MONTREAL — Kanesatake’s grand chief said Monday that his people are not heading towards a second Oka crisis, despite tensions over a land dispute and a highly publicized war of words with the mayor of the nearby Quebec town.
In an open letter published online, Serge Simon said the current dispute over a developer’s intention to donate a parcel of land to the Mohawk community will not lead to a repeat of the 78-day confrontation that shook the region in 1990.
“I want to be clear: as far as I am concerned, there is no ‘Oka Crisis 2.0’ coming our way,” he wrote.
Simon wrote that many things have changed since 1990, including a Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the establishment of negotiations with the federal government.
But he said that doesn’t excuse the failure of governments to settle the questions surrounding the status of Kanesatake’s territory, “which should have been solved long ago,” nor recent inflammatory comments from Oka Mayor Pascal Quevillon.
The recent conflict began when news broke of local developer Gregoire Gollin’s intention to donate the 60 hectares known as The Pines to the Kanesatake Mohawk Council. Gollin said he was also prepared to discuss the sale of an additional 150 hectares he owns in Oka to the federal government to transfer to the Mohawk community.
Quevillon, whose community borders the Mohawk territory, angered many when he raised concerns that the land donation would lead to his community being encircled by Kanesatake. The mayor voiced fears of illegal dumping, lowered property values and an expansion of cannabis and cigarette merchants.
Last Friday, Simon and Quevillon met separately with representatives from the federal and provincial governments in an attempt to resolve the tensions, but they did not speak to each other.
On Monday, Simon said the mayor’s words are an example of a widespread lack of knowledge about Indigenous history, realities and rights. He also hailed his people’s courage in fighting for their territorial rights, and against discrimination.
In his letter, he called on Quevillon to stop using what he called colonial and racist language and to work towards harmonious cohabitation rather than division.
“The events of 1990 were particularly traumatizing and have left deep wounds,” he wrote.
“Rather than opening up those wounds, the mayor should turn to the future and understand that the interest of his community is in social peace, not confrontation.”
Quevillon declined to comment on Monday, saying he was on vacation. Last week, he expressed regret for how he worded some of his comments but maintained that what he’d said was the truth.
But in Oka, several citizens who spoke with The Canadian Press over the weekend appeared to side with Simon.
Paul Marinier, a retired truck driver, said he was much more troubled by Quevillon’s comments than by the prospect of a second Oka crisis.
“The grand chief is asking for an apology and I’m completely in agreement with him,” the 68-year-old said. “(Quevillon) should apologize.”
He suggested the mayor should focus on solving the problem of drug sales in his own town before pointing the finger at Mohawk pot or cigarette shops.
Tyler Francis, a Mohawk ironworker who has homes in both Oka and Kanesatake, said there’s generally no bad blood between the two communities, and he accused the mayor of deliberately stoking division.
“It’s like the mayor is trying to start something in the hopes that people will follow him,” the 33-year-old said. Francis added that the territory at stake in the proposed land deal is unlikely to lead to a proliferation of new cigarette stores.
“The land we’re talking about, it’s in the woods,” he said.
A third citizen, Michel Tapp, agreed that the two communities get along well. He also dismissed the mayor’s concern over property values.
“People got scared during the crisis, but everyone stayed anyways,” Tapp said. “People didn’t lose their homes, and the values have continued to rise.”