A group of Mohawks lit a bonfire next to a busy train line early on October 15 in opposition to the city of Montreal’s plan to dump billions of liters of raw sewage into the St. Lawrence River.
“On October 7, the women sent a notice of objection to the city of Montreal. We have not received a response,” the group said in a statement read during the action. “This notice is our warning to the city of Montreal to stop dumping waste that is toxic to our lands, life and waterways. The temporary obstruction on Thursday, October 15 is to emphasize our objection to this environmentally destructive action.”
At around 9 a.m. on Thursday morning, the group of Mohawks from the Kahnawake reserve, including members of the Mohawk Warrior Society, gathered near Adirondack Junction and put together a bonfire a few feet away from the train tracks. They held indigenous flags as the flames engulfed two large logs they placed on top of the fire and then read their statement.
“The release of the equivalent of 2,600 Olympic-sized swimming pools will result in unknown contamination and multi-generational devastation of the entire ecosystem,” the group’s statement read. “We come to you with the gentleness of a feather which we hope will be accepted. Should you not respond reasonably, you leave us no alternative but to take necessary action to convince you. There has been no commitment to not dump. We would like the mayor to take responsibility to preserve our waterways.”
Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre, with the approval of Quebec’s environmental department, has been pushing to dump eight billion liters of untreated sewage into the St. Lawrence River between October 18 and October 25. Coderre insists that, in order to make necessary repairs and move a large snow collector pipe located underneath the Bonaventure Expressway, a nearby sewage treatment facility needs to be temporarily shut down. Therefore, according to the mayor, they have no choice but to throw all this sewage into the river since there is nowhere else to put it. Some Canadian wastewater treatment experts also agree with the mayor’s decision. The mayor had hoped that the infrastructural repairs would be finished by November 15 before any major snowfalls.
With the federal election only days away, Coderre, a liberal, has received pushback from environmentalists as well as his political opponents over the planned dumping. An online petition opposing the plan titled “The St. Lawrence Is Not A Garbage Can” has collected over 90,000 signatures. Conservatives in the federal government, like Minister of Infrastructure Denis Lebel and Minister of the Environment Leona Aglukkaq, expressed their opposition to the mayor’s plan and call on him to suspend it.
Earlier this month, Aglukkaq claimed that she had only recently found out about the planned dumping and that the plan needed further consideration.
“Last week my office learned of Montreal’s plan to dump billions of litres of raw sewage into the St. Lawrence,” she tweeted on October 7. “This plan is concerning and we have done the responsible thing by exploring options to prevent it while we get more information.”
However, an investigation by the Canadian Press showed that she had, in fact, known about the plan since late 2014.
Coderre accused conservative politicians of “playing politics to score cheap political points” and referred to previous occasions when sewage was dumped into the river with little political pushback.
“In 2003, we did the same. In 2007, we did the same, and Environment Canada said yes to that,” Coderre told the Montreal Gazette. “What’s going on? It’s [the] exact same thing.”
Nonetheless, on October 14, just days before it was scheduled to begin, the Canadian federal government ordered a halt to Montreal’s planned dumping. Aglukkaq released a statement and Lebel made the announcement that the dumping would be put on hold pending further scientific analysis.
“Based on limited data, Environment Canada cannot conclude whether or not the untreated wastewater to be released will be acutely toxic,” Lebel told the Canadian Press.
Though the federal government put a temporary halt to the plan, the Mohawk group stated the the protest actions would go on regardless.
“In our law, we’re supposed to protect the Earth, and we’re carrying out our responsibilities,” Akohserake Deer, a spokesperson for the group, told the Montreal Gazette. “Whether the project is on or off doesn’t matter, it’s just another stalling tactic by the [federal] government.”
The group had also originally announced that they would blockade a busy train line but didn’t specify when they would do so. When asked about possible future actions, the group’s spokespeople preferred not to say, only stating that they would take action to protect their lands and resources if the planned dumping gets put back into motion.
“We’re informing Mayor Coderre that this is unacceptable,” a spokeswoman for the Mohawk group said during the bonfire demo. “We want him to take an alternative route to the dumping. They can do it. They have the funds to do it. The problem is money. And to us, we’re protecting our river and money is not our concern. Our future generations are our concern. Our life is on that river.”