Lawyers make their case to Kanesatake

Representatives of two law firms pitched their services at a community meeting last week that was billed as a chance to find a replacement for longtime Mohawk Council of Kanesatake (MCK) legal counsel Dionne Schulze.

The only problem? Council chiefs have not agreed on whether Dionne Schulze’s services have been terminated.

What’s more, at least one of the two lawyers, Nadir André of Borden Ladner Gervais (BLG), said his firm has no intention of replacing Dionne Schulze, instead aiming to take over the land claim file formerly headed up by lawyer Peter Hutchins, who died on January 13, 2023.

“I know Dionne Schulze, the firm. They’ve been there for a long time. I’m not seeking to replace anybody or advocating that they might be removed as legal counsel for the community,” said André.

He emphasized that BLG is not familiar with the files Dionne Schulze is currently working on or whether there is litigation involved. Instead, he wishes to advocate for Kanesatake to receive lands or financial compensation for the federal government’s failure to designate the community as a reserve.

“My team has strong experience on a whole bunch of matters with Indigenous communities, but we also have the competence to take care of specific land claims,” said André, who is a member of the Matimekush-Lac John First Nation and works from a Kahnawake office.

“For us to take care of this file is in our scope, in our skills, and this is why I reached out to Kanesatake.”

However, the communique released by MCK grand chief Victor Bonspille explicitly stated the goal of the meeting was for the community to hear presentations to decide which law firm would represent the community following the ouster of Dionne Schulze.

A vote to terminate the firm was advanced at a community meeting on May 11 and followed by a “people’s resolution” signed May 15.

One of its preambles explains the motivation. It accuses the firm of failing to represent Bonspille as MCK spokesperson, failing to represent community members, and failing to represent the appeal board’s decisions. These include postponing the by-election originally scheduled for September 24, 2022 – something the appeal board did not have the authority to do – and its decision to eventually nullify the results after the by-election was finally held on January 21, 2023.

Bonspille did not reply to a request for comment.

The motion claims voted 21 in favor, five against, and 16 abstained, although reports from the meeting suggested abstentions were not counted. Less than 50 people were present at the meeting.

MCK chiefs have protested that the motion is not binding and that it is the Council’s prerogative to make such a decision.

“We’re in agreement to keep Dionne Schulze, so why should it change?” said MCK chief John Canatonquin. “They did a good job for us. It’s only because (Dionne Schulze lawyer Nicholas Dodd) gave a legal opinion and Victor didn’t like it, and now they want to fire him? Come on, that’s not the way for it to work.”

MCK chiefs Brant Etienne and Serge Otsi Simon confirmed that they also continue to consider Dionne Schulze to be the Council’s legal representative.

“The Council does not agree with this,” said Simon. “Community members who drafted this resolution don’t have the right to do that. When it comes to legal representation, that has always been and will remain the (right) of the governing body (to decide).”

Simon attended the June 19 meeting but left after the first presentation, that of Cynthia Westaway of First Peoples Law, who did not reply to a request for comment.

Dionne Schulze did not reply to a request for comment.

Grand chief Victor Bonspille called another public meeting for June 23 at 6:30 pm at the Ratihén:te High School gymnasium, this time to seek direction on the issue of land grabbing.

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Marcus Bankuti, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eastern Door

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