Many residents of Kahnawake, the large Mohawk community south of Montreal, are hoping for a slightly different New Year’s Eve celebration: one free of bullets whizzing overhead.
Celebratory gunfire to ring in the New Year is a tradition on the reserve, but after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, a major campaign is under way to stamp it out.
“It’s been more amplified this year because of the shootings in the south,” said Kellyann Meloche, the director of the Mohawk Council’s community protection unit.
What goes up must come down; an errant projectile can injure or even kill. As part of its attempt to end the tradition, the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake recently highlighted cases in which bullets penetrated the walls of houses on the reserve, and one “instance when a bullet was found next to a baby’s crib.”
“It’s an obvious hazard. It’s a safety issue,” said Ms. Meloche, noting concerns have been growing along with the number of high-powered firearms.
Every year Kahnawake residents ask for an end to the custom, one that’s also been tradition in many U.S. cities, and in at least one other Canadian locale: Wagmatcook First Nation, a Nova Scotia community of about 700 on Cape Breton Island. It’s also known to have happened on the Six Nations reserve around Caledonia, Ont.
In rural Canada, thoughtless skyward gunfire happens occasionally, and usually the wide open spaces mean little harm comes of it. Even so, a float plane was struck by a bullet while flying near Yellowknife last spring. Shots fired in the air in Toronto’s entertainment district caused a scare just before the G20 summit in 2010.
Kenneth Deer, a community advocate in Kahnawake and former newspaper publisher, wrote an editorial 20 years ago calling on people to stop the New Year’s practice, which goes back decades. He remembers his father going out to fire off his rifle to celebrate. Mr. Deer says firearms provide easy fireworks for rural people who don’t see much chance of harm.
“I think it’s quite normal in a rural community, but I wish people would buy fireworks instead,” he said, noting Kahnawake’s proximity to Montreal brings the community extra attention.
Shooting in the air to celebrate is a global phenomenon. The practice is part of some Latin American cultures. People in the Middle East and South Asia have killed people firing off rounds to celebrate everything from weddings to a kite festival and an Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire. Power lines and aircraft have been downed by the shots with deadly results.
Sky-shooting also has roots in the U.S. Wild West more than 100 years ago and remains widespread there. Cities with high rates of gun ownership face the combined problem of many firearms and high population density.
In Miami, a campaign entitled “No More Stray Bullets” is under way. Several incidents of stray bullets striking and killing people on New Year’s have been reported in Florida over the years. A six-year-old child of Italian tourists was killed by a bullet in Miami in 2006 and a 12-year-old boy was shot in the head a year ago. A 17-year-old girl was shot in the spine in 2011.
In Birmingham, Ala., this year, more than 100 extra police officers will be on duty Monday night for the fourth year of “Operation Crackdown,” aimed at snuffing out not only illegal gunfire but also fireworks. The city has a gunfire detection system, known as “ShotSpotter,” which last year picked up 693 gunfire incidents and 919 fireworks reports. The ShotSpotter system provides acoustic surveillance in urban areas to pinpoint gunfire for police.
Arrests were reported last year for shooting in the air in Miami, Philadelphia, New Jersey, Arizona and California. In Detroit there is an initiative called “Ring in the New Year With a Bell, Not a Bang.”
Dwayne Zacharie, the Chief Peacekeeper in Kahnawake, says the custom is not tolerated but also not easy to completely eradicate. It’s hard to catch people in the act of shooting in the air, he said.
“It’s a criminal offence. Every year, we try to dissuade people from doing it. It’s a matter of safety and security for the community and for neighbouring communities,” he said. “We’re issuing warnings. We’re trying to get the message out there. People are becoming more aware of it.”
Patrols will be extra vigilant this New Year’s and charges will be laid where warranted, he said.
On Kahnawake, some of the 8,000 residents have heeded the call for change.
Jeffrey Jacobs, 26, decided three years ago – after the birth of his son – that firing rounds into the air wasn’t the smartest thing to do in his increasingly crowded neighbourhood.
“There are more houses than ever around,” he said. “You don’t know where a bullet is going to go. There are kids all around.”
Ironworker Joseph Montour, 57, is worried about the use of high-powered guns: “Some people have high-powered rifles but no brains.”
Michael Delisle has traded his gun for fireworks on New Year’s Eve. “It’s getting out of hand. I used to have my shotgun out, but now we set off fireworks by the water,” he said. “That’s a nicer way to celebrate.”
He’s hoping the no-gunfire message will get through this year. “A lot of neighbours are concerned about it.”
Frank Cormier, a professor of criminology at the University of Manitoba who specializes in aboriginal justice, said hunting remains a key element of life on reserves and the result could well be a greater concentration of guns in those communities.
Mr. Deer says there is also a sense among many residents that being armed is a necessity given the history of conflict with outside police forces, such as the famous blockade at nearby Oka in 1990.
“There was a lot of tension. They wanted to make sure people on the outside knew that we’re not defeated here,” he said. “It’s the idea that we’re not going to be intimidated. It’s not an offensive display, it’s a defensive display.”
As to the New Year’s gunfire custom, Prof. Cormier says, “there is no aboriginal cultural or spiritual tradition here.”