From land defenders standing against development to a pandemic forcing the community to not only slow down, but to reinvent itself, 2020 has been quite a year. Here is a look at crucial moments that happened over the past 12 months.
The community saw a local’s house burnt down by a suspicious fire, which destroyed the home of Kanehsata’kehró:non Sharon Simon on January 23. The fire was deemed suspicious and firefighters allegedly took more than two hours to answer the 911 call. The event refuelled the conversation surrounding Kanesatake’s need to have its own policing services - an issue that continues to make headlines. On a more festive note, French film director Nicolas Asdaris paid tribute to Onkwehón:we culture and tradition in his latest movie, which he shot in Kanesatake in early January.
Fourteen black crosses delivered all over the community with threatening messages directed at the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake (MCK) chiefs created an ominous vibe for February. Who was behind these messages? No one knew, but it brought mistrust among the MCK. Tensions rose as the MCK grand chief Serge Otsi Simon suggested lifting the nationwide railroad blockades that were erected in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs. Simon faced great criticism from community members. Protesters blocked access to the MCK office building, demanding Simon’s resignation. The grand chief later retracted his comments. Yet, the MCK building was not the only thing that was sealed off during the month. The community completely blocked access to its territory only a few hours after the Ontario Provincial Police raided Tyendinaga, a sister Kanien’kehá:ka community in Ontario. Tyendinaga was protesting and showing support for the Wet’suwet’en when the police moved in and arrested land defenders.
While the focus had been on the Wet’suwet’en struggle since the beginning of the year, a new enemy began lurking around the world. The coronavirus had already made its grand debut in Asia and Europe, but no one could have predicted the rest of the year. On March 11, the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic. A few days later, the Kanesatake Emergency Response Unit (ERU) was created and given full authority to navigate the impact of the virus on the community. As safety measures were being implemented across the country, a state of emergency was declared in Kanesatake on March 23. It forced not only the closure of all businesses, but also access to the territory for non-locals.
Only a few weeks into the pandemic, and already the safety measures were being broken. After seeing that non-locals were still making their way across the community, the ERU enacted the Access Control Team (ACT) to cover five checkpoints and secure Kanesatake’s roads. The Oka mayor, Pascal Quevillon, supported the decision but later changed his position after the Surete du Quebec (SQ) indicated that it was illegal to control the roads. The proposed checkpoints were moved closer to the community. It was also decided in April that both Kanesatake schools would remain closed for the rest of the academic year, while classes and assignments moved online.
A light of hope came with the warmer days, but the loosening of safety measures brought its share of anxiety to the community. Too many cars were going through the checkpoints. The MCK received a cease and desist letter sent by the Oka municipality and the MRC Deux-Montagnes, asking for their removal. With the re-opening of Oka Park, the MCK and the ERU decided to not only keep the checkpoints in place, but also set a new one at the entrance of the park, blocking its access. Kanesatake grand chief asked the Quebec government to be consulted on reopening tourist services. A deal was reached to implement safety measures by the end of the month. In lighter news, a first mobile COVID-19 clinic made its stop in the community, offering on-site rapid testing for Kanehsata’kehró:non. The news was good: still zero positive cases.
Monday, June 1, marked a turning point in the pandemic as Kanesatake’s businesses reopened. The decision came as its sister community Kahnawake also decided to reopen its businesses. The original checkpoints were moved deeper within the community to make sure that non-locals wouldn’t wander off to residential areas. While June is normally the month of graduation, Kanesatake had to reinvent itself in order to celebrate its students. Kanehsata’kehró:non gathered at the lacrosse field box for an outdoor ceremony. As activities were allowed to restart in the construction industry, the Oka municipality announced its intention to do archeological digs by the end of the month - ahead of a new recreational centre in the village. The decision was met by disapproval from the community, especially the Longhouse, which hadn’t been consulted.
July was far from a quiet month. It most importantly marked the 30th commemoration of the so-called 1990 Oka Crisis. On July 11, a rolling blockade drove down the streets of Kanesatake toward the Oka village. Sadly, most people present agreed that little has changed. After meeting with the Oka municipality at the end of June, the Kanesatake grand chief gave his consent to go ahead with the archeological digs while representatives of the People of the Longhouse strongly opposed the project. At the same time, accusations of lack of transparency rose against the MCK, not only regarding consultation over land developments and negotiations but also over mishandling of funds and health concerns in regards to the G&R recycling site. It became impossible this summer to ignore the foul smell emanating from the G&R dump. A meeting between citizens from neighbouring municipalities and Kanehsata’kehró:non looked into putting more pressure on the Quebec government to resolve its permit. In the meantime, seven Kanehsata’kehró:non signed a letter demanding answers from the MCK, with the risk of facing a vote of non-confidence if the MCK didn’t oblige. And they didn’t. A public meeting was then called, where members voted in favour of introducing a motion of non-confidence against the grand chief and vice chief Patricia Meilleur. That vote was ultimately deemed illegitimate and denied by the MCK.
The first cases of COVID-19 hit the community in August. Eight people contracted the virus throughout the month. But, that wasn’t the only health-related worry the community faced. Concerns over G&R reached a new level as an unknown black substance leaked into a creek that flows toward the Lake of Two Mountains. The month of August also brought a lot of accusations and divisions in the community. Land defenders erected a campsite over the Domaine des Collines to protest the development site while negotiations between the private owner and the MCK regarding land donation were still ongoing. The grand chief released a statement in which he informed the community that two criminal complaints had been filed against another MCK chief. Simon also publicly stated that he had made the SQ aware of online threats he received, fearing for his life.
All classes moved online in September, even for Kanehsata’kehró:non. But while most people stayed safely at home, tensions remained high in the community. Land defenders mobilized to halt the archeological digs that started without prior notice. A week later, a house located on disputed land was suspiciously set on fire. This also came only a few days after leaked footage was shared online, showing the environmental devastation made by G&R. It wasn’t the only video that caught the community’s attention during the month. MCK’s grand chief released informative capsules, addressing the issues that had been ongoing in Kanesatake.
A small victory in a long battle: The Quebec government revoked G&R’s permit to operate at the beginning of October. Kanesatake entered the highest level of alert. As a 28-day challenge was imposed all over the province to slow down the second wave, the community lost its first member to the virus. Illegal tree cutting revived disagreement in the community regarding development in the Pines. Oka worsened the situation by introducing its plan to transform the Pines as a heritage site, which was strongly denounced by Kanehsata’kehró:non. Community members also stood together during a rolling blockade organized in support of the Mi’kmaq Nation, which had been the target of racism over the launch of its own fishery. The month ended with a socially distanced version of Halloween and a mysterious green light scanning the territory, which was later explained.
November celebrated veterans in Kanien’kéha through a special initiative by the Kanesatake First Nations Paramedics. Another initiative got noticed. The Economic and Business Development department was selected to be part of a new training program that aimed to empower women in entrepreneurship. The women in the community went on to show exactly how powerful they can be. They came together to protest illegal tree cutting in the Pines after another community member decided to clear-cut, hoping to build another smoke shop.
Online games and challenges, a Christmas parade, gift delivery; everything was organized in order to safely celebrate the holiday season. In good spirit, many Kanehsata’kehró:non launched raffles and fundraisers to help community members in need. Yet not everyone felt like celebrating. News broke that the Oka municipality went ahead with the decision to transform the Pines into a heritage site. The decision was met with a lot of anger and incomprehension from all sides. Kanehsata’kehró:non continued protesting in the Pines. The MCK grand chief mentioned his intention to bring the municipality to court. A negotiator was mandated by the minister responsible for Indigenous Affairs to open discussions between the two communities, but the meeting had to be postponed for Kanesatake. Sadly, the year ended with the community losing two of its members in the same week.
Virginie Ann, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eastern Door