I replay the attack in my head, conjuring up ways it could have ended differently.
In some scenarios, I manage to clinch Gary’s head and thrust my fist into his nose, not hard enough to win the fight but enough to slow him down some until the cops could break it up.
Another retelling of that afternoon involves me just getting in between Gary and my friend and absorbing the worst of the damage. If you tuck your chin between your shoulders and protect the sides of your head, you can take a surprising amount of punishment before going limp.
But I didn’t do the right thing.
Because these are just the fantasies of a guilty conscience. In reality, Gary pummelled my friend, and I just stood there watching as he fell to the dirt and got repeatedly kicked in the head. Gary was wearing steel-toed boots that afternoon.
He beat my friend because he could. Because, in the Mohawk territory of Kanehsatake, Gary’s biggest weapon is fear.
He’s a scary man: about six foot four with broad shoulders, fists like lunchboxes and eyes cloudy with pain. But it’s his reputation that truly makes people think twice about fighting back; he’s got two convictions for armed assault and another for aggravated assault. Gary served a prison sentence for his role in a 2004 clash that saw a convoy of police chased off the reserve after rioters burned down Grand Chief James Gabriel’s house.
So when Gary rolled up to us in his orange pick-up truck on that muggy June afternoon in 2017, my friend told me to stay calm and that under no circumstances was I to raise a fist.
Gary had concocted some far-fetched scenario where my friend had been the one to tell police about his role in the 2004 riot. Of course, this was absurd. Everyone knew Gary was involved. Dozens (if not hundreds) of witnesses could attest to that.
That didn’t matter. Gary wanted to hurt someone that day. So he got out of his truck, and in a matter of seconds he was throwing wild punches. I remember my friend, an experienced boxer, ducking the first few blows before screaming for me not to intervene.
So I didn’t.
And Gary, knowing we wouldn’t fight back, continued to hurl his fists around until finally my friend tripped and fell into a patch of dirt. That’s when he put the boots on him, ultimately cracking another man’s skull over some imagined slight 13 years in the past.
In a community where almost no one calls the cops, someone had witnessed the beating and dialled 911. By the time Gary tired himself out, a squad car from the provincial police showed up. Neither officer bothered to get out because, it seemed, they too were afraid.
“Do you want to report anything?” one of them said, sheepishly.
“I’ve gotta live here, man,” my friend said.
Before scurrying back into the woods in his truck, Gary got face to face with me and threatened to break my neck if I spoke to the police.
So I didn’t.
Instead, I wound up driving my friend to pick up medical supplies and a shotgun. An x-ray would later reveal two fractures in his skull, but his main concern that day was that Gary would burn down his house and shoot his dogs.
Driving my friend home that night was the only time I was ever afraid of being killed. It’s a weird thing, to contemplate death as a plausible conclusion to a shitty day.
That night, my friend stayed up with a loaded gun pointed at his door. I got drunk with some pals.
I was on assignment for the Montreal Gazette when it happened, touring the Kanehsatake pines for a video about National Indigenous Peoples Day. It was supposed to be hopeful.
I am reminded of this because — on another hopeful day last week — something awful happened. And, once again, Gary was there.
While thousands of us stood at the foot of Mount Royal, listening to Mohawk Elder Kevin Deer give thanks during a ceremony for the children who died at residential school, a murder occurred in Kanehsatake.
It happened at Gary’s cannabis dispensary, the Green Room.
He was there when a gunman walked up to gang leader Arsène Mompoint and put three bullets in him. There is no evidence that Gary was involved in the hit. We need to make that clear. But even so, a killer chose to spill blood on Mohawk territory, to bring dishonour to their homeland, and he did it at Gary’s place. That’s where he felt most comfortable taking another man’s life.
I wanted to write something hopeful today.
Because while a gun went off in Mohawk territory, hundreds of Mohawks rallied with other First Nations to bring justice to children buried in unmarked graves. That same week the Mohawk community of Kahnawake elected its first-ever woman grand chief, Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer. It happened just days before the Assembly of First Nations elected its first-ever woman national chief, RoseAnne Archibald. And it happened less than a week before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed Canada’s first-ever Indigenous governor general, Mary Simon.
But there’s a crisis on Mohawk territory right now. And it’s so bad that, ahead of the Kanehsatake band council elections of July 31, sources tell me the chiefs’ debate will likely be held at a secret location, if held at all.
In the neighbouring village of Oka, Mayor Pascal Quevillon is using this as an opportunity to grandstand, claiming Ottawa needs to “clean up” Mohawk territory. Coincidentally, the mayor also supports the construction of new housing developments on land that’s been used by Mohawk farmers for generations.
I don’t know what the solution is, but I’m confident that, given the right resources, our Mohawk neighbours will come up with a lasting one. In the meantime, people like Gary make it easy for bigots to tarnish Kanehsatake’s name.
But Gary isn’t entirely to blame here. He’s the product of a system that robbed Mohawks of their land and left them a few scraps to fight over. When you surround a community with an army and besiege them for an entire summer — as Canada did with Kanehsatake in 1990 — don’t be surprised when our colonial violence begets more violence.
I think back to that day four years ago when I stood cowering as Gary nearly killed my friend, and it fills me with shame. Shame because I never did anything to stop it, shame because I never spoke up and shame because I’m now reporting on violence on the territory as though it were some foregone conclusion.
It isn’t. We made it this way.
Well, it was nice to take the week off and I was happy to Joseph kill it in my stead. Of course, I can’t allow that to happen too often lest I make myself replaceable.
In any case, we’re working on some longer term thing but — for now — I’d love it if you checked out this piece about last week’s murder and what it means for the Mohawk cannabis industry.
Reporting can be more powerful than fists.