Tensions rise in Oka as mayor speaks of being 'surrounded' by Mohawks

The grand chief of the Mohawk community of Kanesatake, northwest of Montreal, is demanding the mayor of the neighbouring town of Oka apologize for what he's calling "hate-filled" and "racist" remarks over a contentious land transfer proposal.

Local developer plans to gift land to Mohawks of Kanesatake through federal program

Oka Mayor Pascal Quevillon says the village is at risk of disappearing if Kanesatake territory continues to grow. (Matt D'Amours/CBC)

The grand chief of the Mohawk community of Kanesatake, northwest of Montreal, is demanding the mayor of the neighbouring town of Oka apologize for what he's calling "hate-filled" and "racist" remarks over a contentious land transfer proposal.

Oka's municipal council held an information session Wednesday evening to discuss a local developer's intention to gift 60 hectares of land to the Kanesatake Mohawks and sell them another 150 hectares through a federal program.

The village wants to be consulted on Grégoire Gollin's proposed land transfer.

While the gesture was made in the spirit of reconciliation, it has also enflamed tensions between Oka and Kanesatake, 29 years after the armed standoff that began over Oka's plan to turn some of that land in question, known as The Pines, into an expanded golf course.

Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Simon says recent comments by Oka Mayor Pascal Quevillon will not help the two parties reach a compromise.

Speaking with La Presse columnist Isabelle Hachey, Quevillon said that he was concerned that the village would become "surrounded" by Kanesatake territory.

He said the Mohawk land is plagued with illegal dumps, cannabis and cigarette merchants and contaminated water.

"The day that enters the village, it's certain that no one will want to come live in Oka. Our homes will lose value. [Mohawks] will buy them at a discount," he told La Presse.

He said that if that day comes, there may be another Oka Crisis — but this time it would be the people of Oka rising up against the Mohawks.

Speaking on Radio-Canada's Le 15-18, the mayor repeated his criticisms and said that Simon did not have control over the people of Kanesatake.

He said what citizens of Oka see does not match the picture that Simon paints of the community.

Members of the Mohawk community sing outside the church where the Oka municipal council information session took place. (Radio-Canada)

Mayor says he wants to avoid another Oka Crisis

Members of the Mohawk community drummed and sang outside the church where the meeting was held, and others, including longtime activist and artist Ellen Gabriel, sat inside and listened.

Quevillon told the audience he wants to meet federal and provincial representatives right away, and that he, too, wants to avoid another Oka Crisis.

In a show of displeasure, three Oka councillors walked offstage during the meeting, saying they don't agree with Quevillon's rhetoric.

Before the meeting, Simon said the mayor was spreading hatred by saying properties will lose value if more Mohawks move in and that the community has no intention of erasing Oka from the map.

Simon said development projects would benefit everyone, but as the rhetoric escalates, potential investors will be scared off.

And now, he says, he's concerned about the safety of his people.

"What if a mob shows up there tonight and decides that they're going to take it out on them?" he told reporters, pointing to a nearby home where Mohawk elders live.

Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Simon says the mayor's recent comments are 'hate-filled' and racist. (Matt D'Amours/CBC)

He said some people are considering making a criminal complaint against Quevillon, describing his recent comments as hate crimes.

"What he's doing here could have an impact across the country," Simon said.

At a public band council meeting earlier Tuesday, Simon shared the memorandum of understanding signed between the council and Gollin, whose wooded tract includes part of the Pines — the land at the heart of the dispute in the Mohawks' unresolved centuries-old land claim.

In 2017, Mohawks protested against the clearing of land at the edge of The Pines for Gollin's Domaine des Collines d'Oka housing development.

Gollin has since said he would freeze land sales, preferring to transfer the land to the Mohawks.

"As a citizen, I don't have to wait for the government to do my contribution to reconciliation," Gollin said.

'We are not the thieves'

Simon said the agreement for the 60-hectare land transfer is not legally binding and that he would consult the people of Kanesatake before any deal is made, through Environment and Climate Change Canada's Ecological Gifts Program.

The additional 150 hectares of land that Gollin wants to sell to the federal government could be purchased with settlement money being negotiated between Kanesatake and the federal government, Simon said.

The Oka Church was packed with people on both sides of the debate when Oka Mayor Pascal Quevillon took the stage Wednesday evening. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

However, Quevillon said that if that settlement money is paid out, the town of Oka, population 4,000, isn't big enough to survive.

"We are not the thieves," he said after the meeting. "For 300 years, you have allowed residents of Oka to live here."

"We are not being listened to, it's as if we don't exist."

At the heart of that dispute was Kanesatake's still-unresolved land claim, which includes the municipality of Oka and much of the surrounding land.

With files from Matt D'Amours and Radio-Canada