'Don't have the resources, we just have the passion': Ellen Gabriel on being a Mohawk land defender for 31 years

Ellen Gabriel has been defending her land for 31 years, and she’s not slowing down, still fighting against a situation she feels has barely changed for decades.

Gabriel is an Indigenous human rights and environmental activist who has worked tirelessly to protect unceded Mohawk territory in Quebec.

In 1990, Gabriel was appointed as the spokesperson by the People of the Longhouse during the Oka Crisis, a 78-day standoff between Mohawk land defenders and Quebec police over the proposed expansion of a golf course into Mohawk land — an expansion that would involve destroying a burial ground. Although the tense situation ended with the golf course expansion being cancelled, the core issue of Mohawk sovereignty over their own lands is still unresolved today.

Gabriel told CTV’s Your Morning on Monday that, to do the work of a land defender, you are always “remaining vigil” and keeping an eye on land theft.

“[We’re] trying to get the government to move, which is a really difficult thing, because nothing has changed,” she said. “We’re still under the Indian Act. So what we’re trying to do is educate people, whether it’s through demonstrations, rolling blockades […] and all kinds of other things that we’re trying to get the government to move to stop the land theft that’s going on and to sit down with the people who are also rights holders and don’t follow under the Indian Act of band councils.”

Although events such as the Oka Crisis have brought “a lot of trauma” into her life, Gabriel said she doesn’t think of herself as sacrificing anything to continue her work as a land defender.

“Women are title holders to the land under the Iroquois Confederacy,” she said. “I don’t see it as a sacrifice, I see it as something that we’re obliged to do, which is uphold our Constitution, protect the land, and make people aware.

“My role in some sense is to put my art aside, and try to bring some progress and some justice to the people of Kanesatake, who, as you know, the land issue we fought for in 1990 has not been resolved.”

Kanesatake Nation is located in southern Quebec, on the shore of the Lake of Two Mountains. They are a member of the Haudenosaunee (also known as the Iroquois Confederacy), and have lived on that land long before European contact.

The Mohawks of Kanesatake have been struggling to reclaim their land in the face of Canadian colonialism for hundreds of years, Gabriel said.

“We are fighting for centuries for some sort of justice, and we’re really at a crossroads right now whether or not our languages survive, and whether or not we’re able to protect the land for future generations to be able to enjoy,” she said.

Starting in the early 1700s, the Mohawks’ land was sold to settlers without their input by a religious order that had been given the land by the King of France with no thought of Indigenous sovereignty. The last parcel of this tract of land was sold to the federal Canadian government in the 1940s.

When British and French forces were fighting over North America, the British also signed a treaty with representatives of several nations, including Kanesatake, promising that they could enjoy the land they currently resided on, in exchange for not fighting on the side of the French in the conflict.

The land promised to the Mohawks of Kanesatake in this treaty included a region called the Pines — the same region that land defenders fought to protect during the Oka Crisis.

And Kanesatake is still fighting with the neighbouring Quebec municipality of Oka for the Pines to be recognized as their land.

After Oka adopted a bylaw in December of 2020 to declare the Pines a “municipal heritage site”, the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake announced they were taking Oka and Quebec to court.

In a copy of the legal action posted by the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake in early 2021, the council stated that they sent a letter in October 2020 to the mayor of Oka, which stated that it was clear that the bylaw was intended “to ensure it will be the municipality of Oka, instead of Mohawks, that will make the decisions regarding the preservation of the Pines.”

While there have been Mohawk land claims by the elected band council over the years, filed through the Specific Claims process, they have been rejected and refiled numerous times, bogged down in technicalities and a negotiation process that can last years.

As of June 2021, Canada has 523 Specific Claims in progress, either under assessment or in negotiations.

Gabriel said that land defenders are important because they do not operate within the legal framework imposed by Canada, and help raise awareness to the ongoing land theft.

"We are being squeezed more and more by urban sprawl, by development, we’re losing more land as time progresses, so our role really is an important one, because band councils have to follow what the government tells them to do,” she said. “They are elected, for sure, but they also, under coercive methods, have to abide by what the government says, and as a land defender, we don’t do that.”

“We don’t have money, we don’t have the resources, we just have the passion and the concern over the kind of legacy that we’re leaving behind,” she added. “Especially in these times of climate change and the awareness of what people, of what Canada’s colonial history is about, which is a genocidal history.”

The Oka Crisis isn’t the only time that land defenders have been able to stall or prevent the development of their land against their will.

In 2004, a private developer, Gregoire Gollin, purchased 220 hectares of land in the region, including part of the Pines. He told The Canadian Press in 2019 that he had a verbal agreement with the First Nations community that he could develop the land as long as he did not touch the trees.

When residential development began to encroach on the trees in 2017, protests started. Ellen Gabriel was there, and according to The Canadian Press, she stated, “we’re not allowing any more development to continue.”

After rejecting an offer from Oka to donate the Pines to the municipality as an “ecological gift” — an Environment and Climate Change Canada program for the sale of ecologically sensitive land — Gollin decided to offer a large portion of the Pines as an ecological gift to the Mohawks instead, something the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake is still considering.

Gabriel told CTV’s Your Morning that even though progress is slow on reclaiming their lands, she is not discouraged.

“You always have to have hope, no matter how long it’s going to take, you’ve got to have hope because there’s children, there’s youth that need to have that kind of hope,” she said.

She said that, for there to be more concrete progress, the government needs to stop approaching Indigenous land sovereignty from an economic standpoint instead of a human rights one.

“It’s that human rights framework that I think the government needs to come in with, and a different attitude instead of this ‘pretend we’re in partnership, pretend we’re best friends,’” she said. “We need to make it more genuine, and we need to see more movement from government rather than protecting the third parties’ interest, the economic interests, and rather than thinking about what’s in the next election.”

Despite the struggle, she said the “big role” of being a land defender has definitely “enriched my life.”

“We’re trying to get a better life and have access to our lands and territories and help uplift our languages.”

And one thing that could help is for more Canadians to understand the struggles First Nations and Indigenous people in Canada are confronting.

“Canadians need to step up and not just rely on government for reparation or reconciliation,” Gabriel said. “Canadians need to educate themselves and be part of the solution and understand the kinds of things and realities that we’ve been facing for so long.”