Developer to return disputed land to Kanesatake Mohawks as ecological gift

MONTREAL — A Quebec land developer has signed an agreement with the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake to return a parcel of pine forest that was central to the Oka crisis that began 29 years ago Thursday.

Gregoire Gollin says he acted in the spirit of reconciliation in an agreement reached last month and plans to cede 60 hectares of forest known as The Pines to the local council as an ecological gift through a federal government program.

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"This is my contribution to reconciliation," Gollin said in a phone interview Thursday. "Everyone is talking about reconciliation with the First Nations — for our prime minister, it's a high priority."

Gollin has owned the land for 15 years and owns a lot of land in and around Oka. Two years ago, there were protests mounted by local Mohawks against a residential housing project spearheaded by Gollin that was allegedly encroaching on sacred Kanesatake pine forest.

Discussions about the land donation had been ongoing for two years with Kanesatake officials and Gollin said he was hopeful the council would be accepted as a recipient under the federal terms.

"It's a forest, there's no development possible in this forest, it has a high ecological value, it has a high heritage value for the Mohawks, it was planted by their ancestors," Gollin said.

According to the ecological gifts program website, owners who donate the property get tax benefits while recipients make sure the biodiversity and environmental heritage of the property are conserved in perpetuity. The program is subject to an assessment process.

"I was in position to have a dialogue with the Mohawks of Kanesatake and we accomplished an agreement," Gollin said, adding it will now go to Kanesatake residents for consultation.

The donated land was part of lands central to the Oka crisis which began July 11, 1990. Gunfire erupted between provincial police and Aboriginals defending a small stand of pine trees resulting in the death of officer Marcel Lemay and sparking a 78-day showdown.

At the end of it, a deal was struck to bring down the barricades in exchange for cancelling the expansion of a golf course.

But nearly three decades removed from the explosive crisis, the disputed territory remains a long-standing, unsettled issue and development has continued.

"We've lost more land in the last 29 years than gained," said Ellen Gabriel, a Mohawk activist and artist.

She called Gollin's move a noble gesture, but one that does not go far enough.

"I gotta give my hat off to Mr. Gollin for trying in his own way what is reconciliation," Gabriel said. "But which I think is really not because there are strings attached for this so-called ecological gift."

Gollin said he's also prepared to discuss the sale of an additional 150 hectares he owns in the area to the federal government to transfer to the community — nearly half of which he said is adjacent to land owned by Kanesatake.

Gabriel noted the local Mohawk council hasn't shared details of the land donation agreement with the community.

Calls to the Kanesatake Mohawk Council weren't returned on Thursday.

Local newspaper The Eastern Door, which first reported on the offer several weeks ago, quoted Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Simon then as saying the matter would be brought to the community once details were finalized.

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