Kanien'kehá:ka activist highlights loss of land with 'tongue-in-cheek' tourism signs

Ellen Gabriel, an activist and artist in Kanesatake, is photographing different places around Oka, Que. to highlight the extent of land dispossession the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) community northwest of Montreal has experienced.

‘It’s not just land dispossession, it’s a rupture in our relationship with the land,’ says Ellen Gabriel

Ellen Gabriel has been using this sign to highlight the amount of land Kanesatake has lost. (Submitted by Ellen Gabriel)

Oka National Park, a housing development, an industrial farm, and even a golf club.

These are just some of the places that Ellen Gabriel, an activist and artist in Kanesatake, Que., has photographed to highlight the extent of land dispossession the Kanien'kehá:ka (Mohawk) community northwest of Montreal has experienced.

"I'm an artist. It's tongue-and-cheek, but with every tongue-and-cheek there is that little bit of reality that is serious," said Gabriel. 

For the last month, Ellen Gabriel has been travelling in and around Kanesatake, Que., with this sign to show how much land the Kanien’kehá:ka community has lost over the last 300 plus years. (Submitted by Ellen Gabriel)

The Kanien'kehá:ka of Kanesatake once occupied 689 square kilometres of land in the region. Today they have 12 square kilometres with some parcels of land returned in piecemeal.

Each photo Gabriel has taken has a sign that reads "Kanehsatà:ke Tourism Office" with a painting of the Kaswentha or Two Row Wampum that represents an agreement of peace and mutual respect with settlers.

She says it's about educating the thousands of tourists who flock to Oka, Que., about the area's history, connection to the Kanien'kehá:ka, and to visualize how much land has been lost.

"We are the living tourist attraction. This is who we are as people of the land," said Gabriel.

"This is what tourism does — you're highlighting the best parts of your town, you're educating people about your town and this is a different spin on that. You're coming here, this is your playground, this is what it means to us."

Oka provincial park, for example, is a part of the community's traditional homelands known as Kanehtàke and is a place where Gabriel's ancestors picked traditional medicines. She's asking people to boycott the park and put pressure on the government to sit down with Kanesatake's traditional government.

One of the entrances to Oka provincial park. (Submitted by Ellen Gabriel)

Société des établissements de plein air du Québec, which manages the park, said it consults and informs the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake of various issues and is sensitive to the concerns of the community, and that a seat is offered and reserved for a community representative at a committee that informs and consults the park's regional stakeholders.

Community member Jeremy Teiawenniserate Tomlinson said he'd like to see the park returned to the community.

"I feel that this would be a really solid gesture of good faith toward our people," he said.

"A planned gradual transition would be a perfect opportunity to reconnect our community and people to land stewardship. A great opportunity for our youth and for economic development."

The Mohawk Council of Kanesatake has been in negotiations with the federal government over a portion of the Seigneury of Lake of Two Mountains since 2008. Gabriel has said it is an inadequate process to deal with the longstanding issues. Under traditional governance, women hold title to the land.

"As rights holders, we should be the ones consulted," said Gabriel.

Opposition to ongoing housing development

It's a situation developer Grégoire Gollin feels he is caught in the middle of.

"There are two positions. There is not one who is wrong. Both positions are valid," he said.

"For me, I understand and share the frustrations of the traditionalists. On the other hand, with the band council, I also share their rationale. It is a vision of the future and a vision of what is the path to achieve self-determination. What is their vision of reconciliation? I share this vision, too."

Gabriel and other community members have opposed his Domaine des Collines d'Oka housing development since 2017.

Last year, he offered to transfer around 60 hectares of his land in the Pines as an ecological gift and signed a declaration of mutual understanding and agreement with the Mohawk Council, to the dismay of some community members.

Ellen Gabriel, far left, listens to Oka Mayor Pascal Quevillon during a 2017 protest at the site of the Collines D'Oka housing development. (Matt D'Amours/CBC)

Onen'tókon, or the Pines, is forested area that was at the heart of what became known as the Oka Crisis.

Despite sending a lawyer letter to Gollin, construction continues, says Gabriel, with seven homes built just this year. She's brought the mobile tourism office to the site as a part of the recent awareness campaign.

"When we see settlers taking more land, it's not just land dispossession, it's a rupture in our relationship with the land," said Gabriel.

Gollin said he just develops the land, doesn't build the houses, and most of the lots have already been sold.

He said his land donation was recently accepted through a new federal conservation program.

A spokesperson for Environment and Climate Change Canada said the conservation project started last year as a two-year initiative under the Canada Nature Fund's Target 1 Challenge to support the creation of a new "Indigenous Protected and Conservation Area" of 59 hectares of the Pines.


Ka’nhehsí:io Deer is a Kanien’kehá:ka journalist from Kahnawà:ke, Que. She is currently a reporter with CBC Indigenous covering communities across Quebec.