What would you do if you thought you were being poisoned?
What if, for the past year, a rancid smell woke you up in the dead of night and sent you rushing to the bathroom so you didn’t cough blood onto your sheets?
What if you had to tell your grandkids not to play in the yard because, when the smell comes, they get migraines and a dull ache in their legs? Or each time you turn on the washing machine, your house smells like raw sewage?
What if you spent your whole life in the land of your ancestors and then, one day, an environmental disaster befell that land? And since that disaster, you have noticed your breathing is laboured and your water leaves a slimy film on your skin.
That’s the way Cheryl describes her life on the Mohawk territory of Kanesatake since it’s become a dumping ground for construction companies from across Quebec. She lives near G & R Recycling, a dump about 50 kilometres west of Montreal in Kanesatake.
After years of failed inspections, G & R had its permit revoked by the Quebec government in October. But while activity on the site may have died down, there are still mountains of garbage piled nearly 40-feet high, seeping into the ground when it rains and stinking up Mohawk homes when there’s even the slightest gust of wind.
Two other Mohawk families contacted by Ricochet described symptoms identical to Cheryl’s. They say they’re afraid for the health of their children and grandchildren.
“It’s getting to where we just want to sell the house and move away,” said Cheryl, who doesn’t want her real name used for fear of reprisals. “This is our land and we’re losing what little of it we have left. And it seems like that’s allowed to go on because we’re just a bunch of Natives.”
A few months ago, Cheryl’s doctor told her to get her fingernails and hair tested for the presence of toxic metals. He told her to contact Health Canada, since what she described sounded like it was a public health emergency.
So Cheryl wrote a series of emails to Health Canada, to the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and to her band council. When she sent a pair of heartfelt letters to Environment Minister Catherine McKenna last winter, she received a two-sentence reply in the mail.
“The matter you raise falls under provincial jurisdiction. Thank you for writing on this important matter.”
Representatives from Indigenous Services Canada, Quebec’s environment ministry and the Kanesatake band council met at G & R Recycling on Dec. 1 to set up an action plan for cleaning the enormous mess.
In August a ruptured tank at the dump leaked black sludge into a creek that flows toward Kanesatake’s main water supply — the Lake of Two Mountains. Nearby farmers and Mohawks had to use sandbags to staunch the ooze and at least one witness told Ricochet they threw up because of the fumes.
“My main concern was fix the goddamn thing, the holding tank,” said Garry Carbonell, a chief on Kanesatake’s band council who attended the meeting. “The tanks eroded and that liquid just oozed out.... It ended up in a creek that runs along the farms toward the lake. They fixed the tank and that’s a relief.
“Next we have to get those piles of garbage down. There’s methane gas in the air and we need to get that under control. It emits an odour you can smell from three or four kilometres away.
“We have someone from council on site, we’re assessing what needs to happen and (G & R owner) Robert Gabriel is there every day working on it.”
After the leak in August, inspectors with the federal government tested the water near the dump and in the lake but Carbonell says he hasn’t seen the results. Ricochet contacted Indigenous Services Canada to ask what the tests yielded. They did not respond by publication time.
The closest answer anyone has is a March report commissioned by the band council that details a strong smell, “likely hydrogen sulfide gas.” And while that report points to the presence of at least 10 wells within one kilometre of the dump — wells that irrigate farmers’ fields and pump drinking water into homes — there’s no indication as to what potential contaminants are in the water.
“The worst part is not knowing what’s in the water,” said one Kanesatake resident. “Even if it’s bad, especially if it’s bad, we need to know. I don’t know what our kids are being exposed to.”
Two plumbers who work in the region say they’ve been overloaded with phone calls from homes near the Gabriels’ property.
“People’s (water) filters are clogged way before they should be, their tanks are working overtime, it’s not normal,” one of them said. “And it’s all happening within a few kilometres of the dump.”
In just under five years at their current site, G & R Recycling failed at least four environmental inspections and consistently violated the terms of their operating permit. The dump is allowed to store about 28,000 cubic metres of waste. It has an estimated 400,000 cubic metres piled nearly 40-feet high, according to government reports obtained by Ricochet. That’s 15 times more than the site was designed to hold.
Though the dump is owned by Mohawk band members and brothers Robert and Gary Gabriel, G & R Recycling takes in waste from construction sites across Quebec. Ricochet periodically staked out G & R recycling over the past few months and saw dump trucks from Montreal, the South Shore and Gatineau, some 120 kilometres west, enter the site.
They use the dump because it charges about half what they would pay if they went to a recycling centre off-reserve. G & R doesn’t weigh the trucks, a worker at the dump explained in a phone call with Ricochet. Instead they charge a flat rate by the load and only accept cash.
Two sources in the construction industry say that it’s an open secret that if you want to get rid of something with no questions asked, you “go to the Mohawks.” But there’s widespread opposition to the dump from those most affected by its presence in Kanesatake: the Mohawks who’ve lived here since they settled the region 300 years ago. Mostly, they meet in secret, off-reserve or in someone’s garage, away from prying eyes.
Five sources who spoke to Ricochet say they were threatened by Gary Gabriel, a man whose record includes convictions for armed assault, aggravated assault and uttering threats.
Just over 100 community members met in the parking lot of the Kanesatake band council last summer, where they passed a motion of non-confidence against Grand Chief Serge Simon. One of the main factors was his handling of the G & R file.
Robert Gabriel was at the meeting and he apologized for his role in the environmental mess, promising he would set things right.
Nearly six months later, little appears to have changed.
“It’s an environmental disaster,” said Pascal Quevillon, mayor of the neighbouring village of Oka, in a past interview with Ricochet. “It’s dangerous for the Mohawks, it’s dangerous for our residents, for the thousands and thousands of people who depend on the lake for drinking water and it’s dangerous for the farms that feed those communities.”
In past statements to the media, Grand Chief Simon said that the cost of cleaning up the G & R site would be in the tens of millions. And that, given the vast majority of the waste comes from surrounding communities, Mohawks alone shouldn’t be the ones to foot the bill.
Carbonell said that, for now, it appears the only funding to clean up the site is coming out of the Gabriels’ pocket.
“Robert told me, ‘Even though I have no money, I owe it to the community to clean this up,’” said Carbonell. “But his excavator just broke. So things aren’t exactly humming along.”
Merely assessing the extent of the work that needs to be done will take weeks, Carbonell said. For an idea of how much waste 400,000 cubic meters is, it’s roughly 37,000 shipping containers full of garbage. It would take about that many truckloads to empty out the site.
Meanwhile, people like Cheryl live in fear.
“What are we supposed to do, just sit here and wait until we get cancer?” she said. “This was our home, this was the place we raised our families, this was the place we grew up and our parents were raised and theirs before them.
“Now we might have to abandon it.”