Checkpoints to keep Kanesatake ‘as safe as we can’ rile Oka mayor

“We’re talking about checkpoints for safety – these are not barricades.”

The Mohawks of Kanesatake have put up a check in front of a popular park to stop tourists from gathering near the community.

Oka Park, an expansive green space offering hiking and biking trails, campsites, and a beach, is located on unceded Mohawk territory.

The park opened with restrictions to hikers and cyclists on Wednesday, when Quebec relaxed its restrictions around social distancing because of the COVID-19 virus.

People were expected to flock to the park – but the Mohawks had other plans, turning people from highly-infected regions away.

Several trails in Oka Park lead into Kanesatake; officials say keeping them open will inevitably increase traffic and risk of contagion.

“It all boils down to keeping Kanesatake as safe as we can in this situation,” said Robert Bonspiel of the Kanesatake Emergency Response Unit.

Road workers have reportedly turned away over 5000 vehicles from the checkpoints since the pandemic began.

The checkpoints aren’t going over well in nearby Oka, where mayor Pascal Quevillion requested a cease and desist order claiming the stops cause unnecessary and unacceptable detours for Oka residents.

Quevillion and Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Simon spent days in talks over the situation. Quevillion even served a legal notice to the provincial police force, urging them to dismantle the checks immediately.

When the new checkpoint went up outside Oka Park on Wednesday morning, officers with the Surete de Quebec remained stationed nearby but ultimately didn’t intervene, deeming it a political issue.

By mid-week, the checkpoints garnered the attention of provincial and Federal leaders.

In Montreal Thursday, Premier Francois Legault was asked if Quebec would allow the “barricade” to stay in place.

Legault said he understands the community’s concerns, and that Indigenous Affairs Minister Sylvie D’Amours is on the case.

“It’s legitimate, and we’re in discussions to solve this amicably,” Legault said in French.

But Oka’s mayor took the issue straight to the top, blaming Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller for using federal dollars to enable “illegal” checkpoints.

On Wednesday, the issue reached the House of Commons when a Conservative MP asked Federal officials to intervene.

“We’d like to know, is there a way the federal government can speak to the Mohawks and reason with them?” asked Pierre Paul-Hus, whose riding of Charlesbourg-Haute-Saint-Charles sits about 330 km east of Kanesatake.

On Thursday, Miller was on his feet giving answers.

He said it’s hard to judge people who are trying to protect their communities, and added that First Nations have shown ​”exemplary leadership” in their pandemic response.

“Every time an elder dies, it’s a tragedy for their language,” Miller said. “We have to understand the situation that they’re in. We’re talking about checkpoints for safety– these are not barricades.”

Kanesatake member and activist Ellen Gabriel says she’s seeing patterns in response to the check points, as well as Quebec’s intention to press ahead with re-opening without consultation.

“So many unknowns about this virus and yet you play with people’s lives as if you can resort to the old normal,” she wrote in a Facebook post addressed to Federal and provincial officials.

“No small town mayor has a right to throw tantrums and threaten our rights to security.”

Bonspiel said he sees this as a responsibility.

“Traditionally, historically, Indigenous people have never been spared by pandemic situations from the beginning of colonialism 400 years ago,” he said, adding that the check points will stay in place for now.

Reporter / Montreal

Lindsay was born and raised on the unceded territory of Tiohtià:ke (Montréal), and joined APTN News as a Quebec correspondent in 2019. While in university, she collaborated on a multiplatform project about the revitalization of the Kanien’kéha (Mohawk) language to commemorate the International Year of Indigenous Languages. Before APTN Lindsay worked at the Eastern Door, CTV Montreal and the Montreal Gazette.