Though the 78-day armed standoff, known as the Oka Crisis, ended 29 years ago, tensions between the Mohawk community of Kanesatake and the neighbouring municipality of Oka have been stoked by, of all things, a reconciliatory gift.
The Oka Crisis began in the summer of 1990 when the town of Oka planned an expansion of a golf course into the Pines.
The Pines is home to a Mohawk burial ground and one of the oldest hand-planted pine stands in North America.
The Kanesatake Mohawk had disputed the ownership of the Pines for hundreds of years prior to the crisis, arguing that their Aboriginal title to the lands had never been extinguished.
Despite this, then mayor of Oka Jean Ouellette announced the expansion would go forward. In response, some Mohawk community members erected blockades, restricting access to the contested lands.
On July 11, 1990, Ouellette asked the Sûreté du Québec (SQ) to intervene. An SQ SWAT team was sent to take down the barricades and a gun battle ensued killing 31-year-old SQ Corporal Marcel Lemay.
An armed standoff between the Mohawks of Kanasetake, the SQ, the RCMP and the Canadian Army would continue until September 26, 1990.
In the end, the golf course expansion was cancelled and the federal government purchased the land from the developers for $5.3 million.
In 2017, Quebec land developer Grégoire Gollin acquired large tracts of land in the Pines and began planning a housing development. It was strongly opposed by Kanasetake residents and nixed by Gollin before it even started.
On July 11, 2019, the 29th anniversary of the start of the crisis, Gollin announced he would be returning a part of the Pines (around 60 hectares) to the community of Kanasetake as an act of reconciliation.
The land transfer will be done through a federal ecological gifts program that gives landowners who donate land a tax credit.
A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed in June between Gollin and Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Simon to work towards transferring the 60-hectare ecological gift as well as a possible additional donation of 150 hectares in the surrounding area owned by Gollin.
“His heart is in the right place,” said Grand Chief Simon of Gollin’s intentions. “He sees what has happened here and wants to do the right thing.”
Following the announcement, current Oka mayor Pascal Quevillon stated in an interview with La Presse that if the land transfer were to go through, there may be another Oka Crisis – however, this time it would be the residents of Oka rising up against the Mohawks.
Quevillon went on to say that he feared if his community became “surrounded” by Mohawks, property values in Oka would plummet. To which Simon asked, “Would he say this about any other group of people?”
While Simon was quick to characterize Quevillon’s comments as careless, incendiary and racist, he believes they are not reflective of the community of Oka.
“There are a lot of good people I know personally in Oka,” Simon told the Nation. “Quevillon isn’t representing the voice of his people in these comments he’s making.”
Since Quevillon’s comments went public, Simon and his band council have had to deal with the fallout. Simon went so far as to say that Kanasetake is considering pursuing civil charges against the Oka mayor.
“I’ve been dealing with this for over a week, and so has my council,” said Simon. “It’s exhausting… The mayor back in 1990 had no precedent for what could happen. This mayor knows what happened here and he’s pushing for a conflict with a visible minority.”