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MONTREAL- Kahnawake voters narrowly reject casino project in referendum

MONTREAL - It was another close vote in Kahwanake and this time, residents of the South Shore community again voted against building a casino, despite the allure of $50 million in projected yearly profits and the promise of cash dividends – estimated by some to be worth about $1,000 per person per year.

The referendum, held Saturday, was the third in 18 years. At both previous referenda, the No side won, but not by much (in 2003, 57 per cent of voters voted No.)

The vote count Saturday night was even closer, with 846 people voting No, compared to 822 voting Yes.

It was a defeat for the 10 out of 11 band council chiefs, including Grand Chief Mike Delisle Jr. who promoted the casino as a way of making Kahnawake financially independent. Had it not been for 24 votes, they would have built it.

“We’re looking to become less dependent on financial dollars coming from federal and provincial governments – mostly federal,” Delisle told The Gazette on Friday. “We’re 96 per cent dependent right now.”

Delisle had insisted the casino, to be built just off Highway 30, would be properly run and monitored.

“We don’t believe it’s as vicious as some people are portraying it to be.”

But though the Kahnawake councillors were in favour – with only Chief Carl Horn dissenting – the question had divided the community.

Signs to vote both Yes and No dotted the community south of Montreal. Hundreds of flyers were printed with the caption “Secure your future by voting ‘yes’ to an independent Kahnawake”, while one large placard in town read “Let’s keep our town clean and honest – no casino.”

Many of the youths under 18, who were not allowed to vote, were staunchly against the project. On Friday, students at the Kahnawake Survival School marched down Route 132 to protest the staging of another referendum on the issue, and on Saturday about 50 youths protested all day outside the polling station, urging community members to vote No.

The students were concerned a casino would bring in prostitution, drugs, and more alcohol to the community, and ultimately create more poverty for Kahnawake and the surrounding communities, despite the profits and dividends.

Jeremiah Johnson, who runs a carpet cleaning business in Kahnawake, held the same views.

“The problem is a casino is a predator – it preys on people’s addictions and weaknesses,” said Johnson, who volunteered to drive elders and anyone else who needed transportation to the polling station Saturday. “I feel there’s a better way for the community to prosper than to profit from addiction.”

Johnson was also concerned about who would be in charge of the casino. Though the Mohawk gaming commission is supposed to be community owned and operated, Johnson said the board members are appointed by the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK).

He didn’t believe the possibility of dividends would bring enough people onside, and he was right. Leading up to the vote, the MCK said the amount of dividends would be worked out if and when the casino was built and earning a profit. But many seemed to believe $1,000 a year was a pretty good estimate. That worked out to a little more than $50 a month, Johnson said.

“For those who really need money – and we have some poverty here – it won’t help them that much. No one will get rich on that, it’s a token gesture.”

But Kenneth Deer, the publisher and editor of the Eastern Door newspaper, believed the prospect of dividends would make the difference between a majority No-vote in 1994 and 2003, and a Yes vote on Saturday.

“I think the big issue is dividends,” he said before the results were in, calculating that $1,000 per year for everyone over 18 would amount to $5 million extra in the community. “People have said they weren’t in favour but now that they will get a dividend they’re changing their minds. It’s an outright bribe and that has an affect.”

Deer said the vote was also skewed in favour of the casino because the MCK spent community funds on their Yes campaign, but provided nothing for the No campaign to run ads or produce flyers.

Delisle has said most of the profits from the casino, estimated at $50 million per year, would go into services for residents, to make up for federal health and education cutbacks. And “the revenue will be the springboard Kahnawà:ke needs to continue to establish the institutions of our proud community and to develop other economic, cultural and social opportunities that we strive for as an independent community.”

Johnson, however, said the casino would have been just a quick fix.

“It’s a lot of money and it’s very tempting. But it’s short-sighted. It’s real easy to open a casino because everyone’s doing it. But we don’t need revenue, we need jobs. Something we can build on.”

Contact the author Catherine Solyom and read more about this at the Montreal Gazette