Xenophobia Or Self-Preservation? Kahnawake Mohawks Challenge Canadian Government

Jul 8, 2015

It's been dubbed "marry out, get out" - a controversial law that strips members of the Canadian Kahnawake Mohawks of their tribal rights if they marry a non-native.

That means they aren't allowed to live on the tribe's reserve south of Montreal and they can't vote in tribal elections. The law's been around for years, but it's now sparking heated controversy and harassment on the Mohawk reserve there as well as a possible showdown between the tribe and the Canadian federal government.

Reporter Christopher Curtis of the Montreal Gazette has been covering the controversy.

Why is this years-old law causing such a stir right now?

"It's a confrontation that sparks up every now and again. And what makes it complicated is that over time the Mohawks have managed to whittle away at the non-native population in Kahnawake. they have no legal basis to do that if they were to force somebody out. The federal document that governs all relationships between First Nations in Canada. It basically states that if they force anyone out, an outside court will overturn it because that's Ottowa's decision and not an individual tribe's."

What's the mood on the reserve now, and what is law enforcement doing about this?

"Well we started with identity politics it can get very nasty and you know you've seen some protests, some people have spray painted hateful things outside of other people's homes. But I don't think there's really the threat of physical violence.

"I don't think there's really the threat of physical violence. I think it's more of being ostracized. It's more a feeling like a stranger within your own community." - Christopher Curtis, Montreal Gazette

"I think it's more of being ostracized. It's more a feeling like a stranger within your own community. In many cases you're a Mohawk so you leave the reserve and you know there's some tension and there's some racism you know from from white society that is very real and then within your own community you're sort of you're ostracized as well so it's an overwhelming feeling of alienation to everyone. Law enforcement has stepped in to break up these protests. Council denounces these tactics and they promise to try to get in the way of them in the future. But you know people are upset. They're going to let their voices be heard."

The Grand Chief of the Kahnawake Mohawks, Joe Norton, has said he plans to enforce this controversial membership law. Is that a break from the past?

"Norton drafted the law in eighty one. He's been out of office for a few years, he's back now. Previous chief had tried to enforce it. They sent eviction letters. And really the only way that it can move forward to this is if someone leaves of their own volition. Now there's sort of a showdown between the federal government and the tribe based on some of these enforcement promises that Chief Joe Norton has made.

"What Norton is doing is actually very clever. He's calling the government on its bluff. He's saying 'If you want to enforce this, enforce it.'"

  "What Norton is doing is actually very clever. He’s calling the government on its bluff. He's saying 'If you want to enforce this, enforce it.' And the government is reluctant to initiate any sort of confrontation with the Mohawks in particular. We're coming up on the 25th anniversary of the the Oka crisis which saw the military beseige a Mohawk settlement north of Montreal and it ended in the death of a police officer. So no government wants to be the government to start something like that again, and he knows that. And on the other hand he can't force anyone out. So it looks like there's sort of a stalemate and we have to wait and see what happens."

A lot of people might hear about this marry out get out law and they think this is simply discrimination. For the natives who are defending this law, what is the argument to be made there?

"It is a little more complicated than discrimination. It's uncomfortable because it rests on a definition of a person's indigenous identity. These people who are in biracial marriages, they have kids and some of these kids are raised in the Mohawk tradition and they're taught the language but they're not technically Mohawks because they don't have the requirement four Mohawk great-grandparents. There are only something like thirty thousand Mohawks left on the planet. So if they start allowing non-native to settle the very limited Mohawk territory, they see this as a sort of slow process of erosion and then one day maybe there will be a Mohawk language anymore, there will be no Mohawk people. I mean as it is, only two percent of the Mohawk population are native Mohawk speakers."