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Kanesatake Mohawks blocking access to Oka provincial park as grand chief cites COVID-19 fears

A sign advises non-residents at the entry to the Mohawk territory of Kanasateke to turn around as the community tightens access to the reserve amid the COVID-19 pandemic Monday, April 20, 2020 in Oka, Que. The mayor of Oka, Que., says members of the neighbouring Mohawk community of Kanesatake are blocking access to a provincial park that was supposed to partially reopen today. Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

As Quebec continued to slowly reopen Wednesday following weeks of pandemic-induced shutdowns, members of the Mohawk community of Kanesatake outside Montreal demanded that authorities slow down.

Mohawks were preventing access to Oka provincial park, which was scheduled to partially reopen Wednesday morning, according to Oka Mayor Pascal Quevillon.

He said members of the adjacent First Nations community began blocking access around 8:30 a.m., adding provincial police weren’t doing anything about the blockade.

“I asked Premier François Legault to ask the Sûreté du Québec to intervene,” Quévillon said in an interview.

Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Simon sent a letter earlier in the week to Legault, urging him to keep the park closed until his community is consulted.

Simon’s letter said that “even if all proper precautions are taken, the risks of community spread in our area are too high.”

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He insisted that the park and a ferry to the region remain closed “until we are consulted on any reopening of tourist services that may affect the health of our region.”

READ MORE: Quebec provincial parks partially reopen as province permits some sports to resume

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On Wednesday, Simon told Global News the park attracts around 1,4 million visitors from all regions, including Montreal and other “infected areas.”

“What’s almost always killed of First Nations historically is the virus, it’s not the gun or the sword so we’re asking people to stay away.”

Deputy premier and Public Security Minister Genevieve Guilbault told reporters Wednesday that members of the cabinet were in discussions with Simon and with local public health officials.

“We understand that there are concerns in various places in Quebec, but especially in that area, about the deconfinement,” Guilbault said. “We have to try to see how we can reassure them, and how we can come to a solution,” adding that prohibiting access to the park is not the answer.

Simon defended the use of checkpoints in the community.

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They were first set up in March around the Mohawk territory to keep circulation local.

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“The government knew about our checkpoints,” Simon said. “Our checkpoints were set up to dissuade people from coming into the area and presenting a community spread.”

Simon confirmed talks were underway with the government.

“I’ve spoken to the head of public health here, Dr. Goyer, he’s trying to convince the government to delay the opening of Oka Park for another two, maybe three weeks just to give the Mohawks and Oka a chance to adapt,” Simon said, pleading for more time.

“We just need a little bit more time, and they’re being kind of stubborn about it and we’re very well known for being stubborn ourselves.”

READ MORE: Coronavirus — Kahnawake and Kanesatake ramp up preventive measures

The people in Kanesatake and in the adjacent town of Oka usually live peacefully side-by-side but flare-ups have occurred over the years, often due to land disputes. Simon and Quevillon got into a public spat last summer when a developer wanted to donate land to the Mohawks.

— With files from Global’s Annabelle Olivier

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