‘This is Our Land’: An Interview with Ellen Gabriel about Ongoing Land Fraud at Kanesatake
Land back is land back.
For the Kanien’kéha:ka (Mohawk) of Kanehsatà:ke, the return of stolen land – fraudulently sold first by a religious order and then by the municipality of Oka, Quebec and the Government of Canada – has been at the heart of their demands for 300 years. Mohawk resistance to the ongoing theft of Kanien’kéha:ka homelands is well-known. Most notably, in the summer of 1990, during the so-called “Oka Crisis,” Mohawks defended a forested area known as the Pines from development. Since then, community members like Ellen Gabriel (Katsi’tsakwas, Turtle Clan) have continued to protect the Pines and call on all levels of settler government – municipal, provincial, and federal – to return the land.
So when news broke in July that a developer was going to gift 60 hectares of land, including the Pines, to the community, many people declared it a win for the Mohawks. The developer – Gregoire Gollin – said that he is making the gift “in the spirit of reconciliation.” What’s more, Gollin has stated that he’s willing to sell an additional 150 hectares of the disputed land to the Government of Canada to then transfer back to the community.
On the surface, this story seems to offer a model for what reconciliation in Canada could look like. Stolen land is being returned.
But the devil is always in the details.
Gollin’s “reconciliation” comes with strings attached. His “gift” to the Mohawk does not actually return the land to the community, and his promises to stop development on disputed land is contingent on the federal government compensating him for land he fraudulently purchased with no guarantee that the land will be returned to the Mohawks.
More information, and a longer view of colonization at Kanehsatà:ke, reveals that Gollin is not unselfishly contributing to reconciliation but is rather continuing accumulation by dispossession. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Ellen Gabriel to shed more light on the situation.
Sean Carleton for Canadian Dimension (CD): Many people look back on the events of the so-called Oka Crisis and say, “well, the golf course was never built in the Pines, the graveyard was protected, so the Mohawks won.” Is that an accurate assessment?
Ellen Gabriel (EG): Well, it was a small victory. The proposed development – the golf course extension, the building of luxury condos over our ancestral graveyard in the Pines – didn’t continue. That’s a good thing, but what many people don’t realize is that the issue of control over our land got lost in the “crisis” that all levels of government – municipal, provincial, and federal – manufactured. Once the federal government stopped its siege on our community in September 1990, it promised to resolve the land issue; however, when the tanks left and the 2500 troops were redeployed, we didn’t get the land back. The cameras left and people – Canadians – stopped caring. But we are still struggling for the return of our land.
In the years afterwards, the government promised to work with the community to transfer the land back, but instead fraudulently sold it to a developer who in turn sold it to Gollin. People need to understand that this is what has been going on for 300 years. This is what we are fighting to stop.
This is how “Oka” was created. Our homeland was systemically sold out from under us by the Sulpicians to create Oka, and the municipality of Oka, supported by the federal government, has only continued the land fraud. Oka is not near or around Kanehsatà:ke; Kanehsatà:ke is Oka. That’s the problem. The major of Oka, Pascal Quevillon, wants this to continue to the benefit of the municipality.
This is how Canada operates. Canada steals land from Indigenous peoples and fraudulently sells it – at a profit – to settlers and “developers.” People think Gollin’s so-called “gift” will end this story, but it is just another chapter in the saga of settler colonialism.
CD: Why is the “land gift” story so problematic?
EG: Gollin’s so-called gift comes with terms and conditions that only furthers colonization. First, because it is an ecological gift, the land will continue to be controlled by the federal government and not by Kanehsatà:ke. Sure, there can be no development in the Pines, which is good, but our land is not being returned to us. The federal government will still oversee our land, it will be subject to federal rules and regulations. We will have no say.
Second, Gollin’s gift will give him a hefty a tax break. He is rich for a reason. He knows we will always resist development of the Pines, as we did in 1990, so he is cutting his losses in the face of our persistent resistance. We protested his development project in the summer of 2017, and he stopped. So, better get something for your investment, right? He is smart. He is making the “gift” to liquefy some cash, which he can use to purchase and develop other land. Most notably, he is “gifting” 60 hectares of our land but is doing so to force the government to buy his other 150 hectares, probably at a profit, that he shouldn’t have been able to purchase in the first place. If the deal falls through, he says he will continue to develop our land. People are getting rich off of selling stolen land back and forth. That’s Canada. The land fraud just continues. So, had he gifted us with everything that would be one thing, but he said he has to eat, well, this is a rich man who owns a lot of land.
Third, and I can’t stress this enough, people need to understand: this is our land. The federal government, Canada, all of the governments, including Oka, are guilty of land fraud. This is something that already is ours. We never relinquished or surrendered control; the land was – and still is being – stolen from us.
CD: What is the role of federal government here?
EG: Well, the bottom line is that the federal government and politicians don’t really care if the land is transferred.
The history is there, and there is a lot of digging; if we dug deep enough and took Canada to court – we could break Canada, easily. Just this community alone, because of the land-fraud, because of all the things that have been taken from us, that have been denied. Canada has never upheld the honour of the Crown here in Kanehsatà:ke and indeed in many cases, and so the Quebecois people, their concerns are more important to Canada than the people of Kanehsatà:ke and the Mohawks everywhere.
I think if there is any kind of reconciliation people need to understand there needs to be reparations. That makes people – Canadians – nervous, but it’s the truth. We need to work on this together, nation-to-nation. Right now, negotiations are one-directional and the band council supports this against the wishes of the majority of the community. We are being dictated too and told to celebrate it as a victory. That’s not what nation-to-nation looks like to me.
And if Mr. Gollin is going to be allowed to continue to sell more land, then we’re losing more land again. We’re between a rock and a hard place. If we say no to this, then we’ll hear, “oh, you guys don’t want a resolution…you’re just violent people,” which is what mayor Quevillon and many others in Oka are saying. The mayor is afraid that Mohawks will be surrounding the people of Oka, never stating that he will gain taxes from this and that this is Kanien’kehá:ka homelands
We’re just supposed to accept the crumbs thrown our way, accept the conditions, we have no say in what those conditions are and the band council isn’t communicating with the people. Tensions are rising. It’s very frustrating that 29 years after the “crisis” we’re still discussing this. The federal government had an opportunity to do something about it and did absolutely nothing.
If the government of Canada gets it way, somewhere down the line they can sell our land to a developer again, as they did in 1990, they sold to a private individuals on disputed land, so they should be compensating these people (in Oka) that they fraudulently sold the land to, but they won’t acknowledge or take responsibility for creating this mess.
Everyone wants to demonize us for wanting our homelands back but that is absurd. Canadians need to direct their outrage at the right people: the Sulpicians, Oka, the provincial and federal governments – they all need to be held accountable for their ongoing complicity in land fraud and colonization at Kanehsatà:ke.
CD: What message to do you want Canadians to understand as this story unfolds?
EG: Learn your colonial history, learn why we are so frustrated, and let’s get back to nation-to-nation relations. We have a history – At the Woods Edge – that helps people understand the complex story of Kanehsatà:ke. This has been going on for more than 300 years.
We are people of the land. We are made from this land. It is priceless. We want to have the ability, like everybody else, to be able to live in a safe and secure environment, and we cannot do that when the Government of Canada continues to control our lives and our lands. And if Canadians want to pressure their governments – municipal, provincial, federal – to do something, if they really care about peace in this country, then they need to learn their own colonial history.
We have so little land left from our original homeland. We’re not asking for much. We’re asking for justice. And that means that Canadians need to become educated and activated.
Ellen Gabriel (Katsi’tsakwas) is a Kanien’kehá:ka Mohawk activist and artist from Kanehsatà:ke - Turtle Clan, known for her involvement as the official spokesperson, chosen by the People of the Longhouse and the community of Kanehsatà:ke, during the 1990 “Oka Crisis.” She is the recipient of the Golden Eagle Award from the Native Women’s Association of Canada (2005) and the Jigonsaseh Women of Peace Award (2008).
Sean Carleton is a coordinating editor with Canadian Dimension.