Before going to work at the west gate access location point in Kanesatake, Patsy Bonspille brings her hot chamomile tea to help keep her warm for her 12-hour night shift.
“It was minus-12 one of the first nights, April 21, in the open field road,” Bonspille said. “I was dressed warm and had my proper equipment on but it was blowing snow and it was so cold.”
Bonspille regularly works at the zone five access location point at Route 344 W near Rang St. Jean, and has sometimes rotated to other zones as well.
The frontline workers
Bonspille, who is a 62-year-old night shift worker at the access control location, said so far the weather hasn’t been the best to the workers.
But despite the weather, she is committed to protecting her community, which is why her and her sisters all signed themselves up to perform this job.
“I knew this was really going to help our community,” she said. “We had so many cars coming in, and I said I need to be part of this.”
To date, three of her four sisters still work there, her husband, along with her niece and her niece’s daughter as well, all at access location points.
Bonspille and her sisters are all over 55 years of age, but, despite that, she said her and her sisters are in good health and wanted to do it.
“We had the proper equipment,” Bonspille said. “We are very well taken care of. A lot of community members stop and give us coffee, water, food.”
Bonspille believes in the cause and is happy she is able to protect her community.
“I feel good, I feel proud,” she said.
Fellow Access Control Team (ACT) member, 24-year-old Julia Lazore, also felt devoted to her community when she decided to step up and take on the job.
Lazore also worked on the frontlines during the solitary protests in Kanesatake that took place in February for Wet’suwet’en, also working 12-hour shifts and spreading awareness about the cause.
“I was prepared in some way to work the checkpoints,” Lazore said. “I felt like in a time like this people from urban areas would want to come here to escape the city and I felt like it was important to keep them out,” she said.
“With all the parks and open areas, I was concerned we would have more people than usual so I knew the responsibility that the workers would carry.”
Lazore, who also is a night shift worker, is stationed either at zone three Bastien’s or zone two – l’Annonciation/Ahsennénhson.
“I just find something so comforting and magical being under the pine trees and watching the sun come up,” Lazore said. “Everybody who stops by my checkpoint thinks it’s scary but I get the exact opposite feeling.”
But not everyone agrees with having to stop, no matter what time of day.
“It’s a mixture of feelings,” Lazore said. “We were made aware that some people would have negative things to say so it comes with the job,” she said.
“The checkpoints are definitely misunderstood. We’ve been getting a lot of hate on the Internet but that’s from a small group of people.”
Lazore said while she has had difficult encounters with drivers who refuse to cooperate, she chooses to focus on the positive interactions she’s had with locals who bring them drinks and food and share their support with them.
“I have strong ties to my community and I’m very proud to call this my home,” she said.
“When we gather for a cause our voices are heard all over and I’m very happy to see our people working hard to protect the community.”
Kane Montour, also an ACT night shift worker, is concerned for the elders of the community.
“There’s not a lot people left who speak the language,” the 30-year-old Montour said. “The elders are most of our teachers, they spread the language to the younger generations and we’re losing them at a fast rate. Every time we lose an elder, it’s a big blow for the community because that elder had teachings and knowledge for the younger generations.
“So we’re doing this for our people and for our elders.”
Montour also said, “I think as younger guys we need to step up and put ourselves at risk and protect not only our elders but everyone in the community.”
Some people have tested the resolve of workers like Montour, but he stands his ground.
“It could be stressful,” Montour said. “You’re going to have people who are for it – and the majority are – but then you have some who don’t like it.”
Part of being on the frontlines also includes people who yell racist remarks at the workers, and want the access control points to go away.
A recent incident was especially harrowing.
Montour recalled the day a worker was hit, slightly, by a car. According to Montour, the driver did not want to stop and the worker was in front of the vehicle.
“We boxed him in,” Montour said. “The driver tried to go through and he stepped on the gas and he hit the worker, who went over the hood.
“Luckily some of the other people from other checkpoints boxed him in so he couldn’t go anywhere and then the police came.”
The grand chief called the May 6 incident a hit and run and said there should have been charges, but a Surete du Quebec (SQ) spokesperson told The Eastern Door that no one was hit and called it a rumour.
Montour said they are trained not to engage with drivers who are yelling, insulting or threatening, in order to ensure their safety.
“We’re not allowed to get into a physical altercation,” he said. “Our number one concern is our safety.”
Montour said people are mostly compliant but sometimes he gets a few difficult drivers who don’t believe the cigarette and cannabis stores are closed.
Montour said sometimes people present themselves with fake work orders and fake addresses to try to access the territory.
“We’ve had people try to cut through the woods on foot too,” Montour said. “They try to go around the checkpoints completely. I get people even from Ottawa and Toronto.”
Montour also said how a man from Toronto tried to camp out in the woods overnight so he could get access to the territory.
One night, Montour came in contact with two vehicles that wanted to come in.
“They came through saying ‘you don’t want to mess with us today’ and one presented himself as a Hells Angel. I told him ‘you’re not coming through.’”
After Montour refused access to the drivers, they tried to close him in and his fellow worker in so that they could run the access control location, but Montour blocked entry.
When an incident happens, they file an incident report. Members also keep track of how many cars present themselves at their access control location, how many are denied, and how many are allowed in.
Access control locations
The access control locations were put up on April 20 by the Kanesatake Emergency Response Unit (ERU) to help combat the spread of COVID-19 in the communities of Oka and Kanesatake.
There are five locations: zone one Route 344E Oka Village, zone two l’Annonciation/Ahsennénhson, zone three Bastien’s, zone four Ste. Germaine/Akweks and zone five is located at Route 344 W/Rang St. Jean.
Two people work per zone and work 12-hour shifts that are either 6 p.m.-6 a.m. or 6 a.m.-6 p.m.
“We wanted to limit the amount of traffic through the territory of Kanesatake to help reduce the potential of contracting COVID-19,” Kahnawake’s Maggie Mayo, emergency response services manager said.
Mayo also clarified that they are not denying access to the territory but they are validating if people have valid reasons to come – only people who reside in the territory and are essential workers can access the territory at the moment.
“There’s no reason for them to be here. There’s no tobacco or cannabis sales happening in the immediate area at this time. We’re not stopping deliveries from legitimate companies, we definitely assess whether or not they should be granted access,” she said.
As of May 8, Mayo confirmed the access location points have received well over 13,000 vehicles.
Mayo said the main reason people present themselves at the access control locations is to buy cigarettes, cannabis, drive around and sight see the village of Oka, or shop at the Metro grocery store.
“People were coming here because they thought it was a safe location to go shopping at the Metro, but at the same time they were depleting the food supply for the local people,” Mayo said.
Mayo received people from high COVID-19 areas like Montreal, Laval and Beloeil wanting to access the territory, but they were turned away.
“We are not under this false pretense that we’re going to stop the virus, what we want to do is limit the accessibility and probability of having community spread occur,” she said.
Mayo confirmed that to date, Kanesatake has zero confirmed cases and Oka has seven. St. Placide, the town residing close by to Kanesatake, has five.
Orientation began the Sunday before the access control locations went put up to train workers on personal health and hand hygiene with a nurse from the Kanesatake Health Centre.
During this session they learned how to properly wash their hands, how to put on a face mask, how to properly remove it, etc.
They also went through safety training on location, protocols of asking drivers questions, and approaching a vehicle.
Each member is provided with a rule handbook, which goes over everything they learn in orientation.
Members are also provided with PPE, high visibility hat, safety glasses, safety visor, masks, high visibility vest, and high visibility gloves to ensure proper safety of the workers.
Mayo also stated that what they are doing is not unique and 48 out of 55 other Indigenous communities in Quebec have also set up access control locations.
“We don’t have the resources that are offered outside Native reserves so we’re not doing anything different. It’s just a constant negative propaganda put out by the mayor that’s making it difficult,” she said.
Indigenous communities during pandemics
Mohawk Council of Kanesatake grand chief Serge Otsi Simon said Kanesatake is lucky they took action when they did.
“We have a history of suffering higher losses than the non-Natives when it comes to pandemics,” said Simon. “We were lucky we took action early enough that we didn’t have a community spread.”
“We see it all around us, we are surrounded,” Simon said. “If you look at a map of the cases around Montreal you’ll see that our region is an island surrounded by red dots, it’s like an ocean of COVID-19 around us and we’re like an island, unaffected.”
While the access control locations were put in place to prevent the spread of the virus in the community, Simon said he’s not naive.
“We’re not thinking our checkpoints are going to keep it completely out,” Simon said. “It’s going to limit the spread. We know it’s coming and like I said to the mayor and the government, it’s whether it comes in a wave or it comes in small manageable cases, and it’s going to be up to our actions to make sure it does not come in as a wave.”
Cease and desist letter
On Tuesday May 11, the municipality of Oka and the MRC Deux-Montagnes sent the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake (MCK) and the ERU a cease and desist letter, stating the access control locations were illegal and must be removed.
“They sent us a letter at the very beginning that he wanted to work with us and we said great, let’s do it,” Simon said.
He then received an email from the council also stating that the SQ should be the ones to take care of the situation and they are well equipped to do so.
“But if the SQ had done its job, we wouldn’t have turned away 4,000 cars at the gates of Oka,” Simon said.
“I told the mayor there is no politics during this time. It’s non-political.” Simon said. “He also said he wanted to open the ferry to get workers from one shore to the next. The only reason for the ferry is tourism, he wants to see tourism come back despite the rise of COVID-19 cases and the rise of deaths, it’s absolutely ridiculous.”
Simon said he also has an obligation to protect his people who are also in the Oka village area.
“I have 58 lots in Oka village, that he (Oka mayor Pascal Quevillon) claims as his jurisdiction,” Simon said. “I’m not just the grand chief of the people up the hill, I’m the grand chief of those living down there. There’s over 300 members of our territory that are spread out and I have an obligation to protect them as well.”
Simon said despite the letter they received, he’s not planning on stopping the access control locations.
“I have elders calling me thinking the checkpoints are coming down and they say don’t do it and I tell them don’t worry I will fight and they will remain up. We’re not going anywhere,” he said.
The ERU distributed a survey to residents in Oka and Kanesatake, that was also available on their Facebook page, in regards to the access control locations. The survey came back 96 percent in favour of the locations, with comments thanking them for the protection.
“His own citizens have indicated in the survey that they are in support of the access control points,” Mayo said. “If you look at Kanesatake, they have a high population of elders and young people who have underlying health conditions, and it’s very important that their health and safety be at the forefront of all this,” she said.
“Manipulation of information”
Meanwhile, Quevillon wants the access control locations to come down, stating the SQ has told him they are illegal.
“I emailed the grand chief to tell him it and it was illegal, around two to three days before they put up the checkpoints, but they still put up the five check points in the municipality of Oka,” Quevillon told The Eastern Door.
“The people of Kanesatake are leaving their territory,” Quevillon said. “There’s people who have seen them in Costco Boisbrand and Wal-Mart St. Eustache, so they can bring the virus into their territory. It’s a little disorganized,” he said. “They say the access control locations are working because they have zero cases but it’s false because there’s zero tests, so if we don’t test people we can’t know if there’s cases or not.”
“With the money they received from the government to fight COVID-19 they should have been doing tests. If you want to control the virus you have to do tests,” he said. “It’s a little ironic,” he said.
When asked about the survey, Quevillon said it was a “manipulation of information” since the survey was only filled out by 70 people, according to Quevillon.
Quevillon also confirmed that Oka Park and the Golf Club will open May 20 and soon after the ferry and others stores will follow.
“COVID-19 is here to stay, we need to learn how to live with it and protect ourselves, keep our distance, wash our hands; we need to start our lives again, even the day there’s a vaccine, the virus will still be here.”
A thank you
Simon and Mayo are proud of the team that was assembled to protect the community.
“These people put up with a lot, it’s not just the weather and the long hours,” said Simon. “These people shouldn’t be treated as a threat, they should be treated as heroes. I hope they realize they saved a lot of lives, they’re not just stopping people from coming in, they’re saving the lives of our people, our elders,” he said.
“These people are the every day frontline workers putting their own health and safety at the forefront,” Mayo said.
“A lot of community members are thankful, they understand the vital role they are working in to ensure the safety of the community.”