Murder in the pines: Kanehsatake debates policing after pot shop assassination

With council elections looming, candidates present duelling visions for community safety and dispensary regulation
Christopher Curtis
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KANEHSATAKE — Gary Gabriel looked like he’d just seen a ghost.

Here was a hard man, someone spoken about in hushed voices or through coded references, as though saying his name aloud would cause him to appear in a puff of smoke.

Standing six feet four inches tall, with calloused knuckles and a rap sheet that counts a pair of armed assault convictions, Gabriel isn’t respected in the Kanehsatake Mohawk territory. He’s feared.

But Gabriel didn’t seem all that scary last Friday, when he was summoned to the Kanehsatake pow wow grounds. For one thing, he’d witnessed a gangland hit at his dispensary the previous day and still looked gaunt.

Gabriel was sitting next to Arsène Mompoint when a masked man put three bullets in him on a sweltering July 1 afternoon. Witnesses say Mompoint — a gang leader with ties to the Montreal mafia — was smoking from a hookah pipe outside Gabriel’s shop when he was shot in the back of the head.

“There were more Canadian soldiers surrounding our community than were sent to Afghanistan during the war.”

Though it clearly rattled Gabriel, there was little sympathy for him last Friday at a meeting of dispensary owners, according to five sources on the Mohawk territory. The owners gathered to discuss the shooting and how to root out violence from Kanehsatake’s lucrative cannabis trade.

It was hard not to put the focus squarely on Gabriel’s operation, the Green Room. It’s true that other shops have had problems. Hells Angels hang out on picnic tables outside one dispensary, sporting their colours for all to see. There’s also been an attempted arson at a dispensary just across from the local elementary school, and a suspicious fire burned down another shop just weeks after it opened last fall.

But the murder of a Montreal gang leader at the Green Room last week highlights how problematic that particular shop has become. From crowded parties that allegedly sell alcohol without a licence to souped-up cars burning out of the parking lot at all hours of the night, patience is wearing thin among Gabriel’s neighbours.

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“We have our ways of shutting him down if it comes to that,” one neighbour said. “If we need to block roads, we’ll block roads. If we need to confront him, we’ll confront him. He’s brought violence and crime into our community, and it’s going to end one way or another.”

Adding another layer onto an already caustic situation, voters in Kanehsatake are set to elect a new band council in three weeks. The candidates for grand chief are presenting two radically different solutions to the territory’s cannabis problem.

Three-time incumbent Serge Simon is running on the promise that he’ll bring back a Mohawk police force to restore order on the territory. There hasn’t been local law enforcement since 2004 — when a clash between Mohawk warriors and then grand chief James Gabriel ended with the police station being destroyed in a riot.

Not wanting to revisit that episode, Simon’s opponent, Victor Bonspille, says that if elected he will establish an unarmed security force and work with dispensary owners to reform the industry.

No matter who wins, the next 21 days may well determine the future of business and law enforcement in Mohawk country.

Three years, 26 dispensaries

Marquees light up the pines along Route 344 at dusk, bathing the forest in a warm neon glow.

It’s hard for drivers not to be drawn in by signs for The Dank Bank, Mary Jane’s, Bud Shack and two dozen other dispensaries. This is a libertarian’s dream come true, undistilled free-market capitalism — stores that pay no tax, report to no government and abide by just a few basic guidelines.

No one under 18 is allowed in, and no hard drugs are sold on site.

The lights of the Green Room tower over the two-lane highway, inviting shoppers to select from an assortment of cannabis flowers, edibles, hash oils and THC-laced beverages all laid out in a row of retrofitted shipping containers.

Customers can play arcade games, buy a fresh shawarma or walk over to the terrace, where a pool table and lounge area await. Over in the next plaza, employees wave signs advertising $2 beer.

It’s one of 26 dispensaries that dot Route 344. And two more shops are set to open this summer, according to industry sources.

“I’m not against medicinal cannabis, but this can’t just become a free-for-all.”

This is a far cry from April 2018, when Clifton Nicholas opened the first dispensary in the backroom of Mohawk Gas Bar just off the highway.

He turned to cannabis after struggling with thoughts of self harm.

“I hurt myself a lot to try to deal with trauma. Cocaine, alcohol, whatever I could get my hands on,” said Nicholas. “A lot of us have hurt ourselves to stop from hurting so much. We’re the survivors of genocide. It weighs on you.”

After he was discharged from the hospital, Nicholas began digging into childhood trauma. There were memories of trauma and flashbacks to the 1990 Oka Crisis, when he patrolled the pine forest with an AK-47 to defend his home against the Canadian Forces.

Survivors from that summer talk about the horror of being a civilian living under military siege for two months.

Some shielded their children as military helicopters fluttered low enough to shake the entire house, and others recall preparing kids for tear gas raids by showing them how to breathe through a wet cloth. One survivor told me she would hear white soldiers threatening to rape her as she walked through the woods. She was 14 at the time.

“It’s easy to look back now and say, ‘Of course the Oka Crisis was going to end without bloodshed.’ But back then we spent a summer thinking the army would wipe us out,” said Nicholas. “There were more Canadian soldiers surrounding our community than were sent to Afghanistan during the war.”

Nicholas had been on antidepressants and other pharmaceuticals with little success. It was only when he began using CBD — a non-psychoactive compound found in cannabis — that he felt some of the weight lift from his shoulders.

He started running again, changed his diet, lost over 100 pounds and reconnected with the woman who is now his fiancée.

“I wanted anyone who was suffering to experience what I did,” said Nicholas. “I wanted others — Indigenous or non-Indigenous — to have a chance to use something that could help you cope without killing you. And, as a Mohawk on sovereign territory, I felt it was my right to open a business that offered people medicinal cannabis.”

Unregulation

In Quebec, only the provincial government can sell cannabis through one of its retailers, the Société québécoise du cannabis. But since Kanehsatake exists on Crown land, Nicholas could have tried to work with his band council to set up a dispensary overseen by Health Canada.

Of course, that process would have been a long one with little guarantee of success. And that’s not considering the fact that Nicholas would have been competing with Canada’s legal cannabis vendors, a group dominated by a handful of companies valued in the billions of dollars.

What chance would Nicholas — a working-class Mohawk with two dogs and no collateral to his name — stand against the likes of Canopy Growth, a cannabis empire whose shares trade at $21 apiece on the Toronto Stock Exchange?

So he chose the risky route: secure a large, varied supply of cannabis from Indigenous growers in British Columbia, rent a location and open a dispensary without advising council.

Grand Chief Simon was furious when he heard the news.

“What if someone decides to sell cocaine under the counter?” Simon told me at the time. “I’m not against medicinal cannabis, but this can’t just become a free-for-all.”

“If we need to confront him, we’ll confront him. He’s brought violence and crime into our community, and it’s going to end one way or another.”

When Nicholas opened his dispensary, the commander of a provincial police detachment in Oka contacted Chief Simon to ask if he wanted the shop to be raided. Fearing a backlash from the community, Chief Simon told the commander to stand down, according to three sources on council and one police source.

A few days later, Nicholas and Garry Carbonell, a council chief, approached Simon with a plan to impose regulations on dispensaries before more could pop up.

“(Simon) laughed in my face,” said Carbonell. “He wasn’t interested in regulating a damn thing.”

Simon says their plan amounted to little more than self-regulation.

“An industry can’t be trusted to govern itself,” said Simon. “I think most of the owners would be in favour of some form of policing. You cannot, with a straight face, say that we don’t need policing. We need someone to get between our community members when things get real bad.”

Simon’s rival, Bonspille, says council missed an opportunity they can never get back.

“Our community deserved better than what wasn’t done,” said Bonspille, who serves as a council chief. “We should have moved on this faster. More council chiefs should have spoken up. We sat on it for too long and now look at what happened.

“We all knew this was leading up to something tragic. It was bound to happen, and unfortunately it happened here. Somebody died. He may have been a criminal but he was a human being, he was someone’s son. There was a life lost and we can’t take that back.”

Organized crime and the Indian Act

The killing of Mompoint had all the markings of a professional hit.

Within a matter of seconds, the gunman got off three shots at close range and escaped the crowded scene in a stolen SUV.

Witnesses say he also knew to cut across a seldom-used dirt road in the pines to avoid driving through the neighbouring village of Oka, where provincial police regularly patrol. He ditched the truck in a farmer’s field just a few kilometres from the crime scene before driving off in a second getaway vehicle.

And he pulled this off in broad daylight.

At last Friday’s emergency meeting of dispensary owners, Gabriel was asked why a hitman chose his dispensary as a staging ground for murder. Gabriel claimed he didn’t know Mompoint, according to three sources at the meeting.

“He didn’t know him? C’mon, man, don’t give me that bullshit,” said Carbonnell. “They were right next to each other. You don’t get that close to a gang leader if he doesn’t trust you.”

“I didn’t fight for my community in 1990 so that it could become a strip mall.”

Whether or not Gabriel knew the victim, the shooting likely would not have been possible if the Green Room wasn’t also a place where people hang out. So the immediate solution, discussed at last Friday’s meeting, is for dispensaries to get rid of terraces, lounges and other side attractions.

“Removing terraces was a good first step,” said Bonspille. “We also spoke about setting up a system where you have to show your ID to a camera if you want to get into the dispensary. Basically, we want people to buy their product and be on their way.”

Three sources in the industry say there’s a growing consensus that dispensary owners need to band together and form an association — a sort of governing body that would establish prices and best practices, and sanction members who don’t play by the rules.

“I didn’t fight for my community in 1990 so that it could become a strip mall,” said Nicholas. “It’s gone totally sideways because of a few greedy people, because council didn’t take it seriously. People have cut down beautiful trees, pines, the very forest we fought for, so they could set up a parking lot for their dispensary.

“Now we have a gangland assassination, Montreal violence spilling over onto our territory. It’s not right.”

Bonspille says the involvement of organized crime in Kanehsatake’s dispensaries is, at least in part, a byproduct of the Indian Act.

Because the Mohawk territory exists on Crown land, band members can’t leverage the value of their property for small business loans the way people in neighbouring communities can. If they were to default on their loan, the bank couldn’t seize their land because it belongs to the community and not the individual living on it.

So being Indigenous is, in itself, a built-in business disadvantage.

“Even something as simple as home insurance, we pay two, three, sometimes four times what someone would pay outside the territory,” said Bonspille. “We exist in a system designed to exclude us. It’s not a mystery why people might be tempted to partner with criminals to get their business off the ground.”

Police force or community security team

Two of Kanehsatake’s sister Mohawk communities have successfully regulated the cannabis industry.

On the Ontario–Quebec border, the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne passed the Interim Cannabis Regulation in 2018 and began issuing licences to growers and dispensaries last summer.

South of Montreal in Kahnawake, the band council announced Wednesday it has reached a memorandum of understanding with Health Canada that will allow it to pass and enforce its own cannabis regulations.

“We’re thrilled about it. It’s taken years but we really wanted to get it right,” said Brandon Montour, who chairs the Kahnawake Cannabis Control Board. “We’ve set something up where the community is in the driver’s seat. We will heavily vet the people who invest in dispensaries to make sure there’s no criminal involvement.

“We’re going to limit the amount of dispensaries so that we don’t saturate the market and we’re going to try to create an industry where — from the growers to the point of sale — it’s all in Mohawk hands.”

His plan fell apart after the mercenary force was trapped in the police station by Mohawk warriors, who surrounded the building with bulldozers and other heavy equipment.

Revenues from the dispensaries could fund community initiatives like recreational services, a public pool or other amenities, Montour says.

Of course, in Kanehsatake, the genie is already out of the bottle. So how can the chief and council bring some semblance of order to an industry that plays by its own rules?

Simon’s answer, to bring back a locally controlled police force, might be a hard sell.

The last time Kanehsatake had its own law enforcement, a power struggle over the police department ended with the grand chief’s house being burned to the ground.

James Gabriel, grand chief at the time, had tried to seize the department by force in the winter of 2004, enlisting dozens of officers from reserves across the province to assist him. His plan fell apart after the mercenary force was trapped in the police station by Mohawk warriors, who surrounded the building with bulldozers and other heavy equipment.

Chief Gabriel claimed the police had become ineffective and corrupt.

“He wanted the police department to become an extension of the band council, and that runs contrary to the most basic notion of democracy,” said a Mohawk officer, who told Ricochet he was investigating financial irregularities on council around the time Chief Gabriel tried to take over the police force. “They came in with a half-baked plan and it blew up in their faces.”

After a two-day standoff in which his house was burned to the ground, Chief Gabriel and his platoon were allowed to be escorted out of Kanehsatake. He no longer lives in Quebec. Gary Gabriel, one of the men who surrounded the station that winter, served a prison sentence for his role in the conflict.

It was the darkest chapter in local history since the Oka Crisis.

But in a proposal to bring back the department released last month, Simon outlined a strategy for a depoliticized police force.

“No one from the community or with any connection to the band council will oversee policing,” said Simon. “It will be an arms-length operation and we’ll get help from our sister communities to make sure it’s impartial.”

Bonspille says he’d rather see a security force made up of locals trained in de-escalation tactics.

“We do need some type of security, we do need some type of protection, but I don't think it's going to come from the federal or provincial government in the form of an actual police force,” Bonspille said. “We’re a strong community. A solution might be to have our own type of security. There are Indigenous communities in Canada that have their own security.

“Whether it’s a watch team that’s trained, or whatever you want to call it, we have military veterans, we have men and women who can do the job without it being an armed force.”

A safe industry of working people

Both Bonspille and Simon agree the cannabis trade isn’t going anywhere.

Despite their drawbacks, the dispensaries attract thousands of people to the territory every day, bringing an influx of cash into Kanehsatake.

Since Nicholas opened his modest shop three years ago, there have been two new gas stations, a new convenience store and the emergence of locally owned legitimate businesses in Kanehsatake. Simon says the future of the industry doesn’t have to be tied to dispensaries.

“We can partner with farmers in neighbouring communities and grow our own cannabis, have it all be above board and community owned,” Simon said. “Right now, you have people selling an ounce of pot for $60. That’s not a way to earn a living, it’s just a tactic to drive your competition out of business. And that’s not good business.”

Bonspille says the actions of a few dispensary owners shouldn’t cast a shadow over the entire community.

Our last face-to-face interaction ended with him threatening to break my neck as provincial police sat in their cruiser and watched.

“These are working people, they’re just looking to bring some financial stability into their lives, they care about this community too,” he said. “We can work with the dispensary owners and create a safe, thriving industry.”

With the exception of Chief Carbonell — who is not running for re-election — no one interviewed for this story was willing to discuss the problem with Gary Gabriel. At least not on the record.

Gabriel has made threats to sources contacted for this article and some wouldn’t speak about him unless my recorder was off.

I decided not to try contacting Gabriel. Our last face-to-face interaction ended with him threatening to break my neck as provincial police sat in their cruiser and watched. The officers did not intervene.

Even now that a gangster was murdered at his dispensary, it seems unlikely he’ll face any consequences. The business was shut down for a day so investigators could gather evidence, but it was up and running again on July 3.

And perhaps this is the biggest tragedy of all here. That a community as warm and welcoming as Kanehsatake should have to fear someone like Gary Gabriel.

But it’s hard to blame them.

He scares the shit out of me.

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