July 31, 2019 6:43 pm
Updated: July 31, 2019 6:44 pm

‘I filled a void’: How a developer wants to help settle centuries of grievances in Oka

Mohawk flags are placed at the border of the Kanasatake Mohawk territory and the town of Oka Friday, July 19, 2019 in Oka, Quebec

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press
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Developer Gregoire Gollin thought he had a steal when he purchased 220 hectares of land between the First Nations territory of Kanesatake and the neighbouring village of Oka, in 2004.

The home of the grand chief had been deliberately burned down that winter. Masked men with bats stood outside the police barracks, preventing roughly 60 officers from leaving.

“It was kind of, like, anarchy,” Gollin recalled in a recent interview.

The non-Indigenous family who sold him the land were eager to unload it.

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“I got a price that was very acceptable,” he said, declining to disclose the amount.

READ MORE: Oka mayor’s comments on Kanesatake lacked respect, says Justin Trudeau

But Gollin, who immigrated to Canada from Italy in the 1970s, soon learned that the unrest driving down real estate prices was rooted in historical grievances that would not be resolved overnight.

Local politics have prevented him from developing more than five per cent of the land just north of Montreal since he bought it 15 years ago. And now Gollin wants to give his land up — for a price.

That decision has sparked a new conflict but has also given real hope that the centuries-long land claims of the Mohawk people in Kanesatake can be at least partly settled.

“I am convinced that if everyone acts in good faith there will be a solution,” Gollin said.

“For the first time we can put on the table not just money — but land, because there is no amount of money that can compensate the loss of land.”

When Gollin first bought the 220 hectares, which included part of an area known as The Pines, he entered into discussions with leaders in the First Nations community.

“We reached a verbal agreement,” he said. “‘You can develop,’ they said, ‘but don’t touch the forest. It’s sacred for us.’ And that’s the deal I had.”

READ MORE: ‘The bridges are cut’: Kanesatake Mohawk chief calls off talks with Oka mayor in land dispute

The Pines were at the centre of a stand-off between Mohawk Warriors and the Canadian Armed Forces in 1990 after a developer wanted to extend a golf course into the forest.

Starting in 2006, Gollin began selling off parcels of land for single-family homes. He had sold about 100 lots by 2017, with the last of them adjoining the pine forest.

In order to connect the new development to the electrical grid, a few trees were cleared — setting off protests.

“The Mohawks started to doubt the agreement I had with them,” Gollin said. “That’s when it started.”

One of the protesters, Indigenous activist Ellen Gabriel, said at the time: “We’re not allowing any more development to continue.”

Her comments were prophetic.

Gabriel’s protests sparked another series of talks between Mohawk leaders and Gollin. Most of the discussions were held in secret, and the result of those two years of negotiations was recently leaked to reporters, setting off a new flashpoint between Kanesatake and Oka.

Gollin offered to donate 60 hectares of The Pines through the federal government’s Ecological Gifts Program.

That move would ensure that land is protected in perpetuity from development. If approved by the federal government, Gollin would receive a tax credit he could carry forward for 10 years.

Gollin is also willing to sell the remaining 150 hectares of undeveloped land he owns — at the market price. He said he put the land on the table and is hoping the Mohawks and Ottawa can reach an agreement.

“It’s land I acquired, I kept, paid taxes on — in good faith,” he said. “And I’m letting the government of Canada and the people of Kanesatake discuss it and to come up with a deal.”

WATCH: Tensions on the rise between Oka and Kanesatake over land deal

When news broke about the agreement in principle signed by Gollin and the Kanesatake band council, the mayor of neighbouring Oka said his citizens didn’t want the First Nations territory to expand.

Oka Mayor Pascal Quevillon told Montreal La Presse in mid-July Gollin owned 95 per cent of the available land for development in Oka. If the territory goes to the Mohawks, Quevillon said, his town will be “surrounded” by the First Nations community.

“In Kanesatake territory,” Quevillon told the news organization, “it’s cigarette shacks, pot houses, (illegal) landfills. There is not a stream that is not contaminated … Our homes will lose value, [the Mohawks] will buy them at a discount.”

Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Simon called Quevillon’s words “racist” and cut off all dialogue with the mayor after the latter refused to apologize.

But negotiations between the federal government and Gollin have nothing to do with Quevillon, according to Marc Miller, parliamentary secretary to the federal minister of Crown-Indigenous relations. Miller met with Simon and the Kanesatake band council last Friday in Montreal.

When asked if Quevillon had a seat at the table, Miller responded: “He does not. Nor is he entitled to.”

Kanesatake’s response to Gollin’s offer remains unclear. The offer will most likely be brought to a referendum in the community. A date for a second meeting between Simon, the band council and Ottawa has not been set.

But Gollin said he is optimistic.

“It’s like I filled a void — it’s as if there was a dialogue of the deaf,” he said. “The issue here is to unblock the future for the next generations. To be free from the prison of the past.”

© 2019 The Canadian Press

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