Developer offers to give land back to First Nation where Oka Crisis happened

A Quebec developer is offering to give back to the Mohawks of Kanesatake part of a forested area of land that was at the heart of the Oka Crisis.

Grégoire Gollin said he's committed to transferring around 60 hectares of the forest known as The Pines in the spirit of reconciliation, through a federal ecological gifts program.

"As a citizen, I don't have to wait for the government to do my contribution to reconciliation," he said.

"My concrete gesture is to initiate giving back to the Kanesatake this piece of forest I own and they value a lot in their heart because it has been planted by their ancestors."

In 1990, the municipality of Oka, Que., planned to expand a golf course in The Pines, sparking the 78-day standoff known as the Oka Crisis between the people of Kanesatake, the Sû​ré​te du Québec and later the Canadian military. The area is a part of a 300-year-old land dispute over the seigneury of Lake of Two Mountains.

"At the heart of the Oka Crisis, it was not money, it was the land," said Gollin. 

"I have significant pieces of land adjacent to Kanesatake, so I decided to make my contribution."

Shaney Komulainen/The Canadian Press

How ecological gifts work

Environment and Climate Change Canada's Ecological Gifts Program offers a tax benefit to landowners who donate land or a partial interest in land to a qualified recipient, via the Income Tax Act of Canada and the Quebec Taxation Act.

Scott Nurse, a policy analyst with the program, said it's never been used to return land to a First Nation. In order for the gift to be approved, the land has to be certified by the province as ecologically sensitive, the recipient has to be approved and the land has to be appraised for fair market value. 

"Recipients of ecological gifts must maintain the ecological gift and conservation status or receive authorization from the Minister of Environment and Climate Change for changing the use of the property or disposing of the property," said Nurse.

Gollin has owned a section of The Pines for a number of years. In 2017, his housing project Domaine des Collines d'Oka sparked protests by people in Kanesatake for its proximity to The Pines. 

Mohawk activist Ellen Gabriel has long wanted a moratorium on all development within the area under dispute until the land claim is resolved. She said more land has been developed in the area in recent years than what they opposed in 1990.

"Let's settle the land dispute that was promised during the negotiations in 1990, so people can get on with their lives and we don't have to keep worrying," said Gabriel.

"It's the first stage. The ultimate goal is to live in peace."

Claim nears settlement

Canada accepted the claim in 2008 under the Specific Claims Policy, and negotiations have been ongoing with the Mohawk Council.

Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada said significant progress has been made since negotiations began, and that it's currently reviewing a settlement offer. Settlements for specific claims are typically a cash amount and the opportunity to buy land from willing sellers.

In addition to the ecological gift, Gollin is also offering to make around 150 hectares of his vacant land available for purchase by the federal government to transfer to Kanesatake. His commitments to both were signed in a declaration of mutual understanding and agreement with Grand Chief Serge Simon on behalf of the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake in June. 

Gabriel is skeptical of the agreement, as little information on its contents has been given to the community by the Mohawk Council. 

"Nobody has seen it," she said.  The agreement, obtained by CBC News, was first reported on by the Eastern Door newspaper in May.

While the agreement says it is subject to final approval by the Mohawk people of Kanesatake, consultation has yet to occur.  

CBC

"Gollin was kind of giving me hope that maybe we could progress, but if it's such a good thing, why wouldn't the agreement be made public to the community? And why weren't we consulted on it?" said Gabriel.

She isn't the only one questioning the agreement. Caitlyn Richard, 25, participated in the protests against Gollin's housing development in 2017 and said seeing the clearing of the forested area was "scary, knowing that this is where I live and where I plan on living, and we're polluting it."

She says Gollin's offer "sounds too good to be true."

Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Simon told CBC News the ecological gift suits the community's goals with The Pines.

"Our goal has always been to protest the pine forest from any further development that undermines the peace of the region," he said. 

The band council will be seeking direction from the community on whether to accept, reject or seek changes to Gollin's offer, he said.

Municipality calls meeting

Neither has Oka Mayor Pascal Quevillon, who is calling a meeting for July 17 to discuss the agreement with Oka residents. 

According to a July 5 Facebook post, the municipality wishes to be consulted by the federal government before any land is transferred.

"This agreement to transfer vacant land and the federalization of municipal lots adjacent to the neighbouring land are more than worrying for the sustainability of our municipality," wrote Quevillon.

"This is a file that needs to be taken into consideration today, because important consequences could be felt in the years to come....  Our municipal administration is wondering when we are going to be consulted by the federal government."

Jeremy Teiawenniserate Tomlinson, 38, is hoping people of Kanesatake attend the meeting. He's concerned about the lack of information given to his community about the agreement, and also wants residents of Oka to understand the root of the issue.

"Kanesatake is one of the oldest Mohawk communities. We've been here for so long and our land has been taken from us," said Tomlinson.

"We've been dispossessed of it over the years, and it still continues after every level of government is preaching about reconciliation."

Tomlinson, who was nine years old during the Oka Crisis, said he can't help but feel similarities between then and what's happening now when it comes to the community's relationship with the nearby municipality.

"The village of Oka going against the community of Kanesatake and openly trying to mobilize efforts against what we are doing with our land — it's not too far from what was happening in 1990."