Three hundred years ago, the priests who then effectively controlled the Island of Montreal, made a promise to their Mohawk neighbours, whom they had been converting to Catholicism. The Mohawks would get their own, bigger, tract of land off the island if they agreed to move.
The Mohawks upheld their end of the bargain, but the priests did not, or at least not entirely. And that is where you need to start to make sense of the enduring tensions between the Mohawks of Kanesatake and the non-Indigenous residents of the nearby town of Oka, Que. Until the betrayal by the Sulpician priests is addressed, reconciliation can be nowhere in sight.
It is now up to the federal government to see to it that the land claim at the heart of this conflict is settled once and for all. The good news is that, perhaps at no time since the 1990 Oka Crisis, which took the life of a Quebec police officer and set the cause of reconciliation back a couple of decades, has the possibility for real progress seemed as close.
Yet, instead of seizing the moment, and purchasing two large tracts of land at the heart of the dispute that the properties’ non-Indigenous owner is willing to sell, Ottawa is staying on the sidelines. It timidly organized a meeting last week with Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Simon and Oka Mayor Pascal Quevillon. But instead of attending herself, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett dispatched her parliamentary secretary, Marc Miller, to oversee the affair.
It is unclear what mandate, if any, Mr. Miller had to negotiate on behalf of the minister. The whole exercise appears to have been more of an attempt at damage control on the eve of a federal election than a sincere effort to achieve a durable peace. Besides, Mr. Miller had to meet separately with each leader, since Mr. Simon has refused to enter the same room as Mr. Quevillon until the mayor apologizes for comments that the Mohawk Chief has called racist.
Mr. Quevillon’s remarks, evoking the proliferation of cannabis sales huts and illegal garbage dumping on land developer Grégoire Gollin had offered to “gift” to the Mohawks, were indeed a smear. The behaviour the mayor described can be attributed to a tiny minority of Mohawks, and is equally decried by Mr. Simon and most of the 2,500-strong Mohawks living in or near Kanesatake. Most of the 4,000 non-Indigenous residents of Oka understand that.
Mr. Gollin’s motives are not entirely altruistic, of course. His prospects for developing the land in question for non-Indigenous housing are dead in the water. So, he came to an agreement in principle with Mr. Simon to cede the land to the Mohawk Band Council on the condition that it be maintained as an ecological reserve, which would entitle Mr. Gollin to a charitable tax-credit.
Any such deal would have to be first approved by a majority of Mohawks. Many are against accepting Mr. Gollin’s offer, and not just because it comes with strings attached. They believe most of the land in question belongs to them in the first place.
So, Mr. Gollin wants Ottawa to step in and buy the 60-hectare tract of land he offered to gift to the Mohawks and an adjacent 150-hectare plot he also owns. Federal ownership would ensure the land is held in trust awaiting a settlement of the Mohawk land claim.
The response from Ms. Bennett’s office has amounted to “that’s not how we do things.” Ottawa prefers reaching a financial settlement with the Mohawks. The Mohawks could subsequently use the funds to make land purchases around Oka.
Ottawa is mostly fearful of creating a precedent that could be used by other Indigenous groups in their own land-claim negotiations. But the situation of the Mohawks of Kanesatake is unique, and it requires a unique response. A government that claims to have put reconciliation at the core of its mandate should be making an extra effort to get this done.
Twenty-nine years ago this month, an attempt by the town of Oka to expand a golf course into a territory known as the Pines, considered sacred by the Mohawks, thrust their then-270-year-old plight into the international spotlight. It is more than high time that the federal government put an end to their waiting, which has lasted not 30 years, but 300.
In spite of what Mr. Quevillon says, the will is there on all sides. As Mr. Simon described it in an open letter this week, those white pines around Oka were planted around 1870 by both Mohawks and French settlers who sought to mitigate against recurring sandstorms.
“These are trees of peace,” Mr. Simon wrote. “Whether in 1870 or 1990, history teaches us lessons. I hope everyone will retain them, in order that our rights be recognized all while taking the path toward peace and harmonious cohabitation.”
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