Tension brews in Oka after developer says disputed land to be returned to Kanesatake

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WATCH: There is a fight brewing in Oka over land being returned to the Kanesatake Mohawks. As Global's Gloria Henriquez explains, the mayor of Oka's comments have sparked outrage – Jul 18, 2019

Tension is brewing in Oka, Que., after it was announced that a piece of land central to the 1990 Oka Crisis will be returned to Kanesatake, a Mohawk First Nation located just north of the village.

Both Oka and Kanesatake held meetings Wednesday night after Oka Mayor Pascal Quevillon spoke to the media. Quevillon says the move is bad news for Oka and its residents, arguing that the land transfer will ensure the village disappears and is swallowed by Kanesatake.

“We are going to have pot shacks at the entrance of Oka, pot shacks at the exit. Who’s going to want to come and live in Oka?” the mayor said.

READ MORE: Mohawks remember Oka Crisis 25 years on

The meetings come one week after Quebec developer Grégoire Gollin announced his plan to return a parcel of the pine forest to Kanesatake.

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Citing the spirit of reconciliation, Gollin said the agreement was reached in June to cede 60 hectares of the forest known as The Pines to the local council as an ecological gift through a federal program.

“This is my contribution to reconciliation,” he said last week.

Quevillon said on Wednesday that the purpose of his information session was to demand the federal government hold public consultations on the transfer of land.

“We are caught between a rock and a hard place,” he said. “We want to feel at home, free and respected.”

READ MORE: Kanesatake Mohawks protest construction on ‘ancestral land’ in Oka

While many of the hundreds of residents at the Oka meeting cheered the mayor on, others condemned his comments, including Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Simon.

“It’s a little racist because the Mohawks have been enclaved for about 150 years, and they didn’t have a problem with that,” Simon said. “He’s assuming the worst of us and that’s what worries me.”

As the debate continues over the land transfer, it brings back painful memories. After three decades, the territory remains disputed, and development has continued.

The parcel is part of the land central to the Oka Crisis, which took place 29 years ago. At the heart of the dispute was Oka’s proposed expansion of a golf course into the forest.

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As tensions started to rise, gunfire erupted between provincial police and Indigenous people defending a small stand of pine trees. A police officer was killed in the crossfire on July 11, 1990, sparking a 78-day showdown.

In the end, a deal was struck to bring down the barricades in exchange for cancelling the expansion of the golf course.

READ MORE: Quebec developer offers disputed Oka land to Kanesatake Mohawks as ecological gift

It’s a traumatic experience that many fear could be replicated if the tension between Oka and Kanesatake continues.

“We don’t want a second Oka Crisis,” Quevillon said. “If there is a second Oka Crisis, it won’t come from Kanesatake because currently, it’s the rights of Oka residents that are not being respected.”

Simon, for his part, hopes the mayor of Oka reconsiders.

“I’m hoping the mayor does realize that what he said was a mistake,” Simon said.

“Just takes a step back, take a deep breath before you take the next step because that next step is going to be a really, really bad one.”

The grand chief says he wants Quevillon to apologize and take his comments back. He says his council is looking into taking legal action against the mayor.

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In spite of it all, both Simon and Quevillon agree on one thing: both parties say they want to find a harmonious solution to the debate.

—With files from the Canadian Press