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'We matter': Mohawks camp out on disputed land near Montreal to stop housing project

MONTREAL — Members of a Montreal-area First Nation's territory who are occupying a disputed parcel of land say they'll camp out "as long as it takes" to stop a proposed housing project.

MONTREAL — Members of a Montreal-area First Nation's territory who are occupying a disputed parcel of land say they'll camp out "as long as it takes" to stop a proposed housing project. 

On Thursday afternoon, half a dozen children played around a clearing by a campfire and where three tents had been erected beneath flapping Mohawk flags. Six or seven adult community members sat in lawn chairs, chatting beneath a mesh tent that protected them from the drizzle. 

Despite the relaxed mood, people at the camp said they were not willing to cede "a single inch" of the territory they claim. 

"We matter, and we’re going to stop this," said Kaherihshon Beauvais, a community member at the site. "It is our land, these are our children."

Newly appointed Kahnawake Grand Chief Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer said she is offering her full support to the effort. 

"We have sent numerous letters to people in government offices, the prime minister … even to Quebec's (Indigenous Affairs) Minister Ian Lafrenière and unfortunately, things have gone unanswered," Sky-Deer, who was elected chief last weekend, said in an interview Thursday.

"It’s a very pressing issue for us. It's about getting our lands back."

Kahnawake Mohawks set up the encampment beside their community on July 1 in a wooded area bordering the municipality of Châteauguay, Que., on Montreal's south shore. Châteauguay city council adopted a zoning change in the area on March 15, clearing the way for the construction of 290 homes on the land. 

Mohawk council Chief Mike Delisle said the land is known as "Parcel E," part of a land-transfer agreement with the Quebec government following the 2007 expansion of a major highway just south of Kahnawake. Quebec still owes Kahnawake 211 acres of land for the Highway 30 expansion, Delisle said in an interview.

The 211 acres are on the Seigneury of Sault St. Louis, which is part of a historical land claim by the Mohawks.

"We are looking for more than consultation, we need retribution for the past," Delisle said. "It’s not a Châteauguay issue, it’s more of a federal and provincial one." 

Kahnawákeró:non Karihwakatste Deer, spokeswoman for the protest camp, said her community knew about the proposed housing project since last spring, adding that letters to the city council were not returned. 

Representatives from Châteauguay were not immediately available for comment.

"We felt like July 1 was an appropriate day for us to make an encampment there because of the connection between the residential schools, with them taking our language and culture and land," Deer said in an interview. 

"These lands are still being taken for us, this is still happening today. It hasn't changed. We couldn't wait until something was built there."

She said the numbers of people at the camp vary between two and thirty, with community members dropping in and out to tell stories or drop off supplies. While the main camp near the road is not on the disputed portion of the land, she said there are other community members who have pitched tents near the proposed building site. 

Beauvais said the attempt to develop the land is "another slap in the face" to the community. Much of Canada's history has been focused on trying to take lands from Indigenous people, she said. And Kahnawake, with its growing population, needs the land for its own people.

"We are going to stay here and make the stand," she said. "It’s our land, it’s coming back, it’s ours. We didn’t give it, we’re keeping it."

Sky-Deer agrees. The federal and provincial governments should take this occasion to negotiate with her community and transfer control of the land to Kahnawake, she said. 

"This is for us the perfect chance to get our land back because it hasn’t been developed yet," Sky-Deer said. 

Lafreniere said in a statement Thursday he encourages the municipality of Chateauguay to continue conversations with the Mohawk council regarding the housing project. 

"The community wishes for that land to be acquired by the federal (government) in regard to land claims, so a solution has to be found rapidly," said Lafreniere, adding that he is in contact with Kahnawake's grand chief.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on July 8, 2021.

Virginie Ann and Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press