It's Not Illegal to Dump Toxic Waste on Indigenous Land
Canada's laws are making it easier for heavy industry to poison Indigenous communities across the country. Can new legislation change that?
When Sue raised the alarm about an illegal dump on Mohawk land, she was shut down by the federal government.
“They told me environmental laws don’t apply on Indigenous territory,” said Sue, who’s Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) and lived near the dump in Kanesatake. “Of course, that’s absurd. It’s Crown land, they have a legal and moral duty to protect it from indiscriminate dumping.”
With no one to stop them, the truckers kept coming to Mohawk territory.
From contaminated soil to refrigerators oozing with freon, they knew that if they wanted to get rid of something toxic for cheap, they could dump it on an old piece of farmland in Kanesatake. It was an open secret. In the underbelly of Montreal-area construction, you’ll save money and paperwork by taking waste to G&R Recycling and paying cash.
This illegal dumping scheme went on for 25 years after Sue flagged it to authorities. Because at each level of government — from the band council to Quebec’s Environment Ministry to the feds whose land the reserve sits on — decisions were made to not enforce basic environmental law.
Sue’s warnings fell of deaf ears but she wasn’t the only one crying foul. She’s one of countless community members who’ve pleaded with authorities to do something, anything, about the environmental crisis in their backyard. Some have paid to have their own soil and water samples tested while others have hired lawyers to coerce the government into releasing data on the health effects of the illegal dump. But at every turn, they’ve either met resistance or indifference from elected officials.
By the time Quebec revoked G&R’s permit in 2020, an estimated 400,000 cubic meters of waste had accumulated on a site in Kanesatake. That’s 15 times what G&R was legally permitted to store. Quebec’s environment ministry allowed the dump to stay open as it failed inspection after inspection, imposing fines and imploring the owners to clean up their mess but never seeing any of its recommendations heeded.
In the end, there was enough waste on site to fill 160 Olympic-sized swimming pools. G&R is owned by two Mohawks — Gary and Robert Gabriel — but the mound of garbage is almost entirely from Montreal, Laval and the north shore suburbs.
Why was so much waste allowed to accumulate on a tiny Indigenous reserve? It seems unthinkable that this would have been tolerated anywhere else in the region.
“It’s environmental racism. I can’t imagine a non-Indigenous community having to accept this level of inaction,” said Green Party MP Elizabeth May, referring to the Kanesatake dump. “Even where people in politics actually understand this is dangerous and actually understand this is illegal, the confusion of jurisdiction in this community is more extreme than 90 per cent of the communities I’ve ever worked with.”
May and her colleagues heard testimony about the Kanesatake dump last month during a review of Bill C-226 — a piece of legislation to fight environmental racism. The bill, which has the support of the Liberal and New Democratic Parties, would mandate the federal government to gather data on how pollution and negative health outcomes are linked to factors like race and socioeconomic status. Using this data, the government could identify how current laws are falling short and work with the provinces to amend them.
There are dozens of Indigenous communities across Canada dealing with heavy industrial pollution. In the Grassy Narrows First Nations, mercury poisoning made the water undrinkable for decades. Every day, clouds of carcinogens blow from the chemical plants in Southern Ontario to the Chippewa reserve of Aamjiwnaang. The chemical mist floating over the reserve has been linked to high instances of cancer.
After examining the situation in 2020, a special rapporteur to the United Nations wrote that Indigenous people in Canada “find themselves on the wrong side of a toxic divide, subject to conditions that would not be acceptable elsewhere.”
For Sue and the other Mohawk whistleblowers, it often felt like they’ve been set up to lose.
One resident — who we’ll call Tina — doesn’t let her grandkids play outside on a windy day in the summer. That’s when the smell of sulphur comes wafting down from the mountain of garbage at G&R. Tina coughs blood on days where the smell is particularly strong.
“I would feel a pain in my bones when the smell came,” said Tina, who did not want her name published for fear of reprisals. “The washing machine filters at our home have to be changed constantly because, sometimes, our water is cloudy and smelly.”
When she contacted Health Canada in 2019 asking to undergo a battery of tests related to her new health problems, Tina was told her concerns fell under provincial jurisdiction. Eventually she gave up trying to figure out what was wrong.
“We have no idea what the long term effects of this are, but I’m worried,” she said.
On a hot summer evening two years ago, Tina joined over 100 Mohawks outside the Kanesatake band office to demand their chiefs take action against the dump. They met there because their letters asking about G&R went unanswered for months.
Though the crowd drew media attention, no action was taken against G&R.
It wasn’t until black ooze seeped from the dump site into the farms owned by white residents later that summer that the provincial government began the process of revoking G&R’s operating permit. By then, the fumes had gotten so bad that a few Mohawks vomited while working to contain the spill.
The site was officially shut down in late 2020 but the mountain of debris still sits rotting on Mohawk land. It’s within walking distance of 10 wells that provide water for crops and homes in the area. And its only saving grace, according to inspections commissioned by the Kanestake band council, is that the waste at G&R sits on a thick clay field that keeps it from leaking into the water supply. For now.
“A lot of this jurisdictional confusion is built into the Indian Act,” May said. “It’s not surprising that a racist, colonial piece of legislation isn’t helpful to something that requires Mohawk sovereignty. After the Oka Crisis, when the federal government went about trying to buy up land and restore it to the Mohawks but that created a patchwork of legislation that’s incredibly confusing.”
Bill C-226 was modeled after a similar bill introduced in 2020 by Liberal MP Lenore Zann that was scrapped last year when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dissolved Parliament to call a federal election.
Zann lost her seat in the election and so, during the next session of Parliament, it was her colleague and friend May who picked up the torch, tabling Bill-226 in February.The legislation just passed a second reading in the House of Commons and should be headed to the Senate early next year.
Before her entry into federal politics, May spent the latter half the 1990s fighting to clean up the Sydney Tar Ponds — Canada’s biggest toxic waste site at the time. The ponds formed from years of runoff from coke ovens at Sydney Steel Corporation flowing into nearby estuaries. It grew into a massive tailings pond that sent waves of carcinogens into the poor and predominantly Black neighbourhoods nearby. When the steel mill closed in the 1990s, the workers who lived nearby with their families were left to deal with the environmental devastation.
“Cancer rates were through the roof,” May said. “It took years of protests and lobbying, I went on a hunger strike, it was a real fight to get the government to take action.”
After years of pressure tactics forced its hand, the government of Nova Scotia partnered with Ottawa to fund a $400 million cleanup of the site.
Beyond gathering data, Bill C-226 will establish better ways of enforcing existing laws where they’re being neglected and create new laws if need be. But that will take time, cooperation between Canada and the provinces — a tall order on the best of days — and a willingness to invest hundreds of millions, if not billions, to restore the land.
In Kanesatake, once part of a territory that spanned Montreal’s north shore, only 12-square kilometres remain in Mohawk hands. And much of that land is contaminated. Though G&R’s owners say they’ve taken measures to deal with the smell and they’re cooperating with authorities, many feel the damage is already done.
“This is prime agricultural land that will be lost for generations and the government is complicit in its destruction,” said Ellen Gabriel, a Mohawk activist. “This dumping goes against Mohawk values, it goes against our Great Law of Peace, where women hold title to the land and men protect those women and that land. We don’t have that anymore because people are afraid to speak out.”
The fear Ellen Gabriel describes is real and it points to the limits of federal legislation.
Even if C-226 comes to pass, which it probably will next year, the law has to be applied. And in Kanesatake, that’s not so easy right now.
Of the dozen people contacted by The Rover for this article, none wanted to speak on the record about G&R Recycling. Their reason? Gary Gabriel. Three sources I spoke to say the 56 year-old has used intimidation to keep them from speaking out against the dump; slowly driving by their homes and waving, showing up at the doorstep of someone suspected of complaining to police, or explicitly threatening people with physical harm.
From anyone else, this might be brushed off as a bit of posturing but Gary has a criminal record that includes convictions for armed assault, aggravated assault and uttering threats. He also served a 15-month stint in prison for his role in the 2004 riot that ended with Kanesatake’s police station ransacked and Grand Chief James Gabriel’s house burned to the ground.
With minimal police presence on the territory, Gary was able to open a massive cannabis dispensary called the Green Room. The dispensary eventually grew to include slot machines, arcade games, a pool table, cold beer and a terrace.
Organized crime figures were known to stop in for a drink. Montreal gang leader Arsène Mompoint was shot to death at a party outside the Green Room on July 1 last year. Gary was sitting next to Mompoint when a masked gunman put three bullets in the gang leader. The killing rattled the community.
Robert says he doubts people in Kanesatake actually fear Gary.
“I’m pretty sure there’s more people who would say only good things about my brother,” said Robert, who co-owns G&R with Gary. “If there is a serious incident in my community, we call the (Sûreté du Québec) and they immediately show up.”
This isn’t always true. One Kanesatake resident said he reluctantly called police on his neighbour last year after the man fired dozens of AK-47 rounds into the air.
“It took the cops over an hour to show up,” the source said. “I told them shots were fired. From an assault rifle. And it took them over an hour to get here. This is lawlessness.”
Others complained of minimal patrols from the SQ and long response times when calling 911. The provincial police force has a fraught relationship with Kanesatake. It was the SQ’s attempt to evict land defenders from the pine forest, in 1990, that ended in an eruption of gunfire, the death of Corporal Marcel Lemay and the beginning of what came to be known as the Oka Crisis. And though there have been outreach initiatives pairing Mohawk youth with SQ officers, the tensions from 1990 linger.
Adding to an already caustic situation, a recent expansion of the Green Room cut into the pine forest that Mohawks like Ellen Gabriel fought to defend from developers in 1990. Land defenders haven’t turned to vigilantism to stop the expansion but they say they aren’t getting much help from their band council.
“The Mohawk council is the custodian of these lands and we have the authority to remove people. But unfourtunately we don’t have any type of enforcement,” said Victor Bonspille, who was elected Grand Chief of the Mohawk band council last year. “We don’t have a police force, and I don’t think it’s the duty of a political body like the elected band council to use force in these situations. It’s important that law enforcement is separate from politics.
“We do know there’s a problem here in Kanesatake. The outside authorities know it’s happening but they refuse to intervene. They know there’s illegal sales of illegal substances that wouldn’t be tolerated elsewhere. It’s a joke. Whether we’re First Nations or not, we’re entitled to be safe in our community.”
Another factor, behind this apparent culture of impunity, is that Gary is popular with many of his neighbours.
On TikTok, Gary’s only social media presence, the 56-year-old presents himself as a sort of lovable oaf. He treats his family to limousine rides, bankrolls seafood dinners and opens every video by exclaiming “Hey TikTok!” like it’s his catchphrase.
“He’s the life of the party,” said one Mohawk, who knows Gary well. “He’ll throw money around, buy you a drink or even buy people’s groceries for them. He gives people a few hundred bucks out of the blue, he’s good at buying people’s silence. But as fun and gregarious as he seems, he has a temper. He’s unpredictable. He’s violent.”
May is under no illusion that Ottawa will parachute into Kanesatake and save the day.
But the veteran Member of Parliament also knows that, without the right legislative guardrails in place, people will continue abusing Mohawk land for profit.
“The people who resist this dumping and speak out, they’re incredibly brave,” said May. “People in the community don’t feel safe and they don’t know where to go for help. They don’t know how this toxic waste is going to be cleaned. I’ve had conversations with other Members of Parliament who are deeply distressed that this is going on in Canada.
“This problem isn’t retractable, it's not impossible but it’s going to take political courage. We won’t impose solutions but we know that if people are violating environmental law, there needs to be justice. There is no piece of legislation, right now, that says it’s illegal to dump toxic waste on Indigenous land. So we’re studying exactly where these gaps are and I think we can close them, I think we can give people the tools to pretect their land.”
After years of going through this labyrinth of government ineptitude, it would be understandable if people like Ellen Gabriel gave up.
But if they don’t fight, what other choice do they have? For Ellen, it isn’t just about land or justice but rather the very nature of what it means to exist as a Mohawk inside Canada’s borders.
“I know what my ancestors went through for me to be here,” Ellen Gabriel said. “For me, I believe in justice, I believe in Kaianere'kó:wa, the Great Law of Peace that was handed down to us. When I joined the longhouse, I took an oath to uphold this law and I take it very seriously. I don’t know how many generations were here, on this beautiful piece of land, before me but I know they fought for me to be here.
“They did it for my generation and we’re supposed to be doing it for seven generations from now. So if I don’t do that, than the oath I took to uphold Kaianere'kó:wa is a lie. And I don’t want it to be a lie.”
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Named and shamed. Great journalism tells it like it is. Well done, Christopher.