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Quebec tries to ease tensions in Kanesatake land dispute

cbc.ca logo cbc.ca 2019-07-18 Colin Harris

The grand chief of Kanesatake and the mayor of Oka are not on speaking terms right now, as tempers flare over unresolved land issues in the neighbouring communities northwest of Montreal. But Quebec's Indigenous affairs minister is hopeful that won't last.

Speaking on Radio-Canada's RDI Matin Thursday morning, the minister, Sylvie D'Amours, sought to reassure Oka Mayor Pascal Quevillon that he "can count on us" to ensure that the town will have a seat at the table, along with the Kanesatake Mohawks and the federal government, as they try to sort those issues out.

With Kanesatake expected to receive settlement money from Ottawa over its longstanding land claim and a local developer ready to transfer part of the contested area known as the Pines to the Mohawks, the mayor recently raised concerns that his town risked becoming "surrounded" by Mohawk territory.

He said he fears that could lead to another Oka Crisis — this time with the residents of Oka rising up in protest.

D'Amours wrote on Twitter that she does not endorse the mayor's comments.

At a public information session in Oka Wednesday evening, Quevillon backed off those comments, saying he wanted to avoid another Oka Crisis. D'Amours said she took that as a positive sign.

Chief wants apology

Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Simon said that if he and Quevillon are to sit down together, he wants the mayor to say he's sorry for his comment about property values plummeting if Oka becomes "surrounded" by Mohawks.

"He wants to have a high-level meeting. Fine, I'll give him one. But he's going to have to apologize first," Simon told CBC News.

He says he'll meet with Quevillon if D'Amours, Montreal MP Marc Miller and Ghislain Picard, the regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations for Quebec, are present.

a person smiling for the camera: Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Simon says that he wants an apology from the mayor of Oka if the two are going to meet. © Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Simon says that he wants an apology from the mayor of Oka if the two are going to meet.

Asked about the disagreement while in Montreal attending the Canada-European Union Summit, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Quevillon's comments "lacked the necessary respect and understanding that is key to true reconciliation."

He said the only way forward is respectful, constructive dialogue on all sides

Quebec Liberal Party MNA David Birnbaum wrote on Facebook that he has spoken with Quevillon, Simon and representatives from the federal government to "promote such a dialogue."

Mohawk artist and activist Ellen Gabriel told CBC Quebec's Breakaway that the mayor is "trying to scare the citizens of Oka" with his rhetoric about their Mohawk neighbours.

She says he should resign, though she doesn't think that will happen.

"It's really the government of Canada that [is] the guilty party," she said, along with the Seminary of St-Sulpice — the order of Roman Catholic priests that was originally granted the vast tract of land on Lake of Two Mountains by Louis XV of France in the 18th century. Over more than two centuries, the Sulpicians sold off what was to be held in trust for the Indigenous inhabitants to white settlers.

Gabriel also wants the Kanesatake Mohawk council to seek the input of the community's residents as talks with the local developer, Grégoire Gollin, continue.

Checkpoint on Highway 344

However, it appears some in Kanesatake are taking things into their own hands.

Simon told CBC News that he's getting reports that a small group of Mohawks have set up an impromptu checkpoint on Highway 344. 

"They're checking cars coming in, basically intimidating people," the chief said.

Simon said the group does not have the support of the majority of Kanesatake, and that, for now, he doesn't think things will escalate further.

"I think most people are going to be against this: they're sick and tired of people doing stuff like this around here," he said, referring to the blockade.

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