It happens after dark.

Dump trucks loaded to the brim, discharging waste into people’s yards, driveways or on dirt roads that plunge into the lake. They dump contaminated soil on Mohawk land because it’s cheap and there’s no one to stop them.

Some even provide forged documents attesting that the soil is clean, merely excess fill from a housing development in suburban Quebec.

But in reality, the trucks are part of a system of illegal dumping, coordinated by non-Indigenous contractors who exploit people living in poverty, offering them $100 to $200 a load to look the other way while they contaminate Kanesatake, a Mohawk territory between Montreal and Ottawa.

Though this has been going on since 2015, it was only last year — after an illegal dump was shut down on the territory — that truckers began unloading all around the community.

The extent of the pollution isn’t known, but sources on the reserve describe mounds piled as high as their roof. In all, 10 sources spoke to The Rover about witnessing illegal dumping on their territory and even showed me sites across Kanesatake. One dumping ground contains traces of concrete dust, rebar and what appear to be oil slicks. Another, about half the size of a football field, runs along a road where children play on swing sets and a jungle gym.

One resident fired a warning shot over a dump truck last month, according to two witnesses.

The alleged broker behind the dumping, a man sources call “Mario,” was run out of town around the same time.

“It’s getting to where we’re going to have to start seizing trucks,” said Jeremy Tomlinson, a Kanesatake council chief and former RCMP investigator. “If you come here to dump contaminated soil, you’re leaving on foot. If the police want to arrest us for seizing a truck, they’re welcome to try.

“You have these construction projects near the territory — condos, new developments — and they’re hiring people to haul the refuse away. But instead of getting rid of it at a designated site, they’re dumping it here. Think about it, they’re building on land that was stolen from us and dumping on what little land we have left.

“People have had enough.”

Illegal dumping on Mohawk territory came to a head last year, when Quebec revoked a permit for G&R Recycling — a triage centre packed with about 400,000 cubic metres of industrial waste. That’s more than 15 times what the landfill was legally permitted to hold, but despite years of warnings and fines from the Quebec government, the site was allowed to continue operating.

It was only after black ooze started seeping onto farms outside the Mohawk community that Quebec’s environment ministry revoked G&R’s permit in September 2020.

Back then, a joint investigation by The Rover and The Eastern Door found that Mohawk residents near the dump suffered nose bleeds, headaches, sore limbs and itchy throats on days where they could smell the noxious fumes from the dump. An inspection report we obtained suggests that the smell was likely hydrogen sulfite — a highly flammable, toxic gas that can be smelled for kilometres when the wind is strong.

The dump is owned by two Mohawk brothers, backed by non-Indigenous investors and supported by a red-hot housing market on Montreal’s north and south shores. We traced some of the trucks all the way to Gatineau, nearly 200 kilometres west of the territory, and Boucherville, some 79 kilometres south.

But closing G&R hasn’t stopped the dumping.

Confronting the dumpers

“Mary” lives across from a field where contaminated soil is piled about eight-feet high.

Her family has been on this land since long before Europeans arrived on the continent. As we sipped coffee in her kitchen, she showed me a black-and-white photo of her grandfather next to a horse-drawn carriage in the forest.

“That’s my grandfather right there. He was part of the cleanup crew,” she said. “Our community always cleaned the pines, removed diseased trees, made sure it was healthy. Now people dump garbage here. Garbage from all over.”

A few weeks back, Mary confronted the man who allegedly dispatches the trucks onto her territory. Though she exudes warmth and humour, Mary didn’t mince words with him.

“I told him to fuck off, that I wasn’t afraid of him,” she said. “What’s he gonna do, beat me up? Go ahead, I’ve been through it all.”

Some neighbours joined in and forced the man to leave.

“Things are escalating. I’ve tried warning the government, the police and the brokers,” Tomlinson said. “But the way the law works, you can only punish the person receiving the soil. So since the police or government won’t do anything, we take action.”

In the beginning, Tomlinson says the drivers were so brazen they would unload during the day, with “multiple trucks.” Someone would spot the vehicles and call the band council office, and Tomlinson would gather a half-dozen community members to confront the driver.

Some drivers tried to argue or flash a fake load manifest but in the end they all left when confronted. They’ve since adjusted their strategy.

“Now they come before sunrise or after dark,” Tomlinson said. “I’ve spoken to investigators from Environment Quebec and they tell me a lot of this is the work of one guy, who used to live near the territory.”

Tomlinson handed me a business card from a man that, he says, brokers deals between truckers and accomplices on the reserve.

No record of what’s being unloaded

It provides little information about him, only his phone number, and the name of a company listed on Quebec’s business registry since 2012. Quebec’s Environment Ministry ordered the company to pay a $12,000 fine on Oct. 27 for dumping contaminated soil in neighbouring Mirabel.

In an interview with The Rover, the owner of the business said he’s appealing the decision.

“I was called in to clean up someone else’s mess,” said the owner.

I’ve decided not to publish his name, in part because of the appeal but also because he appears to be a small player in a much larger operation involving major housing developments across the North Shore.

“Sometimes I dump (in Kanesatake) but only when property owners there ask me to. I come with the right paperwork and I don’t break the law,” the man said. “I can understand the frustration. I’ve seen 15 trucks dumping on Mohawk land at the same time. It’s noisy, it’s disruptive, I get it.”

Sources gave me a list of truckers they say are involved in the scheme. Of the three names provided, two have trucking companies listed on Quebec’s corporate registry. Both have seen their listing suspended because of a failure to provide annual reports for two consecutive years. The companies are also registered to the truckers’ home address, suggesting they run a modest operation.

The other name provided to me belongs to a man who nearly lost his trucker’s licence in 2018. That’s when Transport Quebec found a series of safety infractions on his rig — namely, his load wasn’t properly secured and the diesel tank under his truck wasn’t up to code.

All of these men are subcontractors for big developers they wouldn’t name for fear of reprisals.
The man found guilty of illegal dumping in Mirabel was allegedly carrying AB soil in his truck. AB is considered lightly contaminated soil and it costs about $22 a tonne to dispose of it at a proper dump site. Most dump trucks have an 18-tonne capacity, meaning that disposal of the average load costs about $400.

On public contracts — like the construction of a road or hospital — a contractor must provide proof that the soil they remove from a site has been tested and, if it is contaminated, disposed of in a licensed triage centre. If the contractor doesn’t provide the right documents, the government won’t pay them.

However, these rules tend to be overlooked on smaller jobs or in the private sector, according to two sources in the construction industry. Dumped illegally, dozens of loads can add up to thousands in extra profit.

When reached by The Rover, one trucker admitted to dumping on the territory but swears the load was clean.

“I don’t buy that,” Tomlinson said. “You don’t pay people to take clean soil. If the soil is clean, then it’s fill, the kind of stuff you order when you’re doing landscaping. If someone is giving you cash to dump on your land, it’s not a good sign.”

Our earlier investigation into G&R found they were accepting contaminated soil for $150 a load as long as it was paid in cash. Sources have told me they’ve been offered roughly the same amount to accept refuse on their land.

Even though AB soil is only lightly contaminated, it can contain traces of arsenic, lead, fuel and other highly toxic substances. It isn’t visible to the naked eye and rarely smells different than clean soil.

A representative from Quebec’s Environment Ministry said Tuesday he would need up to three weeks to provide a breakdown of what chemicals were found in the load illegally dumped in Mirabel earlier this year. Meanwhile, there haven’t been any fines associated with the dumping on Mohawk land.

In other words, there is no record of what’s being unloaded on the territory, just a few metres from a lake that provides drinking water to seven North Shore communities.

Jurisdictional layers

There is another problem with preventing truckers from dumping in Kanesatake.

When we investigated G&R, we found there was a constant sense of confusion over which level of government was responsible for keeping the soil and water clean on Mohawk land. Quebec’s Environment Ministry kicked the file to Indigenous Services in Ottawa, which said it needed to work with the band council.

One woman sent a heartfelt plea to Health Canada, detailing the ways she and her doctor believed her failing health may be related to the toxins in the air and well water that feeds her home. She received a curt reply that the dump is under provincial jurisdiction.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans, another federal office, has also been involved in the affair, testing water at the dump site and in the nearby Lake of Two Mountains.

“As simple as the problem is, that trucks from all over are dumping construction refuse on our land, it’s also really multi-layered,” said Tomlinson. “The federal government tells us we can make our own laws and that might sound good, but to do that, we have to make huge concessions.

“The only way we can enforce environmental laws, on our own territory, is if we submit to the authority of Ottawa. And we’ve never done that. We’re a sovereign people. So it’s a frustrating situation and not just for us. This pollution has repercussions for everyone in the area: farmers, homeowners, people whose drinking water is pumped from the lake.

“This isn’t just about Mohawks. It’s about the health of an entire region.”

This article was produced through The Rover, Christopher Curtis’s investigative journalism project with Ricochet.