Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Mohawk Land Rights Still Focus of Protests at Oka


“Many people don't recognize that Oka is not ‘near Kanehsatà:ke’, Oka IS Kanehsatà:ke,” says Ellen Gabriel. “These are our traditional territories,” which she says have fallen prey to massive “land fraud” since the first Europeans entered the area.  “In 1990, they wanted the army to come in here and take over, and they still do. They want to have another conflict. Otherwise they would have done something by now to seek a moratorium on development.”

By Matthew Behrens
At the heart of one of many unresolved Indigenous land rights issues facing a Trudeau government that is long on promises but short on substance is Oka, a village 50 km west of Montreal indelibly stamped by the historic 1990 standoff between the Canadian military and the Mohawks of Kanehsatà:ke.

While the “Oka Summer” is often viewed as a singular crisis – when thousands of heavily-armed, paramilitary Quebec police and RCMP were joined by over 3,300 Canadian soldiers, twice as many as were sent to Iraq that same year to fight in Desert Storm – it was but one of many moments in a centuries-long history of Mohawk resistance to land dispossession that is once more bubbling to the surface.

Protests against encroachments on traditional territories by the western Quebec municipality and a private developer began in earnest once again this past summer on the 27th anniversary of the 78-day confrontation. Land defenders gathered at the site of new home construction to point out they had not been consulted about, much less provided consent for, a massive project that would see 400 houses built. In addition to reading out public declarations declaring sovereignty over the land, they confronted the mayor of Oka, erected signs reminding residents that the territory is disputed, and took to social media with video documentation of freshly buried gas lines, felled trees, and newly paved paths that appeared to threaten the last parcel of common lands belonging to the Mohawks, a wooded area known as The Pines.

Among those documenting and resisting the unauthorized construction is Ellen Gabriel, one of the key negotiators during the 1990 confrontations, when the town of Oka sought to expand a nine-hole golf course and parking lot over sacred Indigenous burial grounds while also building condos that would have threatened The Pines. 

“Many people don't recognize that Oka is not ‘near Kanehsatà:ke’, Oka is Kanehsatà:ke,” says Gabriel. “These are our traditional territories,” which she says have fallen prey to massive “land fraud” since the first Europeans entered the area. 

Complicating things is a failure of all levels of government to acknowledge responsibility, with Ottawa claiming it cannot interfere with provincial and township decisions, and the latter two insisting final resolution lies with the Feds. Since 2016, Gabriel and the Longhouse matrilineal clan society entrusted with land stewardship at Kanehsatà:ke have been firing off letters seeking an urgent meeting with Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett, but she appears reluctant to get involved. Bennett’s press secretary, Sabrina Williams, declared in an email that “we don't have jurisdiction, all we can do is facilitate discussions,” adding that Bennett is trying to find a suitable meeting date.

Should such a meeting occur, Gabriel says a major bone of contention would be federal legislation forced on the Mohawks in 2001, the Kanesatake Interim Land Base Governance Act. Instead of acting on the recommendation of John Caccia, the former Quebec minister of Indian affairs who called for all disputed lands to be returned to the Mohawks of Kanehsatà:ke, Ottawa chose instead to produce a law that forcibly extinguished Aboriginal title to their lands, what Gabriel calls “the final piece of paper which they didn’t have, which means surrendering our lands. They like to call it the harmonization of municipal bylaws with Oka to make it sound sweet.” Gabriel says the land is technically “for our benefit and use, so we get certificates of possession, but that doesn't mean we own the land according to Canadian law.” The Act’s proponents did not seek or receive consent from the Longhouse, as the federal government prefers to deal with Indian Act-created band councils, which tend to be more compliant with federal prerogatives. 

“We’re one of the few nations that continue to practice traditional forms of governance that preceded European arrival,” Gabriel explains. “We survived colonization, and the band council is a creation of Canada. There’s nothing traditional about it. It's hierarchical and there’s nothing democratic about it.”

As some pundits speculate about “Oka 2” breaking out, Gabriel says she believes it’s the federal government that’s game for escalation. “In 1990, they wanted the army to come in here and take over, and they still do. They want to have another conflict. Otherwise they would have done something by now to seek a moratorium on development.”

(Mohawk Council Chief Serge Simon did not return numerous phone messages and email requests for comment on this story, though he reportedly told Radio Canada that he supports a construction moratorium.)

A new space for dialogue could be created, however, depending on the outcome of the November 5th Oka mayoral election. If elected, Julie Tremblay, a former school board president and businesswoman, hopes to change not only the tone, but also the substance, of relations with the Mohawks. She’s also campaigning with the knowledge that many non-Indigenous residents oppose the development because it would seriously alter the small village spirit that marks Oka. 

            “I actually saw the trees coming down when it was first happening,” she says, adding “the mayor lacked sensitivity because he knew very well about the Mohawks being concerned. He didn't advise anybody.”

            Tremblay says not living in Oka during the 1990 standoff provides her a beneficial distance, as “I don't re-live the traumatic experiences from that time.” She agrees that the Longhouse “is part of the solution. We need to respect that in the Indigenous population, lots of people still rely on the Longhouse to make decisions, so they need to be at the table.” 

            Although Mohawks do have a right to vote in the election, Tremblay concedes “most don't want to because it is associated with the colonialist system. But they are a fourth of our population. Even if they don't vote, I want to make a consultative seat on the council just for Indigenous affairs. They need to be consulted and know what’s going on.”

Tremblay says that while “we should stop further development until the Mohawks are consulted, I also want to push the federal government to reach a final agreement so it's clear for everybody. Right now it's a burden for us, because we live with the problem but have no power to do anything about it except for consulting and being sensitive about it. It's between the federal government and the Mohawks, it's out of our hands.”

In the meantime, a new generation of land defenders is getting involved in the Oka gatherings, including 24-year-old Caitlyn Richard, a First Peoples studies Concordia student who didn't learn about the 1990 crisis until she was in high school.

            “I never pictured myself as a protester or activist,” she says. “But going and seeing all the trees that had been demolished was eye-opening and terrifying. It looked like a natural disaster had come by and wiped out everything.” She says some residents of the new homes “are younger families with children who didn't know that this is where 1990 happened or that there were Mohawks living nearby. We explained why we're here, that this is our territory, and they get it. Some have said they understand and support what we're doing.”

            The new residents also have nothing to fear. In a public statement read out this summer, Gabriel was clear that “we do not intend to take away anyone’s home or ask for their keys.”

            But Gabriel is still waiting for a meaningful signal beyond the pen of politeness that seems to be Bennett’s métier.  “We don’t believe them. It’s evident in their actions what they’re doing to Indigenous people. They're not sincere. People say they don’t like Donald Trump because he is a bully, lacks morals and ethics, and defies the rule of law, but that’s what we as Indigenous peoples have been up against since the creation of the Indian Act.  That is the kind of people we face on a daily basis through Canadian ministers and bureaucrats.” 

(An edited version of this article appears in NOW Magazine at