National Newswatch

MONTREAL — There were appeals for calm Thursday amid steadily mounting tension in Oka, Que., over a private developer's plan to return land to the Mohawks of Kanesatake.

Hundreds packed a church Wednesday night in the community, about 90 kilometres northwest of Montreal, to discuss the return of a pine forest central to the 1990 Oka crisis as part of a federal ecological donation to the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake.

The meeting was convened by Oka Mayor Pascal Quevillon, who said he was caught off guard by land developer Gregoire Gollin's intention to donate the 60 hectares known as The Pines last month, ensuring its preservation.

Gollin said he acted in the spirit of reconciliation when he signed the agreement, and was also prepared to discuss the sale of an additional 150 hectares he owns to the federal government to transfer to the Mohawk community — nearly half of which he said is adjacent to land owned by Kanesatake.

Quevillon said he is concerned about Oka becoming "surrounded" by the Mohawk territory, and worried about property values. He implored the federal government to take the town's concerns into consideration.

He said the adjacent Mohawk community has illegal dumps and numerous cannabis and cigarette merchants — things the village of Oka doesn't want to see expanded.

"My comments are the reality — I would like to tell you otherwise but it's the reality in Kanesatake," Quevillon said.

Quevillon stressed he doesn't want another Oka crisis but said he fears one could be triggered — this time led by Oka residents worried about encroachment. 

"We don't wish it, but if there is another one, it won't come from the residents of Kanesatake because it's the residents of Oka and their rights that are impacted," Quevillon said.

Speaking to reporters in Montreal, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he felt the mayor's comments about being surrounded "lacked the necessary respect and understanding that is key to true reconciliation."

"Reconciliation is extremely important for Canada and Canadians, that means overcoming difficult challenges, some loaded with historical significance," Trudeau said.

"We know that the only way forward is through respectful partnership and dialogue and we certainly hope that all parties in Oka will engage in that respectful and constructive dialogue to allow us to move forward for the benefit of all."

Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Simon said tensions with Oka's leadership have worsened in recent months and he has sought intermediaries like the provincial government to help.

"There's always been an underlying tension," Simon said. "There's always been the ghost of 1990 and a mistrust of each other."

But Simon took particular issue with the idea that the repatriation of lands would result in a drop in properly values, calling the mayor's remarks racist.

He also called the notion of invoking another Oka crisis inflammatory, given the historical precedent.

"It's irresponsible of him knowing damn well what happened and how it happened (in 1990) and he's following in the same footsteps," Simon said. "He's knowingly fomenting a crisis."

"(It's) dangerous, very dangerous," Simon added. "My community, we don't want to live through something like that again ... people back home aren't afraid to fight, but it comes at a heavy price."

The Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador called Thursday for calm, noting the mayor's comments are reminiscent of how tensions sparked between the Mohawk nation and Quebec some 29 years ago this summer.

Grand Chief Ghislain Picard said the priority is finding a way to talk.

"I certainly feel confident we'll come to a resolution," Picard said. "This obviously lies with the capacity of both Oka and Kanesatake to find a common space to engage in a constructive dialogue."

Also Thursday, Quebec Indigenous Affairs Minister Sylvie D'Amours vowed to work with all sides, even though land claims are federal jurisdiction.

"In order to preserve social peace and ensure the safety of all, Minister D'Amours has been intensifying exchanges with the federal government, the mayor of Oka and the grand chief of Kanesatake for months," spokeswoman Nadine Gros-Louis said in an email. "It is essential that the dialogue be open and positive."

The donated land is part of lands central to the Oka crisis which began July 11, 1990.

Gunfire erupted between provincial police and Aboriginals defending a small stand of pine trees from the expansion of a golf course, resulting in the death of officer Marcel Lemay and sparking a 78-day showdown.

At the end of it, a deal was struck to bring down barricades in exchange for cancelling the expansion.

Simon said his own community held a meeting about the ecological gift and raised concerns about a gift of land that belongs to them. But he said it was a way to cut through red tape and keep the lands free from development, noting that part of the forest in question includes a wetland.

As for other future developments, Simon said Oka would be able to invest in projects that would be of use to both communities, like an arena for example, which could promote reconciliation through sport.

"We just need to find a way to work in harmony with our neighbours and promote more co-operation, peace and equality," Simon said.

Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press

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