Quebec Premier François Legault will not be issuing an apology to community members in Kahnawake as criticism mounts after he claimed there are dangerous rifles in the area.
“The premier will not apologize,” said Nadia Talbot, a spokesperson for Legault, in a statement. “It’s a very delicate subject, but the premier made a point of informing Quebecers. The truth has its rights.”
The move comes after residents demanded Legault apologize for his remarks. Kenneth Deer, secretary of the Mohawk Nation in Kahnawake, said on Thursday there is growing solidarity among people on the territory in the wake of Legault’s comments.
“Legault’s statement yesterday was really galvanizing to this community,” he said. “I mean we were together already but the tensions are higher and people are more energetic.”
The premier told reporters on Wednesday that he had “good sources” who informed the provincial government that there are “very dangerous guns” such as AK-47s in Kahnawake.
Legault alleged that provincial police are being cautious in dismantling the blockade for that reason, after Canadian Pacific Rail obtained an injunction to clear railways across Quebec.
The railway blockade, which began on Feb. 10, has obstructed commuter and freight traffic through the Mohawk territory located south of Montreal. The protest is in solidarity with hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en Nation in British Columbia who oppose the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline through their territory.
Deer said that Legault should apologize for his choice of words and his characterization of Mohawks during what many have described as a peaceful protest.
“I think that he tried to paint us as being violent and armed,” said Deer. “And we are not.”
Kyle Zachary, a constable with the Kahnawake Peacekeepers, said there is disappointment in the community over Legault’s allegations. He went on to describe his remarks as “ludicrous.”
“The comments — not only are they only incorrect — they are dangerous, they are misleading,” he said.
“They could lead to more people getting hurt.”
The claims have also sparked a series of statements from First Nations leaders in Quebec, who feel the province isn’t portraying them fairly.
The Mohawk Council of Kahnawake called Legault’s comments “reckless” and said the premier “needs to be far more careful in his choice of words” in a statement on Wednesday.
The Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador also took Legault to task and said the province is using a “confrontational and oppressive approach” in dealing with the blockades.
“François Legault’s irresponsible and cavalier attitude compromises the chances of a resolution with the First Nations and even represents a real risk for social peace,” the assembly wrote in a statement.
‘We want a peaceful resolution’
The Quebec government, however, is standing by Legault’s statements in spite of criticism from Indigenous leaders and Mohawk community members.
Ian Lafrenière, parliamentary assistant to the minister of public security, told Global News that Legault “never mentioned that people were armed at the barricade” but that “they could have access to guns.”
Lafrenière said Quebecers have been asking why the Sûreté du Québec hasn’t been enforcing the injunction.
“We fear that it could escalate and why that is and the answer, quite frankly, is we know from intelligence that some people have access to guns,” he said.
The province isn’t looking for a confrontation with the community of Kahnawake, he added.
“We want a peaceful resolution,” he said.
Federal politicians call for calm
Joël Lightbound, parliamentary secretary to Canada’s minister of public safety, was among those who called for calm and dialogue on Thursday morning in Ottawa.
“I will not comment on the specific declaration of Mr. Legault but I think that it is necessary to appeal to the whole political class, whatever the level of government, to calm down,” he said.
Federal Public Security Minister Bill Blair, for his part, said he has great respect for Legault and wouldn’t offer opinions on his remarks, but said he wants the blockade to be resolved peacefully.
“I don’t have the information the premier may apparently have and I have not been advised that is a concern,” he said. “But safety of the officers and safety of the public is always the first and most important priority of law enforcement officials.
“And I have confidence in them to do the job.”
— With files from Global News’ Dan Spector, Mike Armstrong and the Canadian Press