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Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Simon arrives to speak to reporters following a meeting with federal and provincial representatives in Montreal, on July 26, 2019, in relation to the ongoing Oka and Kanesatake land dispute.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

A real estate developer’s gesture of reconciliation – a proposal to return part of the land at the heart of the Oka Crisis to the Mohawks of Kanesatake – has instead turned into a new flashpoint.

So far, the dispute has been limited to words, sparked by incendiary comments by the mayor of Oka, Que. But 29 years after the crisis, the latest conflict has stirred memories of the armed confrontation that spanned 78 days and shocked Canada but lit a fire under Indigenous activism.

In June, developer Grégoire Gollin agreed to transfer 60 hectares known as the Pines to the Mohawk community and sell an additional 150 hectares to Ottawa for an eventual transfer.

Within a week of the news becoming public this month, Oka Mayor Pascal Quevillon complained that his town, which is adjacent to the land, would soon be “surrounded” by illegal garbage dumps, cannabis and cigarette merchants and contaminated water. He predicted collapsing property values and another Oka crisis, but said this time it would be the mostly white people of Oka rising up against the Mohawks.

Mr. Quevillon was widely condemned. Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Simon called the mayor racist and said he is considering legal action for what he considers a threat. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the remarks disrespectful. Provincial Indigenous Affairs Minister Sylvie D’Amours said the comments were irresponsible. Some Oka town councillors criticized the mayor for making racist comments.

Ottawa and the province convened separate meetings Friday with the chief and the mayor to make peace, but there’s no evidence anyone’s position has softened. Mr. Quevillon said he had no apology to give. Mr. Simon said he and his council have decided to concentrate on settling the matter with the higher levels of government. “The bridges are cut with the mayor,” Mr. Simon said after the meeting. “It’s an impasse with him, but not the people of Oka. And we will keep talking to other, more responsible mayors in the region.”

Oka, a town of about 4,000 about an hour west of Montreal, between Kanesatake and Oka provincial park, became a national symbol of the state of relations between Canada and its Indigenous people in 1990, when the municipality planned to expand a golf course into the Pines. For 78 days, the people of Kanesatake stood off against the Sûreté du Québec and the Canadian army. An SQ officer died in a gunfight. Several Indigenous people were hurt, including a teenager who was stabbed with a bayonet.

The proposed land transfers are a tiny portion of a 3,600-acre, 300-year-old unsettled land claim by the Mohawk community that includes Oka. The claim has been subject to negotiations with Ottawa since 2008. Mr. Simon said the meetings on Friday were useful for discussing the mechanics of how the land transfer might take place – if the 2,500 Mohawks of Kanesatake approve it. “We haven’t even decided anything yet," Mr. Simon said. “The mayor pushed the panic button long before he needed to."

The land offer did not come without strings. Mr. Gollin’s proposal for the Pines involves turning it into an ecological reserve, which would give him a tax break and prevent most development. The federal government also must establish that the land is ecologically sensitive.

Some Kanesatake residents have objected to having any strings attached to the land transfers and reject the very basis of the agreement: that Mr. Gollin owns the land they have always claimed. Others have complained that the process has been opaque.

Ellen Gabriel, a resident and activist who was a Mohawk spokesperson during the 1990 crisis, said Friday’s meeting of colonial elites demonstrates the root cause of the problem. She described the land transfer as a Trojan horse that would pave the way for future development opportunities for Mr. Gollin.

“The land already belongs to us, and the government of Canada fraudulently sold it,” Ms. Gabriel said in an interview. “This kind of gesture is only the appearance of reconciliation.”

She also called on the mayor of Oka to resign. “His threats are a danger to [our] safety and security,” she said. “No apology will suffice.”

Mr. Quevillon did not resign, nor did he offer an apology as he emerged from the meeting Friday. “We’re going to turn the page. The chief has his demands, we have ours. We’ve opened the discussion with the federal government,” he said.

Quebec MP Marc Miller, the parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, attended Friday’s meetings and said the mayor was stirring up old stereotypes, but he believes the two parties can still talk it out. “It’s not irreconcilable,” he said. “We, from the provincial and federal level, have asked both sides to act with respect and openness.”

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