kanion’ke:haka Resistance to Montréal’s 8 Billion Litre Sewage Dump

kanion’ke:haka and supporters blockade CN train tracks, Oct. 22, 2015 — image from Mohawk Nation News

The city of Montréal planned to dump one-third of its untreated sewage, including medical and industrial waste, into the Saint Lawrence River between October 18th to 25th. However, this plan has been postponed due to national and international scrutiny and resistance from indigenous populations. On November 9th, it was announced that the environmental minister gave conditional permission to continue with the plan. The Saint Lawrence River is also called kanaiatarowanen:onwe, the river of the original people, and is located on the occupied and unceded kanion’ke:haka land of kahnawake. kanion’ke:haka, also known as the Mohawk people, repeatedly pleaded with officials and issued multiple warnings to stop the city’s plan to dump eight billion litres of waste into kanaiatarowanen:onwe. Their pleas ignored by city officials, who insisted on continuing with this plan, kanion’ke:haka activists blockaded a railway on October 22nd. Their acts are part of the larger struggle for recognized sovereignty and respect for their rules and land.

Planned construction work to lower the Bonaventure Expressway to street-level requires the relocation of a snow dump that is connected to an interceptor sewer, which leads to the water treatment plant in Montreal. The interceptor must be drained in order to move the snow dump and to remove old, wooden hoops that have begun to break loose and which could threaten the water treatment. With one-one third of the main sewage line requiring renovation, the city of Montreal plans to dump eight billion litres of untreated sewage, consisting of toilet waste and discharges from businesses and hospitals, into the Saint Lawrence River in order to allow construction on the expressway to take place. Given that the Saint Lawrence River flows at a rate of 6,000 to 7,000 cubic meters per second and that the sewage waste would flow at a rate of 13 cubic meters per second, the eight billion litre dump is not supposed to affect the surrounding environment greatly. Pierre Desrochers, chair of the Montreal Executive Committee, said that this will not impact the quality of the drinking water of Montreal and of municipalities located downstream from the dumpsites. Furthermore, the city has planned to the dump the waste around the end of October in order to have the least possible impact on the ecosystem of the river.

Officials and many experts believe that this plan is the necessary and only viable option because, given the age and condition of the current system, more damage will occur to the river, city, and treatment plant if work is not done. Experts include Sarah Dorner, professor of engineering at the École Polytechnique, and four other colleagues who released a position paper on October 8, 20115, without any prompting from the city because they “were concerned about political interference in what should be a decision based on science.” The paper supports the city’s decision because it views the work as necessary, unavoidable, and legal.

However, kanion’ke:haka activists have called the act of dumping eight billion litres of untreated sewage into the river illegal, on the grounds that it violates the teio’ha:the—the Two Row Wampum treaty—which established a principle of comity between European immigrants and settlers and the Haudenosaunee, the confederacy to which the kanion’ke:haka belong. A fundamental philosophical principle, the teio’ha:the upholds “a universal relationship of non-domination, balance, and harmony between different forces.” Its principles of peace and respect extend from interpersonal relationships to the relations between nations, and between humans and our environment. People do not own land but rather view themselves as belonging to it as a part of creation itself. As such, they have a duty to protect it for future generations.

In article entitled “Shit Vigil,” they wrote, “We all have a duty to take care of the natural world. Mayor Coderre and the Family Compact cannot violate the [teio’ha:the], the law of the land, which gave them permission to life here. They are not following the treaty and risk being exposed as the rogue state they have become.”

As one of many acts of resistance, kanion’ke:haka and supporters blockaded Canada National Railway in kahnawake on Thursday, October 22, 2015. They blocked train traffic for over an hour.

Video from Mohawk Nation News

Afterwards they released this statement, “We came with the gentleness of a feather, which apparently was not accepted. You have not responded reasonably. You have left us no alternative but to take the necessary action to convince you. You must make a commitment to stop your war on creation. Everyone is responsible for preserving our waters. Skennen.”

On October 28, kahtihon’tia:kwenio, women titleholders, sent to Prime Minister Trudeau a notice of objection that had been sent to Mayor Denis Coderre on October 7, 2015. They urged Trudeau, “Respect this land and the life that’s in this land. It’s not time to be a politician. It’s time to become a human being.” Such pleas reflect their larger struggle against colonization and oppression, to protect the Earth and to assert their sovereignty.

In an article entitled “‘Final Solution’ to Shit Problem” on Mohawk Nation News, the ongwe’hon:weh natural people of the land suggested a solution: pipe the waste into the drains in Westmount, where those whom they hold responsible for the illegal seizure and degradation of kanien’ke:haka land— the Molsons, McGills and other Family Compact and Chateau Clique members—reside. Alternatively, they suggest that the island of Montreal be vacated for three generations in order to let the land heal. They state, “We were called the “disappearing Iroquois” because we had covered up our o’tah [poo], planted orchards, took down our villages and then left for three generations.” Finally, they suggest, “tankers could be filled up with their shit and transported back to their homeland.”

These acts of resistance are not isolated incidents, but rather part of a larger struggle against oppression and colonization. For example, on the 23rd anniversary of the 1990 Oka Crisis, one hundred people protested Enbridge’s pipeline Line 9 at Oka Park, on the territory of the kanion’ke:haka people of kanehsatà:ke on July 12, 2013.  The Oka Crisis lasted 78 days when kanion’ke:haka activists protested the decision of the city of Oka to encroach on kanehsatà:ke land in order to build luxury condos and extend a golf course. After activists established a blockade, the Canadian military intervened and the conflict ended when the federal government bought the land in question in order to prevent further development. However, they refused to transfer the land to the kanehsatà:ke community. Twenty-three years later, Enbridge planned to venture onto kanehsatà:ke territory in order to inspect the pipeline. Ellen Gabriel, a member of the kanion’ke:haka nation – Turtle Clan, said, “Twenty-three years ago it was about development on our lands. Twenty-three years later, it’s the same issue, except now we’re aware that…Enbridge has their pipelines which they want to use to bring in dirty oil… So you know, we’re here as front line protectors for our present and future generations. And we need people to know that the government lied to them. They did not settle the issue as they promised us during negotiations in 1990.”

In another act of resistance to the occupation of kahnawake, kahtihon’tia:kwenio sent a seizure notice to McGill University on September 12, 2015. The notice states, “McGill is violating the kaia’nereh:kowa [the law of the land] and teio’ha:the by staying on our land without our permission; McGill ‘borrowed’ money from our trust funds in 1850 to build the university and now refuses to repay billions plus; and McGill violates the kaia’nere:kowa by not adhering to the teio’ha:the by developing technologies for surveillance, death and destruction.*” As such, the kohtihon’tia:kweno demand that McGill University: (1) immediately ends its invasion, trespassing and exploitation of kanion’ke:haka land, (2) respect the teio’ha:the, and (3) pay back the ‘borrowed’ money with 185 years of compound interest, which amounts to about $1.7 billion.


McGill University has not addressed the notice of seizure and continues to ignore the debt owed to the kanion’ke:haka.

Unfortunately, McGill’s failure to address the notice fits within a pattern of colonialist powers ignoring the efforts of indigenous activists resisting colonization. By and large, their efforts have been unsuccessful because of Canada’s commitment to colonization.

Although the plan was postponed in order to allow for an independent study to assess the risks involved and investigate possible alternative solutions, the selected scientists concluded that Montréal could continue with its plan only if steps are taken to lessen the environmental impacts. As such, environmental minister Catherine McKenna gave Montréal permission to proceed if the city can comply with the new requirements. kanion’ke:haka efforts were ultimately unsuccessful because of the city’s commitment to colonization and to the permanent settlement on kanion’ke:haka land. While city officials claim that the release is necessary and the only solution to prevent worse damage, they seem to completely ignore and not even consider the suggestion to let the land heal for three generations, as the kanion’ke:haka have done. This suggestion only seems absurd and impossible or impractical if one is committed to the continued colonization of kanion’ke:haka territory. However, if one considers the Two Row Wampum treaty as a framework for decolonization, it becomes clear that respecting the sovereignty of indigenous peoples requires respect for their lands. Montréal’s plan clearly disrespects kanion’ke:haka sovereignty and land, and thus violates the treaty in its constant commitment to colonization.


*to learn more about McGill’s contribution to the development of technologies for surveillance, death and destruction, check out http://demilitarizemcgill.com/