Mohawk grand chief and Oka mayor shake hands after weeks of tension in land dispute

QUEBEC — Following weeks of tension over a land dispute, a Mohawk grand chief and the mayor of Oka, Que., shook hands Friday and agreed to put their differences behind them.

Since July, Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Simon had been demanding an apology from Mayor Pascal Quevillon of neighbouring Oka for derogatory comments he made about the First Nations territory west of Montreal.

Quevillon had raised concerns about declining property values and becoming encircled by the Indigenous community after a local developer offered to donate disputed land to the Mohawks.

The federal government stepped in and held separate meetings with both sides in late July. But following the meetings Quevillon wouldn’t budge on an apology, causing Simon to say he had cut off all communication with the mayor.

On Friday the two men were side-by-side at a summit between First Nations leaders and mayors taking place on the territory of the Huron-Wendat nation, north of Quebec City.

“Mr. Quevillon showed a lot of courage today in taking the first step that he took,” Simon told reporters, suggesting the mayor had apologized during private talks.

The grand chief said other First Nations leaders at the summit, including Wendake Grand Chief Konrad Sioui, played a role in bringing the two sides together.

An emotional Quevillon said simply, “It’s time to turn the page and look ahead … for the good of our communities.” When asked by reporters what had made him change his mind, Quevillon declined to respond, saying only, “thank you.”

Sioui quickly jumped in and said “reconciliation,” to which Quevillon added, “We are here for reconciliation, and that’s what we did today.”

The Mohawks of Kanesatake have land claims on territory in and around the town of Oka going back hundreds of years. As a gesture of reconciliation, a local developer recently offered to donate 60 hectares he owned known as The Pines to the Mohawk community, through the federal government’s Ecological Gifts Program.

Developer Gregoire Gollin told The Canadian Press in July he was also willing to make another 150 hectares of undeveloped land available to the Mohawk community.

The news frustrated Quevillon and his town councillors, who believed they deserved to have a say in any future transfer of disputed land.

The mayor told Montreal La Presse in mid-July that Gollin owned 95 per cent of the available land for development in Oka. If the territory goes to the Mohawks, Quevillon said, his town would 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.”

Simon had called Quevillon’s comments “racist” and said he wouldn’t speak to the mayor again without an apology.

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