Mohawk Council of Kanesatake takes Oka to court over The Pines

A new municipal bylaw turned The Pines, the land that was at the heart of the Oka Crisis, into a heritage site. Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Otsi Simon says it places the authority of the municipality above the Mohawk government.

Kanesatake grand chief says a bylaw passed in Oka places authority of the municipality above Mohawk government

The municipality of Oka has passed a bylaw to turn The Pines, land sacred to the Mohawks of Kanesatake, into a heritage site — a move that has upset the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

The Mohawk Council of Kanesatake is taking the municipality of Oka to court over what it calls an "illegal" bylaw concerning the land that was at the heart of the Oka Crisis.

In December, Oka passed a bylaw designating seven lots of forested land that are part of The Pines as a heritage site "in order to ensure its conservation and its development in the public interest."

The bylaw states anyone who cuts down a tree, constructs a building or divides a lot, for example, without giving the municipality 45 days' notice is committing an infraction.

The Mohawk council is arguing the regulation was adopted in bad faith and without consultation, which is required by the Constitution. Grand Chief Serge Otsi Simon says it places the authority of the municipality above the Mohawk government.

"Oka does not have any authority over us. Those lands are ours. Always have been," he said.

"It was just our ancestors' tolerance, I think, that allowed this to happen. We've been way too tolerant over the centuries, but now, no more."

Lawyers for the Mohawk council filed an application for judicial review in Quebec Superior Court last week. They are asking for the courts to quash the bylaw and prevent the municipality of Oka from taking any further actions to limit or inhibit the transfer of The Pines to Mohawk control.

The filing also names the provincial government, the federal government and developer Grégoire Gollin, who has owned a section of The Pines for a number of years

The Pines is part of a 300-year-old land dispute over the seigneury of Lake of Two Mountains — a vast tract of land covering 400 square kilometres that includes prime agricultural farmland and the airport at Mirabel, Que. The land claim remains unsettled.

In 1990, the municipality of Oka planned to expand a golf course on that land, sparking the 78-day standoff known as the Oka Crisis. 

Goal of bylaw is to protect land, Oka mayor says

Oka Mayor Pascal Quevillon said the intention behind the bylaw is to protect the land, a goal both he and Simon agreed to in 2015, the 25th anniversary of the conflict.

"On the one hand, the Mohawk council doesn't want us to cut down trees in The Pines, on the other hand, they don't want us to protect it. It's a bit surprising."

He said it's up to the federal government to manage land claims, and that over the last 30 years, people from Kanesatake have cut down trees more in the forest than the municipality has.

Quevillon and Simon have clashed in the years since 2015, when they acknowledged the need to ensure history didn't repeat itself.

Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Simon and Oka Mayor Pascal Quevillon shake hands at the 25th anniversary of the Oka crisis. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

In 2019, Gollin offered to give back around 60 hectares of The Pines to the Mohawks of Kanesatake in the spirit of reconciliation, through a federal ecological gifts program.

At the time, Quevillon said he was concerned that Oka would become "surrounded" by Kanesatake territory if the plan were to come to fruition, and that Mohawk land is plagued by illegal dumps, cannabis and cigarette merchants and contaminated water.

Quevillon's comments sparked tensions between the two communities that summer. He eventually apologized.

with files from Lauren McCallum