Stealing of Land

Land dispute between Mohawks and village not resolved 29 years after Oka crisis

Olivia Stefanovich, Christina Romualdo · CBC News ·


With just over two months until the federal election, the governing Liberals find themselves walking a fine line in trying to defuse tensions between the Village of Oka and the Mohawk people of Kanesatake in Quebec.

How the situation is handled could have a big impact come election day, when Quebec and Indigenous votes matter.

“I think they’re taking a more cautious approach because it’s a highly explosive situation,” said Serge Simon, grand chief of the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake.

“If you get too involved, it blows. If you don’t get involved enough, it blows.”

The latest dispute between the two communities comes after Mayor Pascal Quevillon raised concerns that his village, located about 50 kilometres west of Montreal, would be “surrounded” by Kanesatake territory ⁠— including illegal pot shops, cigarette shacks and dumps ⁠— if a donation of 60 hectares of disputed land by local developer Grégoire Gollin is accepted by the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake through the federal government’s Ecological Gifts Program.

Norman Spector, who was the secretary to cabinet for federal-provincial relations in 1990 at the start of the Oka crisis — the 78-day armed standoff between the people of Kanesatake and the Sû​reté du Québec and later the Canadian military — and chief of staff to former Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney by the end of it, said because the dispute is of interest to both Quebec and Indigenous voters, it is a key issue for all the federal parties.

“I think there’s a lot of sympathy for Indigenous people across the country, including in Quebec, but naturally, [the Liberals] would be more sensitive to the majority, which are not Indigenous people,” Spector said.

Oka Mayor Pascal Quevillon speaks to reporters as he arrives for a meeting with federal and provincial representatives in Montreal on July 26 in relation to the ongoing Oka and Kanesatake land dispute. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

The stakes in Quebec for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government “are huge, and it’s fair to say that without strong, strong support in Quebec, it’s almost unimaginable that Mr. Trudeau could be returning with a majority government,” he said.

Kanesatake and Oka are in the federal riding of Mirabel, which is represented by rookie MP Simon Marcil of the Bloc Québécois. In 2015, Marcil beat former NDP MP Mylène Freeman by 1.4 percentage points.

With the NDP losing its foothold in Quebec, the Liberals are expected to make a strong push for more seats in the province.

Several First Nations are in negotiations with the federal government over land claims, and the situation in Oka could set a precedent for how private land donations are handled with Indigenous communities.

On-reserve voter turnout saw a historic increase in the 2015 election, thanks in large part to the Liberals’ promise to renew the country’s nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous people.

That oft-repeated commitment has been questioned given recent events, such as the departure of Jody Wilson-Raybould, the country’s first Indigenous minister of justice and attorney-general, over the SNC-Lavalin affair.

Signs like this are placed along the highway through Kanesatake and Oka, Que. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

Ellen Gabriel, a Mohawk activist and spokesperson for Kanesatake during the Oka crisis, said many Indigenous voters were already disillusioned with outside government long before the recent tensions in her community.

“I think that the constituents’ needs, the constituents’ beliefs ⁠— true or not ⁠— are the most important thing to the federal government, and have been the most important thing to government, Quebec and federal,” Gabriel said.

“Our needs have also been at the bottom of priorities, as evident in how the Kanesatake siege was handled in the ’90s.”

Recent tension rising

The land being offered to Kanesatake is part of the Pines, a forest at the epicentre of the 1990 crisis, when the village tried to expand a nine-hole golf course over the community’s cemetery.

“It’s of the highest importance to my community that we start to get these lands that were promised under treaty and get it back to our community,” Simon said.

“The federal government has a big role to play in all of this. It’s a matter of just finding the right way of doing it and just moving ahead for the future.”

The Oka crisis was an awakening of Indigenous land rights for an entire generation. Even though the golf course expansion never happened, the land dispute still hasn’t been resolved.

The federal government has “done everything to distract from what the real issues are, which is the land,” said Gabriel.

“They basically told us: it’s been 300 years. Waiting a little bit longer won’t matter. That was their attitude.”

Ellen Gabriel, a Mohawk activist who was a spokesperson for Kanesatake during the 1990 Oka crisis, wants the federal government to show more leadership in the land dispute. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

Today, the village is calling on Ottawa to be consulted over Gollin’s proposed land transfer, which has yet to be accepted by Kanesatake. The village wants the federal government to consult it on any land deal.

In return, Gollin would receive a tax credit and the pine forest would be protected from development; however, Quevillon said he is concerned the deal would lower property values in Oka.

Gollin has said he is prepared to discuss the sale of an additional 150 hectares that he owns in Oka to the federal government to be transferred to Kanesatake to help speed up the community’s land claim that it is negotiating with the federal government over Oka and surrounding areas.

“It is a profound act of reconciliation,” said Marc Miller, parliamentary secretary to Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett, about Gollin’s offer.

“But it [Kanesatake’s land claim] isn’t something that’ll be accomplished overnight … It is perhaps the most complex land arrangement and land claim grievance in all of Canada.”

Ottawa’s response ‘pretty tame’

Miller is the federal government’s main point of contact between Kanesatake, Oka and the Quebec government. He’s already had to navigate a response after Quevillon publicly stated that if Kanesatake takes Gollin up on his offer, there may be another Oka crisis — but this time it would be the people of Oka rising up against the Mohawk community.

Simon denounced Quevillon’s remarks as “racist” and “hate-filled” and called on the mayor to apologize.

Trudeau weighed in last month by saying Quevillon’s comments “lacked the necessary respect and understanding that is key to true reconciliation.”

But Trudeau’s response wasn’t strong enough for Simon.

“It’s been pretty tame,” Simon said.

“I would’ve expected, I think, a much more detailed condemnation of that type of language, but in hindsight, maybe it was for the best… Had [Trudeau] been more forceful in his condemnation, maybe it would’ve encouraged people in Oka to get behind their mayor being attacked by the prime minister of Canada. There may have been a use for that.”

The land in Oka and the surrounding area is traditional Mohawk territory, which Kanesatake is trying to reclaim. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

Simon acknowledges there are political considerations at play, including “trying to protect votes in Quebec, trying to protect seats, trying to keep his [Trudeau’s] majority, so yeah, there’s political gain there as well.”

Miller insists the government’s involvement in the dispute is not directly related to the Oct. 21 election.

“This is about getting a relationship right, not a vote, getting people to vote for any particular party,” Miller said.

“It’s about making sure that a relationship that has been broken for decades gets fixed and gets fixed in the right way, and that any government, including ours ⁠— that is given the honour to retake power in 2019 in the fall ⁠— would do the same thing and continue on this path. If it happens to be another government, we would hope that they do the same thing.”

Public Hearing Set on DAPL Expansion!

9 a.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 13 at Emmons County Courthouse in Linton, North Dakota.

Great news! Nearly 20,000 of you sent letters to the North Dakota Public Service Commission supporting the call of Lakota leaders for a public hearing on the proposed expansion of the Dakota Access pipeline—and you have been heard! The Commission has set the time and place for the hearing: 9 a.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 13 at Emmons County Courthouse in Linton, North Dakota.

Now, it’s up to all of us to keep the pressure on the powers that be to make the right decisions. We are prepared to mount a fierce ground campaign to ensure that Native perspectives are well-represented and heard in November. Can you contribute now to help us win this critical pipeline fight?

Lakota Law
Lakota People’s Law Project Standing Rock Organizer Phyllis Young at the Democratic presidential debates in Detroit. Phyllis actively combats pipelines and works as an ambassador for clean energy solutions in Lakota Country.

There is much still to do. The process must be fully transparent, the public must be heard, and tribal concerns about the safety of pipelines must be properly addressed. This expansion aims to double the amount of oil DAPL carries to more than 1 million barrels each day—further endangering the environment we share.

And as you know, it’s not just DAPL we must resist; the Keystone XL pipeline buildout will soon be upon us here in Lakota Country. For this reason, we are working tirelessly with tribal leaders, other nonprofit organizations, and visionary politicians in D.C. to develop a cohesive, coordinated strategy to protect water and climate from dangerous fossil fuel infrastructure.

Following our recent meeting with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, my colleagues Dan Nelson and Phyllis Young marched the streets of Detroit alongside other activists during the Democratic debates. Afterwards they met at length with Sunrise Movement founders. We’ve also engaged Bernie Sanders’ senate staff to produce a video about KXL—I urge you to stay tuned for that.

Your friendship helps us to keep working tirelessly to prevent the oil industry from despoiling the sacred. We won’t stop in our mission to elevate Indigenous voices in the national conversation. We’re building the connections that can—and will—have real impact, and we hope you will stay at our side at this crucial moment for Mother Earth.

Wopila Tanka—we can’t thank you enough for all that you do!

Chase Iron Eyes
Lead Counsel
The Lakota People’s Law Project

Lakota People’s Law Project
547 South 7th #149
Bismarck, ND 58504-5859

The Lakota People’s Law Project is part of the Romero Institute, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) law and policy center. All donations are tax-deductible.

Breathing Lands

It’s time to permanently protect 1.3M hectares of ‘breathing lands’




I’m willing to bet most of those living in southern cities are completely oblivious to how the land protectors of the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation have been working hard to keep the planet healthy.

Well, now it is time to take notice, give a bit of thanks to the Oji-Cree community and help protect the northern land — for the health of all of us.

Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug — KI for short, and also known as the Big Trout Lake First Nation — is about 600 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay, high in the boreal forest region of northwestern Ontario. It is one of the largest intact examples of what scientists call “carbon storehouses” left on the planet. The people of KI call it the “breathing lands.”

KI has sent Environment Minister Catherine McKenna a proposal to make a 1.3-million hectare swath of that land into what’s known as an Indigenous Protected Area. If the proposal is accepted, it will be a “gift to the world,” the community says. They are now waiting to hear if their $1.2 million, four-year, proposal — made in partnership with the neighbouring Wapekeka First Nation — is one of 27 Indigenous-led protection plans announced by the minister on Monday. And KI is also waiting to see if the Ontario government will step up by refusing to allow mining and development in the protected area.

KI Chief Donny Morris told me on Tuesday that he expects the community’s plan to be federally approved but he “hasn’t seen any documentation” yet from Ottawa.

And he hasn’t heard anything from Ontario. Morris says he wrote to Indigenous Affairs Minister Greg Rickford on June 26 to ask for the province’s support after hearing nothing from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry about the plan. Currently, KI says 47 per cent of the watershed does not permit mining or forestry; under the protection plan, the remaining territory would be withdrawn from mine staking.

If all three governments were to agree to this — KI, Ontario and Ottawa — it would be a step toward reconciliation as it would affirm the “leadership role Indigenous people have within our homelands,” Morris said in the letter. This would also help Canada and Ontario reach a goal of protecting 17 per cent of land and water by 2020, as agreed to in the global Aichi Biodiversity Target.

“I don’t know what is going on with this Ontario government,” said Morris, who added the community’s history with Rickford stretches back to before his days as the MP for Kenora in the Harper government. In fact, people in KI first knew the current MPP for Kenora-Rainy River as a community nurse and a lawyer.

“He is pretty well known,” said Morris. “I thought he’d be more responsive to our needs in the north.”

Maybe Rickford’s response got lost in the mail. His office told me it did get back to Morris on Aug. 19, only to tell him that the “Crown land” in the Far North isn’t his ministry’s responsibility — it’s managed by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry.

“They have to understand we are the government of this land in the north. We have a treaty with two governments — Ontario and Ottawa. We want to protect the water, the land. Why can’t I be part of the decision-making process? Work with us, and we’ll work with you,” Morris said.

KI has a history of being a fierce protector of the land. In 2009, it cost the McGuinty government $5 million to settle litigation involving KI and a mineral exploration firm after a tense dispute that led to the jailing of six KI community members.

In 2011, the people of KI issued a watershed declaration covering the Fawn River and their home lake of Big Trout, protecting it through KI First Nation traditional knowledge and authority, laws and protocols. That protection also extends to boreal caribou, wolverine, moose, a variety of fish and countless migratory birds.

Elders have taught us that if you take care of the land, it will take care of you. We know this and so does the United Nations, which noted in its recent report on climate change that lands and rivers under Indigenous ownership and protection are simply healthier.

New: Presidential Forum Law

“We are thrilled that many major presidential contenders came to Indian Country to court our votes and are addressing our key issues, both in-person and in their platforms.”

To see what they had to say, you can view full videos of several of the candidates here.

As a 501(c)(3), we cannot endorse any one candidate or party. That said, we do believe it’s essential to share the information we have and to empower people to vote with as much knowledge as possible. We pushed back hard last November against vote suppression in North Dakota for that very reason, highlighted by this ABC Nightline episode featuring my colleague, Phyllis Young.

I am constantly inspired when working alongside President Julian Bear Runner. He is the second-youngest president in the Oglala Nation’s history, and as a fellow water protector at Standing Rock in 2017, he was arrested by my side. At the Forum, he used his panel appearance (with NY City Mayor Bill De Blasio) to challenge candidates to resist pipeline construction in Indian Country, combat meth use on the rez, and free Leonard Peltier.

I’m pretty sure this will be the only moment during the 2020 campaign when a candidate for president will have been asked to openly endorse Leonard’s release—and, to his credit, De Blasio didn’t hesitate. I encourage you to watch that exchange and the rest of the candidates in action.

It’s an exciting time, and I hope you will continue to stay informed and stand by us!

Wopila — Thank you, as always, for your friendship.

Chase Iron Eyes
Lead Counsel
The Lakota People’s Law Project