Quebec slowly reopens but Mohawks demand their territory remains closed 

MONTREAL- As Quebec continued to slowly reopen Wednesday following weeks of pandemic-induced shutdowns, members of the Mohawk community of Kanesatake outside Montreal demanded that authorities slow down.

Mohawks were preventing access to Oka provincial park, which was scheduled to partially reopen Wednesday morning, according to Oka Mayor Pascal Quevillon.

He 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.

Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge 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.

Also Wednesday, Quebec announced that limited outdoor gatherings will be permitted starting Friday as the province continues to record a downward trend of new COVID-19 cases.

Authorities also announced private health-care providers across the province can begin operating again June 1. Those providers include dentists, physiotherapists, massage therapists, optometrists and several others. Also allowed to open June 1 are centres for animal grooming.

Outside the greater Montreal area and the region around the city of Joliette, hair salons and other personal care businesses such as tattoo parlours can open June 1. The government still hasn’t set a date to reopen those services in the Montreal and Joliette regions.

Starting Friday, Quebecers will be allowed to host outdoor gatherings of up to 10 people, from a maximum of three families, as long as they keep a two-metre distance from one another. The province, however, had already authorized people to be outside together as long as they kept a two-metre distance.

Guilbault said authorities wanted to be more clear with Wednesday’s announcement. She said authorities had been telling people to avoid outdoor gatherings in private settings as much as possible. But, as the springtime weather improved, she said, people began increasingly meeting outside.

“So, we’re saying: Perfect, we have to be realistic. People are fed up, people want to see each other, they are getting bored. It’s nice out, it’s getting hot. We want people to get together, but now we are announcing clear rules.”

The province is starting to ease restrictions as the number of new cases of COVID-19 continues to decrease. Quebec recorded 71 new deaths from COVID-19, for a total of 3,718, and the number of total cases increased by 578 to 44,775. A total of 12,822 people are classified as recovered.

But Quebec also recorded the first death among its provincial prison population. A Quebec civil liberties group, la Ligue des droits et Libertes, said in a statement Wednesday the 72-year-old inmate’s death could have been prevented if authorities had reduced the number of seniors detained in provincial jails.

Guilbault said about 2 per cent of Quebec’s inmate population has become infected with the virus, including about 60 people at the detention centre in Montreal that housed the inmate who died.

“Despite the impossibility of avoiding any cases of COVID (in provincial jails),” she said, “I consider that, in general, it is going relatively well in the prison network.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on May 20, 2020.

With files from Pierre Saint-Arnaud

Add Your Voice

Is there more to this story? We'd like to hear from you about this or any other stories you think we should know about. Contribute your voice on our contribute page.