By Virginie Ann
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
KANESATAKE MOHAWK TERRITORY- Kanesatake is officially taking Oka and the Quebec government to court.
The two communities faced a major dispute over the Pines before the end of December, but the conflict certainly didn’t go away with the new year. The Mohawk Council of Kanesatake (MCK) announced on Monday that it has filed for legal actions, demanding to “quash and declare null Oka’s bylaw” as their press release reads.
The MCK is also asking that the judicial review prevent the municipality of Oka from “taking any further actions to limit or obstruct the transfer of the Pines to Kanien’keha:ka control,” and recognize that the municipality has failed to consult the community before adopting the bylaw.
“The mayor never tried to consult us,” said Kanesatake grand chief Serge Otsi Simon. “He sends an email that says he is going to do one thing or another, and he calls it consultation.”
On December 1, the Oka council moved in favour of adopting the controversial bylaw, declaring the Pines a heritage site in order to protect it. Thirty years ago, the same location was the main stage of the historical 1990 Oka Crisis between the two communities, as Oka tried to expand its golf course on sacred, grounds. The forest is still part of Kanesatake’s unceded lands, in negotiation with the Federal government to be repatriated – but Oka sees things differently.
The bylaw mentioned that the Pines was a legacy from the Sulpicians to the village. Oka mayor Pascal Quevillon repeatedly said that his prime intention was only to protect it.
“People need to understand that the municipality of Oka isn’t against Kanesatake. We, myself included, we were not there 300 years ago,” said Quevillon in an interview with The Eastern Door.
The legal document stated that the bylaw was adopted “in violation of Mohawk rights pursuant to the Treaty of Oswegatchie and of Mohawk ancestral rights and title,” and that it was in fact “processed and adopted in bad faith and imbued in systemic racism.”
“If they have a heritage, it’s a stolen one,” said Simon.
A few months earlier, in October, Oka hosted a live public consultation over YouTube to address its intention to transform the Pines into a heritage site. The comments were loud and clear as people firmly objected to the bylaw. Simon explained that Oka’s decision goes to show the exact reasons why Onkwehon:we can be reluctant when it comes to consultation.
“It’s basically them telling us what they are going to do, but even if we decide to object, they will still do it,” he said.
While it is not mandatory for municipalities to consult with Onkwehon:we communities, it is the provincial and federal government’s duty to do so. As a result, the MCK included Quebec as a defendant.
“Oka is a creation of the Crown in Right of Quebec, rather than the Crown in Right of Canada,” reads the MCK statement. “We will argue that, since the Crown did not consult the Mohawks, the bylaw is thus invalid.”
This lack of consultation is currently not the only one being denounced. In fact, a few community members have expressed their disapproval of the MCK’s legal actions.
For Kanehsata’kehro:non John Harding, it is evident that Oka is in the wrong. But he worries about the potential impact of having the Quebec Superior Court deciding on the issue, wishing the MCK would have consulted its community before moving forward. He referred to the Jean-Roch Simon case from 1998, where former grand chief James Gabriel appealed to the Supreme Court against a municipality of Oka’s bylaw that limited Simon’s new construction on unceded land – but lost the case.
“The reason he lost is that the court said it’s a legal vacuum in Kanesatake,” said former Kanesatake grand chief Steven Bonspille back in 2001 at a meeting of the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs, Northern Development and Natural Resources. “We don’t know which laws apply, so municipal laws apply.”
Harding sees a dangerous parallel with the current situation.
“MCK has no laws concerning the protection of the forest,” said Harding.
“We live this daily with the dumpsite in our territory, approved for 30 years by MCK, and continued taking of land by our own members, as well as a host of other problems from a lack of leadership at the MCK level within our territory.”
Harding said that they had not been given the opportunity to discuss or debate if this was the correct course of action, or even if the community endorsed it. When asked about it, the grand chief said that he wished he would receive more trust from his community.
“Are we just going to let Oka get away with it?” Simon asked.
Virginie Ann is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Easter Door. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.