Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Simon came to the bargaining table with his council on Friday expecting an apology that, in the end, never came.
As a result, Simon said he’s decided to cut off all talks with Oka Mayor Pascal Quevillon after the mayor refused to apologize for derogatory comments about the Mohawk territory.
Simon and his band council met with federal and provincial governments earlier in the day in an attempt to diffuse tensions over a land dispute between Kanesatake and neighbouring Oka, northwest of Montreal.
“The Mayor simply opened up this issue – and [Mohawk] council wasn’t prepared,” he told reporters. “It made it look like we refused or were hiding something, and we weren’t.
“We have to take this back to the community somehow and start explaining, but what are we going to explain?” Simon added.
The grand chief met with Marc Miller, parliamentary secretary to the federal minister of Crown-Indigenous relations and Quebec’s Indigenous Affairs Minister Sylvie D’Amours, at the downtown offices of Quebec Premier Francois Legault – who was not present for Friday’s trilateral encounter.
As he left the discussions, Simon said he and his council had decided they “were not going to give the mayor any more importance.”
“Yes the bridges are cut,” Simon told reporters alongside Ghislain Picard, regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations for Quebec and Labrador. “We’ll have no more discussions with him. My council agrees with me.
“I think the population of this province should be looking at this mayor and really recognizing that he’s really not on the right track,” Simon added.
Emotions have run high since news broke of local developer Gregoire Gollin’s intention to give back 60 hectares to the federal government as an ecological gift with the possibility that it would be eventually purchased by Kanesatake.
Quevillon offended many on the territory when he raised concerns about becoming encircled by Kanesatake.
Quevillon has said property values would decline and raised fears of illegal dumping and an expansion of cannabis and cigarette merchants.
Oka’s mayor met with Miller and D’Amours following their discussions with the Mohawk leaders.
On his way into the office tower, Quevillon told reporters he didn’t know what he was supposed to be apologizing for – and that he was unaware that the grand chief was expecting an apology prior to talks progressing.
“What I understand is that I used words like smoke and pot shacks,” he said. “That’s the reality unfortunately. What we are seeing is the reality.”
Quevillon said the Mohawks claim the land on which his town is settled, and his population feels as if they have been “taken hostage” by land disputes, including those in Deux-Montagnes, and a parcel of land in Mirabel – an ancestral hunting ground of the Mohawk people, according to Simon – that was also returned to the federal government earlier this year.
“It’s 300 years that Oka is there, and we’re being told that, finally, these are lands that belong to the Mohawks,” he said.
Simon said Quevillon’s comments Friday morning made things worse.
“He made it clear he’s not going to apologize about what he conceives as the truth when he describes my community,” Simon said.
“My community has several social problems, yes. But what’s he’s describing … it’s not the will of my council to propagate those social problems.”
Despite the conflict with the Oka mayor, Simon said he had positive discussions with Miller and D’Amours.
He said they talked with him about opening up more formal lines of communication between his council and the federal and provincial governments regarding land claims and expanding Kanesatake’s territory.
For his part, Miller said he wasn’t expecting today’s meetings to result in a “historical breakthrough,” but rather to open the table to discussions while denouncing the use of inflammatory or sensationalist language moving forward.
“It’s very important to have truthful information so that both communities can digest it and come to opinions as to what [the proposed agreement] is,” Miller explained. “The false information is very concerning for both federal and provincial governments.”
“These exchanges of words, these dialogues – even in front of reporters – are done with the utmost respect, because we know we have learned from our lessons in the past,” he added.
D’Amours said that she was satisfied with the outcome of the meetings with both the grand chief and Quevillion.
“I’m very happy that we were able to have a day of frank dialogue with stakeholders,” D’Amours said.
“I think we need to remember what the citizens want, and the citizens don’t want a crisis. So I think that both parties – even if both gentlemen don’t speak – the two parties agree that there has to be a dialogue, and there also has a be respect towards the population who don’t want a second crisis.”
But, Simon said, any discussion about the expansion of Kanesatake is premature.
His people will need to be consulted and vote on whether or not to accept any donations of land that the Mohawks already claim as theirs.
“Our community still has to decide,” Simon said. “I think the mayor pressed the panic button a little too quickly.”
With files from The Canadian Press.