Land at centre of Oka cri­sis sur­ren­dered, 29 years later


National Post (National Edition) - - Front Page - Na­tional Post,

In 1989, the mayor of Oka, Que., an­nounced plans to build 60 con­do­mini­ums and ex­pand a golf course from nine to 18 holes. The next sum­mer pro­test­ers dragged a fish­ing hut onto the pro­posed ex­pan­sion site and erected a ban­ner, reading, “Do you know that this is Mo­hawk land?”

Soon, Mo­hawks from On­tario and New York knew it; pro­test­ers on Par­lia­ment Hill knew it, and Canada was rat­tled by block­ades, hunger strikes and, in Oka, gun­fire.

It has been 29 years since the Oka Cri­sis, the 78-day con­flict be­tween defenders of the piece of land and pro­vin­cial po­lice and the Cana­dian Army, which re­sulted in the death of po­lice of­fi­cer Cpl. Mar­cel Le­may.

Then Premier Robert Bourassa called in the army and there were tense face-to-face con­fronta­tions be­tween na­tives and sol­diers.

They even­tu­ally reached a deal to end the bar­ri­cade and can­cel the ex­pan­sion of the golf course. Still, the 60 hectares of treed land known as the Pines were not re­turned to the lo­cal coun­cil, the Mo­hawk Coun­cil of Kane­sa­take.

Although Ot­tawa con­firmed the sta­tus of the land as Mo­hawk with what’s called the Kane­sa­take In­terim Land Base Gov­er­nance Act, there was no or­ga­nized han­dover. In­stead, the com­mu­nity was left with a no-man’s-land — nei­ther na­tive re­serve nor mu­nic­i­pal park.

On Thurs­day, the 29th an­niver­sary of the start of the stand­off, Que­bec de­vel­oper Gre­goire Gollin said he acted in the “spirit of reconcilia­tion” and signed an agree­ment to re­turn the pine for­est to the coun­cil.

“This is my con­tri­bu­tion to reconcilia­tion,” Gollin said in a phone interview Thurs­day. He said the for­est could not be de­vel­oped and has her­itage value for the Mo­hawks. “It was planted by their an­ces­tors,” he said.

Gollin has owned the land for 15 years, and after two years of dis­cus­sions with the lo­cal coun­cil, he said he plans to cede it to the coun­cil as an eco­log­i­cal gift.

He also said he is con­sid­er­ing sell­ing another 150 hectares to the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to trans­fer to the com­mu­nity. Nearly half of the 150 hectares is ad­ja­cent to land owned by Kane­sa­take.

“I gotta give my hat off to Mr. Gollin for try­ing in his own way what is reconcilia­tion,” said Ellen Gabriel, a Mo­hawk activist and artist, but, she said, “there are strings at­tached for this so­called eco­log­i­cal gift.”

Two years ago, Gabriel was part of protests against a res­i­den­tial hous­ing devel­op­ment spear­headed by Gollin, which al­legedly en­croached on sa­cred Kane­sa­take pine for­est.

“We’ve lost more land in the last 29 years than gained,” said Gabriel.

Ac­cord­ing to the eco­log­i­cal gifts pro­gram web­site, own­ers who do­nate the prop­erty get tax ben­e­fits while re­cip­i­ents make sure the bio­di­ver­sity and en­vi­ron­men­tal her­itage of the prop­erty are con­served in per­pe­tu­ity. The pro­gram is sub­ject to an as­sess­ment process.

“I was in po­si­tion to have a di­a­logue with the Mo­hawks of Kane­sa­take and we ac­com­plished an agree­ment,” Gollin said, adding it will now go to Kane­sa­take res­i­dents for con­sul­ta­tion.

Gabriel noted the lo­cal Mo­hawk coun­cil hasn’ t shared de­tails of the land do­na­tion agree­ment with the com­mu­nity.

Calls to the Kane­sa­take Mo­hawk Coun­cil weren’t re­turned on Thurs­day.

Lo­cal news­pa­per The Eastern Door, which first re­ported on the of­fer sev­eral weeks ago, quoted Kane­sa­take Grand Chief Serge Si­mon then as say­ing the mat­ter would be brought to the com­mu­nity once de­tails were fi­nal­ized.

To­day, the vil­lage of Oka is still strug­gling with poverty and bit­ter­ness.

A Mo­hawk War­rior flag flut­ters where the con­flict be­gan. Ev­ery July 11, a hol­i­day in Oka, lo­cals play lacrosse, a game in­vented by na­tives.

But be­yond that show of pride, this is now a vul­gar strip of one-storey wood shacks sell­ing to­bacco prod­ucts smug­gled across the bor­der from fac­to­ries on a Mo­hawk re­serve in up­state New York.

Many non-na­tives have left. Be­tween 1991 and 2007, they sold their houses to the fed­eral gov­ern­ment. But like the land by the orig­i­nal golf course, there has never been a for­mal trans­fer of the prop­er­ties — more than 175 houses — to the Mo­hawks.


Cana­dian sol­dier Patrick Cloutier and Brad Larocque come face to face in this iconic im­age dur­ing a tense stand­off in Oka, Que., on Sept. 1, 1990.

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