MONTREAL - Christopher Fragnito grew up in Chateauguay, Que. — just outside the Kahnawake Mohawk territory his mother used to call home.
Immediately following her marriage to an Italian man about 40 years ago, it was made clear mixed-race couples were not welcome on the reserve, located across the St. Lawrence River from Montreal, he said.
"She wasn't forced to leave but it was clear she was supposed to leave," said Fragnito, 45.
Now, he and his mother, Brenda Dearhouse-Fragnito, are two of the 16 plaintiffs challenging a membership policy that prevents non-Indigenous people from living in Kahnawake.
The case, which opened in Quebec Superior Court this week, concerns a rule commonly referred to as "marry out, move out," which states that anyone who marries a non-Indigenous person must leave the territory.
Fragnito and the other plaintiffs argue the rules are discriminatory and have created a hostile atmosphere that makes it difficult to live in the community.
They're seeking a declaration that community members can live on the reserve with their spouses. They are also asking for financial compensation.
Julius Grey, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, said the policy was never properly adopted into law and violates his clients' Charter rights.
"It's clear that it's illegal to discriminate based on family relationships," he said in a phone interview.
He said while Indigenous band councils have the right to set rules in their communities, those rules cannot ignore basic rights.
The proceedings were originally scheduled to last until Dec. 13., although Grey said they may finish by the end of next week.
Fragnito blames the band council for creating "an atmosphere of hate" that makes it difficult for families of mixed backgrounds to live peacefully on the reserve.
He alleges some families who have stayed in Kahnawake have had their homes vandalized and have been threatened by angry mobs picketing outside.
Fragnito said while only a small number of people cause trouble, the band council has done nothing to stop it.
"(The council members) are meant to not only give us access to our homes and our services and our rights, but they are meant to protect us, and they've created an atmosphere where that does not happen," he said.
A spokesman for the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake denies claims the atmosphere on the territory is hostile.
"It's a very calm place, this is not flaring up every day — but there is a law," Joe Delaronde said.
He said the rules were officially adopted in 1984, although a moratorium on mixed marriages existed before that.
Delaronde said although people have been sent notices asking them to leave, nobody has been forcibly removed and the council has always urged residents to express their concerns respectfully.
Most members of the community support the rules, he said, which were adopted in order to protect Mohawk identity.
"In this very little land we have, we're surrounded by every kind of Canadian, American, Quebec culture and it can be overwhelming," he said.
"We've almost lost our language, we've lost a lot of the ceremonies that are now coming back, and this is part of the community's effort to maintain identity."