Problem is, neither the Mikinak nation nor the privileges it claims to bestow are recognized by the federal government, and the group has been labelled a fraud by several First Nations leaders.


According to the Feds, the rights listed on the back of the Mikinak membership card are not binding.

Wearing a beaded headdress she says was gifted to her, Brisebois said her main objective is to help people understand Indigenous values. "I'm fighting for our rights to feed ourselves, to fish and hunt," she listed off. Free education is also a goal, and "medication is free for Aboriginal peoples, so that's part of it for me."

VICE met Brisebois and fellow members of the Mikinak community in a shopping centre parking lot, in Gatineau, QC. The group had chosen this site because of its proximity to the Canadian government's office of Aboriginal and Northern Affairs, a department with whom the Mikinak wish to have a word.

Brisebois's Mikinak ink

The weekend's gathering was co-hosted by the Confederation of Aboriginal People of Canada (CPAC, an umbrella organization that oversees several unofficial Indigenous-identifying groups) and was meant to serve as a public consultation of the Confederation's membership.

The Confederation has attracted its share of controversy, mostly linked to enigmatic leader "Grand Chief" Guillaume "Billy" Carle. In the past decade, Carle has been jailed for obstruction of justice and accused of mismanaging another Indigenous group's finances and of lying about having Aboriginal ancestry (allegations he's vehemently denied).

For Carle, the strip-mall meet-up was another step towards his goal of forming—and leading—an autonomous Indigenous government. "Now we have this movement in place that's in no way financially manipulated by the government because we don't want any money," he told VICE.

"Our members are a mix of a bit of everything, it's people who for a long time were afraid of their identity, afraid of talking about the pressures, the aggressions," Carle said. And though he stressed the fact that his adherents must show documentation or DNA evidence proving Indigenous ancestry, he explained that the primary determinant of Aboriginal identity is self-identification.

"Not even the United Nations, not even the Canadian government can say 'you don't have the right to be Aboriginal, to be an Indian,'" he said.

Carle had been expecting about 10,000 people to make their way to this outdoor conference, "members from all over the country." But during VICE's visit on the first day of the meeting, about 40 people milled about, sitting in lawn chairs scattered around parked trailers.

"I said I expected 10,000 to show up," Carle told VICE when asked about the discrepancy.

"But there was a change of plans because of the Gatineau police," he said, explaining local authorities weren't too keen on the group's plans to set up their tipis in the area.

A Gatineau police spokesperson told VICE the CPAC had announced 15,000 people were coming to the city. He confirmed the force told the group they could not set up their tents in front of government offices but denied discouraging their visit. One officer confirmed a maximum of about 65 people were present over the course of the weekend.

Grand Chief Guillaume Carle addresses his constituents.

Kahnawake Grand Chief Joseph Tokwiro Norton, who has been vocal in his condemnation of the Mikinak's efforts, explained that he doesn't believe this is a matter of reconnecting with lost identity.

"It's one thing to live [on a reserve] all your life, speaking the language, struggling and fighting for the things we have and trying to gain more," he told VICE. "But it's another thing to suddenly, when you're so far removed..."

He said the group, whose jurisdiction is adjacent to Mohawk territory, seems motivated by the perceived "perks" of being Aboriginal. "There's no doubt in my mind it has everything to do with benefits, he said. "I mean, you can put on a leather headband and fake headdresses as Grand Chief Brisebois has done and proclaim that [you are] spiritual, but there's no substance there, plain and simple."

A recent Supreme Court decision seems to be one the Mikinak membership's main motivator. In April 2016, a landmark ruling called the "Daniels Decision" stated that the country's 600,000 non-status Indians and Métis people were constitutionally considered "Indians."

Brisebois said this ruling confirmed that her group is indeed entitled to the rights they claim: "It says that anyone with Aboriginal ancestry, whether 10th or 2nd generation, it says you are Indians."

This is a refrain echoed by many of the Mikinak members.

Mikinak and CPAC members show off their flags.

"We just got our rights back," Rosemere resident Jean-Yves Bernard told VICE. "We have to defend them and ask for them otherwise we won't get them back." The descendant of an Algonquin great grand-parent, Bernard said he was now fighting for access to free education, medication, and the right to hunt and fish—"nothing that complicated."

"Because we don't live on a reserve, we have to pay taxes, those are the little irritants," he said, adding he's never actually spent time on a reserve.

But Aboriginal rights lawyer Kathryn Tucker explained that the group seems to be misinterpreting the decision's impact.

"The question in this case was 'who are Indians?' So does the federal government have power to legislate over non-status and Métis people," Tucker said, explaining how a constitutional grey zone left these two groups in a bit of a jurisdictional wasteland when it came to seeking out support or resources.

"The provinces typically would say 'We don't have jurisdiction to deal with you, please go see the federal,' and the federal would say 'We're not responsible for you, deal with the province,'" she added.

She said the court decision simply clears up this situation. "So now if there are policy issues, or if people are seeking some relief or some responsibilities, they can go to feds and they know, there's a clarity in the law that the constitution sends you to the feds."

However, the decision does not do more than that. "It does not create new categories of who has status, who is a registered Indian under the Indian act. All that remains the same," she said. Essentially, the Daniels decision does not mean access to new rights for the Mikinak community.

The Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs told VICE that none of the "rights" listed on the Mikinak's card are actually binding.

"The Government of Canada respects that groups produce and distribute membership cards to support an individual's right to identify their belonging to a collective or community," wrote an INAC spokesperson. "While these cards convey membership to an organization, they do not convey Indian Status, nor do they confer rights and benefits linked explicitly to registered Indians."

"The Mikinak Aboriginal community is not a band recognized under the Indian Act."

Tucker underscored how the notion of status and identity is delicate territory. "This is a very fraught area of the law where you have government intervening in delineating and labelling who is in and who is out, and a lot of groups get upset about this sort of thing," she said. " I think that given the difficult history that comes with being Aboriginal in this country, it should not be taken lightly to have some sort of Aboriginal identity."

Jean-Guy is a self-proclaimed healer who said he sensed several health problems in this reporter's aura.

Brisebois maintains her group is simply misunderstood, and that her main focus is to reconnect with lost traditions. "We help those people around us, who are telling themselves there's something inside them, drawing them to the woods, who want to know if we can help them find their origins," she said.

But Norton isn't buying it.

He said many people of Mohawk descent come to Kahnawake to stay connected to their heritage. "[They] have some relationship with this community, they come here quite often. They have family they know of, a chain that continues," he explained.

The Mikinak, he said, don't share that curiosity. "They don't want to find out more, all they see is that card with that picture on it, with that symbol on it, to go to Costco or wherever else to get their tax break."

"What I see is people who try to take advantage of the things that we fought for, and struggled for. Not just my generation, but the generation before us and the generation before them," Norton told VICE. "All the things that happened to our people who were taken out of their homes as children and put into these schools and whatever and used for slave labour. These people know nothing about that or care nothing about that, yet now they want to attach themselves to that."

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