Town of Oka and Kanesatake territory at odds over COVID-19 check points

‘It’s like there’s a sea of it surrounding us’

The Mohawk territory of Kanesatake is once again at odds with its neighbouring town of Oka over check points leading into the community – check points the grand chief vows to keep in place until a vaccine for COVID-19 is found.

Even though the virus that has infected nearly 73,000 people in Canada and killed more than 5,000, no one, so far in the territory an hour west of Montreal on the Lake of Two Mountains, has tested positive.

The community, Grand Chief Serge Simon says, is trying to keep it that way.

“It’s almost like we’re an island, and all around us you’ll see little red dots of all the infections in all the surrounding areas,” says Simon.

“It’s like there’s a sea of it surrounding us.”

But with tourist season approaching and the province slowly opening its economy, the town of Oka, which sits a stone’s throw away from the entrance to the Mohawk territory, has asked the people at the check points to stand down.

Mayor Pascal Quevillion, who is no stranger to drawing the ire of Simon and the rest of the Mohawk community, asked the Mohawk population to take down the road blocks and allow the provincial police, the Surete du Quebec (SQ) to control traffic and handle anything related to the pandemic.

The checkpoints, he says, are illegal and force Oka residents into unnecessary detours in order to avoid Kanesatake’s borders.

In a statement issued earlier this week, Quevillion decried the SQ and the province’s transport ministry for “[neglecting] to exercise their power and jurisdiction on Route 344 to restore traffic on the Oka road network.”

He said it’s “unacceptable” that Kanesatake’s “economic vitality” is held hostage by the Mohawk Council and the Kanesatake Emergency Response Unit.

Simon says Kanesatake has, so far, turned away thousands of cars since the pandemic began – mostly out-of-towners or people seeking cannabis and tobacco shops.

Simon doesn’t expect the SQ to do the work the response unit has already undertaken with the check points.

“Despite that, [Quevillion] went ahead and threatened our checkpoints – or dissuasion points – with arrest.”

On Monday, the Mohawk Council was served with a cease and desist notice signed by Quevillion.

According to the document, he’s threatening legal action for “unacceptable and intolerable” inconveniences, and is asking for the checkpoints to be lifted by May 11.

Oka also dispatched legal notices to higher-ups at the SQ and the Quebec Transport ministry, asking them, once again, to act.

In the document, the Municipality of Oka says “it wold be a shame” to eventually have to file an injunction request in Quebec Superior Court in order to “enforce its rights relative to the management of the road network.”

In a Facebook video posted Wednesday, Quevillion reminded Oka residents that the Mohawk territory doesn’t have the jurisdiction to block roads or order businesses closed.

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.