Man starts hunger strike in Kanesatake over 301-year-old land dispute

Al Harrington, a resident in Kanesatake, Que., has started a hunger strike to raise awareness of the First Nation's ongoing land grievance, which resulted in the 1990 Oka Crisis and ongoing issues with their neighbours in Oka, Que.

Community's traditional governing body has called for a moratorium on land development

Robert Lazore and Chelsea Brosseau, both from Akwesasne, visited Al Harrington (right) this week. (Submitted by Don Eagle)

A First Nations man in Quebec is on the eighth day of a hunger strike to raise awareness of a 301-year-old unresolved land dispute in Kanesatake.

Al Harrington, an Ojibway man from Shoal Lake 39 at the Ontario/Manitoba border who resides in the Mohawk community, has been on the hunger strike since Oct. 11 at the Kanesatake longhouse.

It's where Kanesatake's traditional governing body wants the federal government to meet with them to discuss resolving the longstanding land grievance, which resulted in the 1990 Oka Crisis and ongoing issues with their neighbours in Oka, Que.

"I'm doing this because my children are from this community," said Harrington.

"The longhouse has been trying to get recognized by the government of Canada. I offered to step up and help out in this way."

Harrington is consuming only cedar tea and other traditional medicines and is being checked on daily by a nurse.

Ellen Gabriel, a spokesperson on behalf of the People of the Longhouse in Kanesatake, said she's grateful for his actions. The hunger strike is one of the peaceful pressure tactics the longhouse decided to implement following a plea to the federal government in August to issue a moratorium on development throughout the 689 square kilometres of disputed land northwest of Montreal.

Harrington has pledged to continue his strike until the federal government shows any kind of commitment that they're going to take the longhouse seriously, or until the nurse recommends he must stop for his health.

Gabriel said they have yet to hear an official response from the government to the longhouse's Aug. 21 news conference.

The office of the federal minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs has been negotiating a section of the the land grievance with the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake since 2008 under Canada's specific claims policy.

"Any settlement of the claim will require community ratification which would include the Hereditary Chiefs," said a statement sent to CBC News from the office.  

"During the negotiation of their specific claim, the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake has indicated clearly that a settlement of their claim must include a land component."

Ellen Gabriel wants the federal government to sit down with the People of the Longhouse to resolve their 301-year-old land grievance. (Jessica Deer/CBC)

The process has been criticized by Gabriel for not dealing directly with longhouse, which is a part of a constitutional democracy that existed before Canada's elected band council systems.

"They're punishing us by ignoring us," said Gabriel.

"People need to be aware we're doing this peacefully. When we do peaceful acts, everyone ignores us. They want us to blockade and then will say 'look at those crazy Indians again.' We're damned if we do, and we're damned if we don't."

Human rights violations

Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, said the issues in Kanesatake highlight human rights violations when it comes to Indigenous Peoples' right to free, prior, and informed consent on decisions that have an impact on their territory.

"When the lands of Indigenous Peoples are at stake, it is fundamentally a human rights issue," said Neve. 

"That is recognized in Canadian law, and recognized and enshrined in internal human rights law, most obviously the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples."

David Gabriel, Al Harrington, Alex Neve, and Ellen Gabriel. (Amnesty International Canada)

He visited the longhouse on Thursday. 

"Almost 30 years ago, the Oka Crisis was the moment when Canadians finally started to open their eyes and understand the concerns about violations of Indigenous rights in the country," said Neve.

"The fact that nearly three decades later that very struggle, one that should have been addressed and resolved years ago, remains so difficult and so entrenched is a concern for us."

About the Author

Ka’nhehsí:io Deer is Kanien’kehá:ka from Kahnawake. She works in CBC's Indigenous unit based in Montreal. Email her at or follow her on Twitter @Kanhehsiio.