Kanesatake chief calls for Oka park to stay closed to prevent spread of COVID-19

Even though the park is limiting visitors, there will still be thousands of people in "one big COVID stew" every day, says Serge Simon, calling on Quebec to keep the park closed to prevent the coronavirus from spreading to the adjacent Mohawk community.

Park is set to reopen Wednesday along with other Quebec provincial parks

Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Simon says he doesn't want his community near Oka provincial park to be affected by a COVID-19 outbreak brought to the region by a flood of visitors once the park opens. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Oka provincial park is opening on Wednesday, allowing about half the usual daily visitors to explore the hiking trails and shoreline of the Lake of Two Mountains, 60 kilometres northwest of Montreal.

But even though the park is limiting visitors, there will still be thousands of people in "one big COVID stew" every day, says Serge Simon, grand chief of the adjacent Mohawk community of Kanesatake. Simon is calling on Quebec to keep the park closed.

"These people coming from highly infected areas — Montreal, Montérégie, Laval — pose a direct threat to our community if they come here in large numbers," said Simon.

"As a First Nation, 50 per cent of our people have underlying conditions, and we don't do well in pandemics," said Simon. "History has taught us that."

Simon said the province should have waited at least two more weeks before allowing people to visit the park. He wrote Premier François Legault Monday, calling for limited access to the region.

Mohawks have set up checkpoints on Highway 344, which passes through the heart of Kanesatake, to try to stem the number of motorists going through the community. In his letter to Legault, Simon asked for provincial police to help keep tourists away.

City people who say they need a breath of fresh air after two months of confinement should stop thinking about their personal needs, said Simon, and consider the risks of allowing people to visit the park and shop in the Oka region.

A spokesperson for Quebec's public security minister and deputy premier, Geneviève Guilbault, said in an emailed statement the ministry is "closely following the situation."

It said the ministry is in talks with Quebec's Forests, Wildlife and Parks Ministry, the Indigenous affairs secretariat, the Health Ministry and Chief Simon about reopening the park.

SEPAQ says park will open Wednesday as planned

Oka Mayor Pascal Quevillon said he supports opening the park, as it will be good for the local economy, 

There are currently no plans to delay the park's reopening, said Simon Boivin, a spokesperson for SEPAQ, the government agency that runs Quebec's provincial park network.

Provincial parks are opening in gradual and partial way, said Boivin, allowing for fishing, hiking and biking — activities that can be enjoyed without violating the public health guidelines.

The beaches and wooded trails of Oka provincial park usually attract about 800,000 visitors a year. (Vincent Champagne/Radio-Canada)

Parks will not be opening washrooms or other buildings, campgrounds or equipment-rental facilities, he said. Visitors can purchase a day pass online and explore the park without ever coming into contact with SEPAQ staff.

Public health authorities may allow SEPAQ to broaden its services this summer, Boivin said, but the first step will be to monitor how this partial opening goes.

"We really rely on people's sense of responsibility," he said.

Boivin said the "communication channels" remain open with the Kanesatake Mohawk Council, and SEPAQ officials are aware of Simon's concern.

"If the government gives us any new directives, we will act accordingly," Boivin said.

With files from Matt D'Amours and Radio-Canada

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