Kanesatake Mohawks outside of Montreal demand their territory remains closed

Residents of a Mohawk territory in Quebec are stopping people from entering a provincial park as COVID-19 health restrictions ease on recreational activities in the province.

Mohawk Council of Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Otsi Simon and Kanesatake residents set up a barrier to Oka provincial park on Wednesday morning.

Quebec began on Wednesday to gradually reopen its network of provincial parks, while limiting the number of visitors to each park and restricting which sections people can visit.

The parks had been closed for several weeks due to public health orders aimed at containing the spread of COVID-19.

But Simon said SEPAQ, the agency that operates Quebec's provincial parks, has not properly consulted with Kanesatake about reopening the park in a manner that takes into account the public health of the nearby Mohawk territory. The park is three kilometres from the indigenous territory and visitors do not have to cross it to access the park and its beach.

“We’ve been telling people they can’t come in," Simon told CTV News Wednesday morning. "We can’t allow the park to reopen until we complete our safety protocols.”

Simon said he and the residents are simply telling people at the entrance to the Oka park to turn around, and would not qualify the measure as a blockade in the truest sense.

He said about half of the Kanesatake community has underlying conditions that make them at-risk of COVID and he needs to protect his community.

“I’ve got 300 (Mohawk) people living right in Oka, most of them elderly," Otsi added.

Oka Mayor Pascal Quevillon said members of the adjacent First Nations community began blocking access around 8:30 a.m., adding provincial police weren't doing anything about the blockade.

"I asked Premier Francois Legault to ask the Surete du Quebec to intervene," Quevillon said in an interview.

Simon sent a letter earlier in the week to Legault, urging him to keep the park closed until his community is consulted.

Simon's letter said that "even if all proper precautions are taken, the risks of community spread in our area are too high." He insisted that the park and a ferry to the region remain closed "until we are consulted on any reopening of tourist services that may affect the health of our region."

Deputy premier and Public Security Minister Genevieve Guilbault told reporters Wednesday that members of the cabinet were in discussions with Simon and with local public health officials. Simon was not immediately available for comment.

"We understand that there are concerns in various places in Quebec, but especially in that area, about the deconfinement," Guilbault said. "We have to try to see how we can reassure them, and how we can come to a solution," adding that prohibiting access to the park is not the answer."

The people in Kanesatake and in the adjacent town of Oka usually live peacefully side-by-side but flare-ups have occurred over the years, often due to land disputes. Simon and Quevillon got into a public spat last summer when a developer wanted to donate land to the Mohawks.

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