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An act of reconciliation that can end Kanesatake land dispute

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Film still from "Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance." Image: Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance/NFB

Pascal Quevillon, mayor of Oka, Quebec, was in the news in July for inflammatory comments about the neighbouring residents of Kanesatake, a Mohawk reserve. He was upset with reconciliation efforts of local developer Grégoire Gollin to transfer 60 hectares of disputed land back to its rightful guardians, the Mohawk community. The transfer was to take place through the federal government's ecological gifts program. Gollin had also offered to sell another 150 hectares of land to the Mohawk Nation.

In August, at a summit of First Nations leaders and mayors, Quevillon apologized to Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Simon. But to date there's been no decision regarding returning the land known as the Pines back to the people of Kanesatake.

The land in question was never ceded, it was stolen from the Mohawk Nation in the early 1700s by the French monarchy and Catholic Church.

Most Canadians won't recognize the name Kanesatake, but it was the focus of a military siege in 1990 most settlers mistakenly refer to as the "Oka Crisis."

This is egregious, because at no time were residents of Oka, a small village northwest of Montreal, in danger. The village, best known for a semi-soft cheese made by Trappist monks, was in fact home to the violent aggressors. It's a stance the current mayor has once again threatened to take in order to disrupt Gollin's act of reconciliation.

The proposed expansion of a local nine-hole private golf course originally built on expropriated Kaniew'kehaka (Mohawk) lands, along with approval for a luxury housing development on expropriated Mohawk lands that contained a sacred burial ground, led to the 78-day armed standoff between Mohawk land protectors, Oka residents, Quebec police and the Canadian army.

In July 1990, Kanesatake residents blocked the road through the reserve. Then, in a show of support, residents of the Kahnawake reserve blocked the Mercier Bridge connecting LaSalle on the Island of Montreal with the Mohawk reserve and the suburb of Châteauguay on the south shore of the Saint Lawrence River.

That's when Abenaki filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin began filming the stand-off from behind Mohawk lines. The result was her 1993 documentary, Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance.

Obomsawin's film also documented the silencing of mainstream journalists while various levels of government controlled what little misinformation the general settler population had access to. Obomsawin's film is provides a factual account of the entire crisis from beginning to end. Here are highlights of the misuse of power Obomsawin's camera captured.

On July 11, 1990, SWAT teams descended upon Kanesatake, firing tear gas to disperse Mohawk residents. When that failed to move protesters, members of the SWAT team began firing bullets. In the end, one officer was dead from a bullet which struck his chest. In response, the RCMP were dispatched to Oka and then premier Robert Bourassa requested military support from the federal government.

While some residents of Châteauguay expressed frustration over the blockades, others came out overwhelmingly in support of Mohawks living in Kahnawake and Kanesatake.

The provincial minister of Indian Affairs, John Ciaccia, acknowledged Mohawk land had been taken without consultation or compensation for the original nine-hole golf course, while other politicians chose to ignore this fact.

When food for the Mohawk protectors was severely restricted, Ciaccia put an end to that -- although he could not prevent the army from damaging supplies while inspecting for "suspected weapons" that never materialized.

The federal minister of Indian Affairs, Tom Siddon, established negotiations between the province and Mohawk representatives. But days later, about 2,500 Canadian armed forces troops were deployed to the area.

Negotiations continued at the Trappist monastery considered neutral territory by all sides. Despite the fact that the federal, provincial and Mohawk governments were able to agree on most of the issues, days later negotiations broke down when an agreement could not be reached ensuring Mohawk sovereignty and amnesty for all activists.

As international support for the Mohawk Nation grew, the army invaded Kanesatake. Obomsawin filmed a convoy of cars filled with the elderly, women and children leaving the reserve. The vehicles were summarily attacked by settlers from Oka who pummelled the convoy with large rocks. Several people fleeing the occupied reserve were injured and a Mohawk elder later died of a heart attack.

About 100 remaining Mohawk women, children and men took shelter in a treatment centre. The media was told to leave, but a few journalists made it to the treatment centre encampment and hunkered down to cover the next phase of the standoff.

Throughout the siege of Kanesatake police, military personnel and politicians at all levels treated journalists as if they were enemies of the state.

On September 26, the remaining warriors, spiritual leader, traditional chief, women and children came to a consensus and agreed to leave their camp. This was not a surrender.

Chaos ensued as the army tried to arrest the adults. A 14-year-old girl was bayoneted in the chest but miraculously survived. Children were separated from their parents by the militia. The men and women were beaten, handcuffed and put on buses -- one for the men and another for the women.

Canadians paid millions to terrorize Mohawk men, women and children defending their unceded land and protecting their sacred burial ground from immoral development. Yet, the land issue remaines unresolved.

Quevillion once again raised the dispute over land belonging to the people of Kanesatake, because a developer realized this unceded land should be returned to its rightful stewards. Despite his apology to Chief Simon, Quevillion needs to realize that he lives and governs in very different times.

If Quevillion continues to block Gollin's efforts then he should in no way be surprised when local, provincial, national and international support for the people of Kanesatake counters his position. This is 2019 and thanks to Alanis Obomsawin the world not only knows the truth, it acknowledges the Mohawk Nation's rights to the disputed land.

For a more comprehensive history of the Kanesatake crisis watch Alanis Obomsawin's 1993 documentary, Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, available free on the NFB website.

Released in 1993, this landmark documentary has been seen around the world, winning over a dozen international awards and making history at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it became the first documentary ever to win the Best Canadian Feature award.

A great follow-up is Obomsawin's short documentary: My Name is Kahentiiosta (1995 NFB). This film recounts the story of Kahentiiosta, a young Kahnawake Mohawk woman arrested at Kanesatake after the 78-day armed standoff. Kahentiiosta was detained four days longer than the other women because the prosecutor representing the Quebec government refused to accept her Indigenous name.

Doreen Nicoll is a freelance writer, teacher, social activist and member of several community organizations working diligently to end poverty, hunger and gendered violence.

Image: Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance/NFB

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