Land dispute at heart of Oka Crisis still not resolved 30 years later

It’s easy to miss the Pines.

Driving west on Highway 344 there are no signs showing the land at the heart of the Oka Crisis. 

It's a small, sandy lot with towering trees and a lacrosse box in one corner. Closer to the town of Oka, there's a wrought iron gate protecting one of the most important landmarks in Kanesatake - the cemetery. 

Ellen Gabriel closes her eyes as she walks through the area. 

"There’s a distinct smell," she says. "It reminds me of my childhood." 

She grew up spending her July 1sts picnicking in the Pines. She was also camping there the morning of July 11, 1990 when the Surete du Quebec raided what was then a small barricade. 

"It became about the warriors and people lost track of the land. Let's not forget this is about the expansion of a nine-hole golf course," she said. 

The Oka Golf Club’s parking lot is shaded by trees in the cemetery. A small wire fence separates the pavement from the graves. The land has long been at the centre of a dispute, but the proposed golf course expansion ignited the Oka Crisis. 

HISTORICAL LAND DISPUTE 

The Kanesatake territory once covered nearly 700 square kilometres along the Lake of Two Mountains. 

In 1718, Louis XV granted land to the Sulpician Order to establish a seminary in Deux-Montagnes. 

The Mohawk people objected, but ultimately that decision was upheld when Britain gained control of the territory.

The town of Oka was established soon after and to this day its borders are intertwined with Kanesatake. 

"Historically speaking, Oka should never have existed. The towns of Point Calumet and Saint-Joseph should not have existed," said Kanesatake Council Grand Chief Serge Simon.

The mayor of Oka disputes that claim. 

"We’ve been here for 300 years so we also have some rights," said Pascale Quevillon. "We are called colonizers and thieves but my family has been here for four generations." He maintains the federal government is the only body who can truly settle the question – but it has yet to do so. 

RESERVE LANDS

Unlike Kahnawake on Montreal’s South Shore, Kanesatake is not a First Nations reserve. 

Under the Indian Act, last amended in 1985, a reserve is "land held by the Crown for the use and benefit of respective bands for which they were set apart." 

That means its borders are not clearly specified by the federal government. 

"It has many of the same characteristics of a reserve but it was never formally created," said former Quebec Indigenous Affairs Minister Geoff Kelley. 

"You have a number of Mohawks who live in the municipality of Oka. So it really does create a mixed population with mixed rules as to what rules apply where. It was never solved."

It's complicated, said Canadian Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller.

"Kanesatake is one of the oldest and most complex land claims in Canada," he said. "The preferred route is always to sit down and settle with governance in the community and ensure there is a settled, managed land claims process." 

LAND ISSUES IGNORED

While the land was at the heart of the Oka Crisis, Gabriel says the focus quickly shifted to the image of the armed warriors. 

"Premier (Robert) Bourassa and Brian Mulroney were talking about the rule of law so the focus became a very violent one, a militarized issue instead of a land issue that could have been resolved," she said. 

Ultimately, the golf course expansion was scrapped but to this day, the land issue hasn’t been resolved. 

30 YEARS LATER 

Developer Gregoire Gollin offered to return 60 hectares of disputed land to Kanesatake in 2019 as an ecological gift as a "contribution to reconciliation." It’s a move Gabriel rejected because under the federal program that manages these gifts, there are strings attached as to how the land is managed. 

Thirty years later, Gabriel’s demands haven’t changed. She wants all development to stop, including a new subdivision that’s going up near the edge of the forest. 

"I don't want 1990 to have happened for nothing," she said. "That's why I keep doing it."

SIGN UP NOW

Stay up-to-date and in-the-know by subscribing to one of our newsletters