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New chief comes clean

Steve Bonspiel The Eastern Door

Ryan Montour was on a path of self-destruction when a lifestyle of drinking, drugging and high-risk behaviour finally caught up to him that one fateful night 10 years ago. 

On March 2, 2011, Montour’s life changed forever after he left a local bar under the influence of drugs and alcohol and smashed head-on into a car driven by a man from Mercier. 

Today, he’s a newly-elected Mohawk Council of Kahnawake chief, but back then, he was an addict of drugs and alcohol. 

Montour was in the middle of heavy partying when he slipped behind the wheel of his white 2008 Dodge Charger, bolstered by a cocktail of cocaine, marijuana and alcohol. 

He had been contemplating whether or not he should drive down Route 207 to his home in the village area. He knew it was a big risk. 

Shortly after he got into his car, he started nodding off, with his vehicle pulling to the right and left. 

At that time, Tony’s Pizza deliveryman Erick Bertrand, a working father of two young children, was just doing his job delivering pizza. 

“I was out the night before till three a.m. I was in the tobacco trade at the time, and I went to the bar with a pocket full of money. I had to make a decision to turn and go home to my family or turn right and go to the bar,” said Montour. 

The day before that, March 1, 2011, he went to the Wild Wild West and “got smashed” and asked other patrons for a ride home. 

No one bit, so he drove home wrecked. 

His girlfriend Ashley Curotte, who stuck by him through all the ups and downs, angrily told him to leave because of the state he was in. 

“I said ‘okay,’ and I left. I was after my phone because it was a means to feed my addiction. I couldn’t find it, so I drove back to the Wild Wild West,” he said. 

He franticly asked for his phone at the bar, but no one knew where it was. “By then, the cocktail mixture was really bad, and I was really f**ked up,” he said. 

He sat on the porch for what he estimates was half an hour until about 10:30 p.m. on March 2, 2011. 

“I kept asking myself, ‘could I make it?’ I went back and forth until I said, ‘ah f*ck, I just made it before.’ And I made the decision to drive,” said Montour. 

He spun out down Route 207 at one point but regained control. The drugs and alcohol were coursing hard through his system, and he was having trouble staying awake. 

Then, as he approached Bertrand, Montour was about two feet over the middle yellow line, into the oncoming lane, and they collided. Bertrand’s red Sunfire spun out into the ditch while Montour’s stayed on the road, smashed up. 

The chip in his car showed he was going 54 kilometres an hour and braked 1.8 seconds before the crash. 

At first, Montour was in denial. How could he be at fault? The tire marks, he said, were on the right side, not the left. It wasn’t possible, he said in his drug-addled mind, that he was at fault. 

“Being an alcoholic and a drug addict, my first instinct is to run away. I tried to run away. I always ran away. But my leg was stuck,” he said. Passersby later pulled him out of the car. 

In the hospital, with Bertrand having died two days after the accident and Montour suffering from breaks in two different places in both legs and a broken arm, loved ones visiting him downplayed what happened to the victim. 

“I only found out somebody had died four days later. I remember that day like it was yesterday,” he said 

“When I found out, I put my head back on the pillow, feeling the worst feelings a human being can feel. I said to myself, ‘Ryan, what did you do? How did you get yourself here?’” 

But the worst thought was that Bertrand’s partner Annick Hamel and their two kids would never see daddy again. 

And there was nothing Montour could do about it. 

Montour was charged and eventually pled guilty to dangerous operation of a vehicle and impaired driving causing death. 

His Journey 

His uncle Keith died on the 207, drinking and driving in April 1972. Montour was born May 11, 1972, and was given his uncle’s name as his middle name. 

His brother Wayne also died in a drunk driving incident in 1987, so the pattern of familial accidents involving substances or alcohol was troubling. 

But Montour didn’t look at it like that. All he wanted, up until 10 years ago, was another score. He didn’t think about his own safety or the safety of others. 

In previous examples of drinking and/or drugging and driving, it was all about the party. Massachusetts, Vermont and Las Vegas: wherever Montour went, he had issues with substances and the drink. 

In one incident in Lowell, Massachusetts, he got beat up badly by police, and the three men in his car fled on foot. He was arrested and charged with DUI and assault on a police officer – the latter of which was dropped. 

He was eventually sentenced to four years in prison for killing Erick Bertrand. 

It was during his recovery, his six months rehabbing in hospital, with casts on his legs and one on his left arm to go along with the handcuffs on his right arm, that he said enough was enough. 

He wasn’t going to allow domestic violence and sexual abuse he suffered as a kid at the hands of his cousin between the ages of nine and 13 to cause a further downward spiral. He was going to change his life and, he hoped, the lives of others. 

“I needed to identify what was wrong with me,” said Montour. “Back then, as a kid, we didn’t identify trauma like we do now, and I dealt with so many traumas. The biggest mistake I ever did was not asking for help.” 

Add to the mix the so-called Oka Crisis in 1990, when Montour was 17 and the Canadian Army was called in – a standoff that started in Kanesatake with police attacking innocent people over more government land theft, leading to 78 days of tense conflict – and Montour had a huge uphill battle before he even hit the legal drinking age. 

He joined the Marines soon after that summer, further complicating his healing. 

In prison, an early addictions awareness program started to spark something in him. He was 

 exploring the “why” of where he was in life. Drinking was normal to him. It was all around, so how does someone change that?

Fast-forward to the Pathways Program, which helps Native inmates connect to their culture, and Montour started to see the power of the sweat lodge – ceremony and medicine he did for the first time in jail.

“It really started to reconnect me to my spirituality,” he said. “It opened my eyes to what I needed to do to work on myself and reconnect with my spirit and our ways.”

It took him about six years to really be able to open up and speak about his past, honestly, and use it as a tool for others to heal.

He was in therapy six days a week as things started to click, and he began to fully accept what he did and where he came from.

The Healing Lodge here in Kahnawake helped him to use traditional ways to mend.

“When you have a car accident, they say your spirit leaves your body. So I had to go back to the site of the accident to get it back,” he said.

Being Sober

These days, Montour has a mantra for any requests, a foolproof system he touts proudly: he never says no if anyone asks for help.

He visits schools, is part of campaigns like Sober AF, which promotes sobriety among the youth, and is the treasurer of the local chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous and a member of Narcotics Anonymous. He has found a purpose, and it is changing people’s lives.

He also tries to impart what he’s learned onto his three step-children, to be a good role model for them and to help support their mother Ashley.

One of the people who met Montour back when he first started his journey of rebirth was Jessica Oesterreich, who was taken aback at how candid and honest he was – admitting his faults and showing his emotions – a rarity among Kanien’kehá:ka men.

“I was working as the Addictions Prevention worker at Kahnawake Shakotiia’takehnhas Community Services’ (KSCS) when I met Ryan in November 2017,” she said. “I had been searching for community members willing to publicly speak about their addiction and recovery stories. Ryan volunteered to not just speak on the radio, but participate in addictions presentations in our schools, at Billings (high school) and the adult education centre.”

It filled a gap that is not often plugged in Kahnawake – hearing from someone who made a grave mistake, who’s willing to openly and honestly share their personal story of trauma.

“The presentations were made to emphasize the role played by mental, emotional, and spiritual health in addictions,” she continued. 

“What made Ryan unique in sharing his story was that he was always willing to share details about his life that other people may have shied away from. He was able to connect with our young audiences in a way I never could have. Students often approached him after the presentations because of the similarities in their lives to his story,” she said.

The big takeaway from his story, she added, was his attitude to make things right, even though he knows he can never bring Erick Bertrand back.

“He hasn’t just gone on with his life after ‘paying his debt.’ He’s worked to change his understanding of life and, rather than seek forgiveness, is constantly working towards atonement,” said Oesterreich. 

“Ryan has helped to move the community’s understanding of addictions, mental, emotional, and spiritual health forward by being clear about factors that contributed to his addiction, but still accepting responsibility for his actions and behaviours. He has helped many community members – specifically men – open up about things like experiencing sexual abuse, neglect, violence that previously wouldn’t be discussed,” she said.

His training as a Marine taught him discipline, which is partially why he was chosen to be the liaison for the Mohawk Council with the newly-formed Community Watch, but that attitude is also what hurt him.

The Marines taught him to hold his emotions in check and instilled a fear in him of asking for help. 

“The first lesson I teach kids when I speak to them is you have to ask for help,” said Montour. “That’s the most important thing.” 

Working Together 

The person who served Montour the day of the car accident a decade ago also joined the conversation to help educate the community.

Leora Charles is on her own journey of sobriety, and it brought her from bar life to a proud, clean and sober mom of eight-year-old daughter Memphis, who is taking Women’s Studies with a minor in Law and Policy at Concordia University.

She’s been sober for seven years and out of the bar business completely for three.

“I was devastated because I was just as guilty,” she said about that night. “As a bartender, you really think you’re selling yourself to ruin people’s lives.”

As part of KSCS’s Responsible Server Training, Montour asked her to join him in 2017 to let the community hear from two people’s perspectives – from both sides of the bar.

Her role “was to get people in the community to understand the severity of safe serving and responsible drinking. I was interested in helping him doing this because our story was very scary and devastating, and I thought it was important we should share this,” said Charles. “It doesn’t end after the night is over.”

It wasn’t always an amicable relationship, however, as Charles testified in court at Montour’s trial. Under oath, she said he wasn’t just drinking that night, but she didn’t know what else he was doing, alluding to drugs, which angered Montour. He threatened her from jail, she said, and it was a scary time. But they reconciled years after.

In court proceedings, a video showed Montour going outside of the bar frequently, so neither Charles nor the secondary bartender saw him drinking for long periods of time at the Wild Wild West, which made it hard to determine just how intoxicated he was. 

“He really learned and changed his behaviour, and I recognized that,” she said. “He apologized to me when he was sober and thought about everything. And that’s why I was more than happy to participate with him in helping the community understand how serious these situations can turn out to be. That was the point where everything came full circle.”

Getting Elected

Montour followed in his father’s footsteps, former MCK chief Johnny Montour – who also ran the local AA for 23 years.

Some questioned Montour’s eligibility to run for office, but part of Section 12.1 of the Kahnawake Election Law, states:

Must not have been, within the previous six (6) years, convicted and sentenced for a criminal offence. The six (6) year ban commences only after the sentence has been served in full. 

Montour wouldn’t have been eligible to run in the last election in 2018 because he finished his sentence in 2014.

Now that he’s left his job on the Mercier Bridge as a certified welder, his work as a rookie Council chief begins in earnest.

He’s hoping to be on a few portfolios, including public security and housing, and he is happy that his new role in the community allows him to reach more people and spread the word that it is possible to change destructive behaviours.

“Being a chief gives you the ability to look at people and say, ‘I was given a second chance, to use that second chance,’” he said.

“There are a lot of people that need help. It’s not my job to heal them, per se, but I can show them what the power of healing and sobriety will give to anybody. And I can help push the community in the direction it needs to go.”

He warned about the “Russian roulette” of opioid addiction that, he fears, will hit the community harder, although it is already here. There have been seven overdoses in the community on drugs like fentanyl, according to Montour, this year alone.

Forgiveness

In order to move on, Montour stressed, everyone must find a way to forgive those who harmed them.

In speaking with The Eastern Door, he said he has forgiven the family member who abused him. He was able to see that this man, who was a kid at the time, was also abused in his life. And he wants to break that cycle.

“When it comes to the point in your life when you impact so many people, not just the victim’s family, but my family, you don’t go to prison alone,” he said. “Your whole

family and your community comes with you because you’re bringing so much shame and guilt with you.”

He forgives himself for the accident 10 years ago and understands if the family of Erick Bertrand does not and may never. They have a life sentence, as he puts it, and he is able to be free. But he lives with what he did every day. 

“If they forgive me, that is totally up to them. But all I can do is honour his spirit and respect the promise I made,” he said. “I did make a promise to my victim, to the spirit of Erick Bertrand in a sweat, that I would never touch a drop of alcohol ever again. It’s powerful medicine, and I can say I upheld that promise.”

He has doubts, of course, as living with the guilt of taking another man’s life will never completely disappear.

“Sometimes I think why did the bad guy survive? But maybe that’s why I’m here, to help people,” said Montour.

Uncovering traumas and fixing the deep-seated issues will take time and plenty of effort, but Oesterreich said many things have to change in order to properly deal with the past and heal.

“This is an unpopular opinion, but we have to accept that healing can’t just be for the victims,” she said. 

“We have to find a way to heal the perpetrators/abusers. Hurt people, hurt people. And leaving those who hurt others to simply ‘pay their debt’ or not be held accountable at all hurts us all. That doesn’t mean that all people can make the turnaround Ryan did, but we have to find a way to help them use the resources available to change,” said Oesterreich.

The power of sobriety is one thing, but, especially with the continued findings of mass graves at residential schools across the country, the power of healing has to come with it, he said.

In speaking with counsellors, Montour was able to “take back my voice and say the things I wasn’t able to as a child, for the stuff that was happening to me.”

“This accident will not define me,” he said. “I’m sober now, and I’m going to do my best to be sober at the end of each day. It’s something we, as addicts, think about all the time. 

“One day at a time.” 

[email protected]

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Eastern Door Editor/Publisher Steve Bonspiel started his journalism career in January 2003 with The Nation magazine, a newspaper serving the Cree of northern Quebec.
Since that time, he has won numerous regional and national awards for his in-depth, impassioned writing on a wide variety of subjects, including investigative pieces, features, editorials, columns, sports, human interest and hard news.
He has freelanced for the Montreal Gazette, Toronto Star, Windspeaker, Nunatsiaq News, Calgary Herald, Native Peoples Magazine, and other publications.
Among Steve's many awards is the Paul Dumont-Frenette Award for journalist of the year with the Quebec Community Newspapers Association in 2015, and a back-to-back win in 2010/11 in the Canadian Association of Journalists' community category - one of which also garnered TED a short-list selection of the prestigious Michener award.
He was also Quebec Community Newspapers Association president from 2012 to 2019, and continues to strive to build bridges between Native and non-Native communities for a better understanding of each other.

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