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Oka denied on Pines land legal maneuver

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As the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake (MCK) continues to mull over the years-old question of an “ecological gift” of Pines land from Grégoire Gollin, an attempt by municipality of Oka lawyers to leverage Kanesatake land claims against him has been rejected.

Oka had asked that two files, one launched by the MCK and one launched by Gollin, be joined together, seeking to compel Kanesatake’s involvement in a dispute between Gollin and Oka that involves nearly 10 hectares of land in the Pines that is separate from – but adjacent to – the 60 hectares identified for a possible ecological gift.

Gollin is suing the municipality of Oka for $8 million for “disguised expropriation,” a term to describe Gollin’s contention that the municipality purposefully imposed onerous regulations on land he owns in a bid to suppress its material value.

MCK’s legal action aims to strike down Oka’s designation of much of the Pines, excepting the golf club, as a heritage site.

“The legal bases of the Mohawks of Kanesatake’s claim are completely different from the property developer’s action for damages,” concluded judge Paul Mayer in the decision.

“None of this involves the Mohawks of Kanesatake,” he wrote. “Their territorial claims are completely separate from this question of disguised expropriation. The land claims of the Mohawks of Kanesatake transcend Quebec private law.”

MCK lawyers got involved when those representing the municipality of Oka made an effort to conflate the issues, according to MCK chief Brant Etienne.

“Essentially the court’s view was correct,” said Etienne. “It would be a bad precedent if municipalities could start dragging Indigenous communities into their internal squabbles over land and mix it all up with our titles.”

In addition to the designation of the Pines as a heritage site, which gives the municipality increased control over the land, Oka had limited the use of the land by rezoning much of it from residential to environmental conservation.

Faced with Gollin’s lawsuit, which Oka’s mayor Pascal Quevillon characterized in an Oka Council meeting in 2022 as representing the equivalent of the municipality’s annual budget, the community voted to backtrack on the rezoning. However, according to Gollin, the municipality was not successful in doing so.

Quevillon confirmed to The Eastern Door that much of the land in question is currently zoned for environmental conservation.

“We changed it from residential to environmental conservation,” said Quevillon. “He would like it to be residential. What he says is that he would like to develop in the Pines.”

The rezoning appeared in a summary of the Summit of First Nations and Municipalities on Reconciliation that took place in Gatineau in March as a commitment by Oka to protect the pine forest.

“All these actions are part of an intention to harm the process of giving back this piece of forest in the spirit of reconciliation, and by the way, also, to punish me,” said Gollin, who has long argued that Oka is only acting to undermine him.

Gollin said that he did not include the 60 hectares of land reserved for a potential ecological gift in the expropriation lawsuit against Oka, despite the changes to its zoning, because he still intends to return it to Kanesatake.

“My purpose with the ecological gift – of course, you can think, and a lot of people think, it’s for monetary purposes, but the primary objective is not monetary purposes. It is not,” he said.

While Gollin acknowledges that ecological gifts, which are transferred through a federal program, come with substantial tax benefits for the landowner, his primary motive for the gesture continues to be to reunite Kanehsata’kehró:non with land that rightfully belongs to them. The offer continues to be on the table, he said.

However, the ecological gifts program comes with strings attached for communities, including strict limitations on development.

“Personally, I feel that these stipulations from a department are a little bit of an infringement on our right to self-determination,” said Etienne.

He suggested that, while ecological conservation is important, it should be Kanesatake’s prerogative to develop the land according to Onkwehón:we values as the community sees fit.

“Down the road, if we choose to develop in any way, not totally, but say even just put a community building on there for whatever reason, are we going to bump into this? Are we going to be fined?” he asked.

“That sort of infringement is a little bit gnawing to me, personally.”

Etienne said the file is still in progress, with an internal administrative deadline on its advancement coming up this summer.

“I don’t know what the answer is, what the solution is,” he said. “Personally, I do tend to be on the side of we should get our hands on the lands no matter what.”

Serge Otsi Simon, who was grand chief when the ecological gift was proposed and who took back his seat as a Council chief this week after litigation, takes a harder view.

“I don’t know why this ecological gift is still an issue. We were not going to pursue it,” he said. “It goes completely against our historical grievances to allow municipal regulation to continue to apply.”

Simon proposed that the federal government should act to compensate Gollin for the land and return it to Kanesatake without conditions, a solution Etienne also finds preferable.

“Compensate him for his artificial interest,” said Simon. “He bought and paid for it. My interest in that land is by inheritance. It’s a hereditary title.”

Gollin agreed that he would be willing to pursue this solution when speaking to The Eastern Door.

The Department of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada (CIRNAC) did not provide comment by deadline.

Marcus Bankuti, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

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Marcus is a journalist and managing editor of The Eastern Door, where he has been reporting since 2021 on issues that matter to Kahnawake and Kanesatake. He was previously editor-in-chief of The Link and a contributing editor at Our Canada magazine.

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Marcus is a journalist and managing editor of The Eastern Door, where he has been reporting since 2021 on issues that matter to Kahnawake and Kanesatake. He was previously editor-in-chief of The Link and a contributing editor at Our Canada magazine.