Mohawk Council of Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Otsi Simon discusses the current situation and actions relating to the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs during a press conference at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

30 years after Oka crisis, Kanesatake land claims remain unresolved

Serge Simon, the current Grand Chief of Kanesatake, vividly remembers the events of July 11, 1990

Thirty years after the proposed expansion of a golf course sparked a 78-day standoff between Quebec Mohawks and Canadian soldiers, the land claims at the heart of the Oka crisis remain unresolved, Indigenous leaders and elders say.

Serge Simon, the current Grand Chief of Kanesatake, vividly remembers the events of July 11, 1990, when Quebec provincial police moved in on a barricade erected by Mohawks who were protesting the planned development of what they claim as ancestral land in Oka, about 50 kilometres northwest of Montreal.

“I saw the tactical squad come out of their vehicles and start following this cube van up the hill and I thought, ‘Oh no, they’re going to kill everybody,’” Simon recalled in an interview this week.

He remembers confusion, seeing community members fleeing tear gas and later, an exchange of gunfire.

“All of a sudden you just heard a popping sound and it just went crazy,” he said. ”You just heard automatic gunfire coming from both sides, that was the beginning.”

Cpl. Marcel Lemay died in the gunfire, felled by a bullet whose source was never determined.

The army sent in some 800 soldiers, encircling the community with barbed wire and sparking months of negotiations that culminated in a deal: the barricades of dirt and mangled police vehicles were to come down in return for the cancellation of the golf course expansion.

The conflict inspired Indigenous movements across the country and led to the Royal Commission of Aboriginal Peoples, which helped usher in a greater awareness of the need to settle land claims.

But three decades later, the underlying land disputes at the heart of the crisis remain unresolved, and the Kanesatake community is deeply divided on how to move forward.

“It’s gotten worse since 1990, 30 years ago,” said Walter David, an elder in the community. He says Kanesatake has continued to lose land to developers who have cut down trees and started housing projects on disputed territory.

“There’s been a lot of secrecy about what’s been going on, lots of money thrown at band council for these negotiations from the federal government, and just no results back to the people.”

David says the events of 1990 are “blotchy” in his mind, likely due to the post-traumatic stress he’s suffered. But he says the event remains an example of police violence, and the extent to which governments will go to refuse talking about land.

“We wanted to disrupt the expansion of the golf, and do it peacefully, and it was peaceful,” he maintained. ”Up until we got assaulted twice,” he said, referring to police raids and alleged attacks by non-Indigenous citizens.

David says the aggressive law enforcement response to Indigenous pipeline protests in North Dakota and British Columbia bring back painful memories, and show that police attitudes have yet to change.

Watching conflicts between Black Lives Matters demonstrators and police triggered by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police has once again “set off little triggers” inside him, he said.

“They’re still using the same tactics,” he said.

David and Simon were on the same side of the Oka events, and both express similar concerns over issues in the community and a desire to reclaim disputed land. But they stand at opposite sides of a divide that has pitted elected band councils against Mohawk traditionalists and the Longhouse, who are fiercely critical of the process underway and of Simon’s leadership.

David says Simon has carried out land negotiations with the federal government behind closed doors and has not been transparent with the community on this or many other matters.

“Band councils are funded by the federal government, so there’s kind of a conflict of interest for them to be funded for their own negotiations,” he said.

Recently, members of the community sent a 16-page document of questions to Simon, demanding answers to everything from the status of negotiations to band council expenditures.

Simon, on the other hand, says that while he is bound by non-disclosure agreements when it comes to land negotiations, he has tried to keep the community informed.

He also fiercely resents being branded a “sellout” or an arm of the federal government for trying to negotiate a peaceful repatriation of the land.

“All I want is peace,” he said.

The divide became clearer last year when a local developer offered to donate 60 hectares of the land to Kanesatake as an “ecological gift” and said he was prepared to discuss the sale of an additional 150 hectares he owns in Oka to the federal government to transfer to the Mohawk community.

While Simon believes the offer would serve the community by protecting Mohawk land from development, David and members of the traditional Longhouse government balk at the idea that the land would come with strings attached, including limits on its use.

The issue, which is still being examined by lawyers, also renewed tensions with Oka’s mayor, who raised concerns that becoming encircled by Kanesatake could lead to declining property values, illegal garbage dumping and an expansion of cannabis and cigarette merchants.

The mayor, Pascal Quevillion, later apologized for his comments, but Simon says relations remain tense.

While by some measures things have improved in the community since 1990, Simon says many problems remain, including illegal dumping on environmentally sensitive lands, the lack of an Indigenous police force to bring stability and the need for better jobs and housing.

While he tries to remain positive, he admits his optimism is “pretty shaky these days” in the face of resistance from his own community, Oka’s mayor and other actors, including a federal government that “has to be brought kicking and screaming” to recognize aboriginal title, he said.

At age 70, David says he’s tired of fighting. He stopped attending 1990 commemorative events long ago, preferring to focus on his garden and his coffee-roasting business.

He feels that if there’s hope, it’s in the young people there, who he says are beginning to do “great things” for the community and the land.

“We are going to be there, watch them and help them and get them going, be there for them as a support mechanism, and then turn the key over to them and say, ‘It’s yours,’” he said.

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

history

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

District of Vanderhoof Mayor Gerry Thiessen recently photographed the town’s original cemetery — now completely overgrown — among the trails behind the Vanderhoof Museum and Visitor Centre. (Gerry Thiessen photo)
Mayor, historical society examine ways to mark Vanderhoof’s original cemetery

“It is a part of our history and we don’t want that history to evaporate,” Thiessen said.

Northern Health saw 14 cases in one day earlier this week, the highest in one day since the beginning of the pandemic. (Image courtesy CDC)
Northern Health sees highest number of COVID-19 cases in one day

There have been 23 cases of reported cases of COVID-19 in the Nechako Lakes Health Area

’Herbert’ Shane Hartman with his daughter Isla. (Shane Hartman Facebook photo)
Love for daughter and drumming leads to author’s first book

Shane Hartman spent very spare moment writing and illustrating Isla’s New Drum

“We have to make a call out to address this now so our people don’t have to feel fearful,” said Tribal Chief Mina Holmes. (Carrier Sekani Tribal Council Facebook photo)
Carrier Sekani Tribal Council seeks Indigenous-led task force in northern B.C. hospitals

Request made in an open letter to federal minister Carolyn Bennett

Over the years, Janice Blackie-Goodine’s home in Summerland has featured elaborate Halloween displays and decorations each October. (File photo)
QUIZ: How much do you really know about Halloween?

Oct. 31 is a night of frights. How much do you know about Halloween customs and traditions?

FILE - In this Jan. 23, 1987 file photo, actor Sean Connery holds a rose in his hand as he talks about his new movie “The Name of the Rose” at a news conference in London. Scottish actor Sean Connery, considered by many to have been the best James Bond, has died aged 90, according to an announcement from his family. (AP Photo/Gerald Penny, File)
Actor Sean Connery, the ‘original’ James Bond, dies at 90

Oscar-winner was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2000

This house at 414 Royal Ave. became notorious for its residents’ and visitors’ penchant for attracting police. It was also the site of a gruesome torture in August 2018. It was demolished in 2019. KTW
6-year sentence for Kamloops man who helped carve ‘rat’ into flesh of fellow gang member

Ricky Dennis was one of three men involved in the August 2018 attack

Cpl. Nathan Berze, media officer for the Mission RCMP, giving an update on the investigation at 11:30 a.m., Oct. 30. Patrick Penner photo.
VIDEO: Prisoner convicted of first-degree murder still at large from Mission Institution

When 10 p.m. count was conducted, staff discovered Roderick Muchikekwanape had disappeared

Among the pumpkin carvings created this year by Rick Chong of Abbotsford is this tribute to fallen officer Cont. Allan Young.
Abbotsford pumpkin carver’s creations include fallen police officer

Rick Chong carves and displays 30 pumpkins every year

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

An online fundraising campaign in support of the six-year-old boy, Edgar Colby, who was hit by a car on Range Road Oct. 25 has raised more than $62,000 in a day. (Submitted)
$62K raised in 1 day for boy in coma at BC Children’s after being hit by vehicle in Yukon

The boy’s aunt says the family is “very grateful” for the support they’ve received from the community

Health care employees take extensive precautions when working with people infected or suspected of having COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
WorkSafeBC disallows majority of COVID-19 job injury claims

Health care, social services employees filing the most claims

Conservative leader Erin O’Toole rises during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Wednesday October 28, 2020. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
Conversion therapy ban gets approval in principle, exposes Conservative divisions

Erin O’Toole himself voted in favour of the bill, as did most Conservative MPs

Most Read