Community members from Kanehsatake said they hadn’t been informed of the construction plan and archeological digs. (COURTESY VIRGINIE ANN THE EASTERN DOOR)
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The mandatory archeological digs ahead of the construction for the new recreation centre in Oka started on Tuesday, September 8, without prior notice.
Kanehsatake community members stood in front of the construction crew as the digs started, demanding a halt on the excavation of the community centre parking lot.
Among the protesters was activist Ellen Gabriel, who said she was met with menacing looks and people telling her she already had her chance to protest this project.
“We did decide and we said no but they don’t take no for answer,” said Gabriel. “The Mohawk Council has agreed, but they only have a quarter of the support. That’s not meaningful consultation on something that impacts our rights, and I think it’s disrespectful.”
The digs have been the centre of tensions since earlier in June when the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake (MCK) gave consent to the municipality of Oka to go ahead, against the Kanien’kehá:- ka Rotinonhseshá:ka’s will.
“The only heads up we got was from a random Facebook post from people walking or driving by that alerted us that the municipality started the archeological digs, and prior to that we hadn’t been informed,” said Wenhni’tiio Will Gareau, present at the digging site on Tuesday.
Gareau was also part of the meeting held on June 29 between Secretariat des Affaires Autochtones minister Sylvie d’Amours, Oka mayor Pascal Quevillon and the MCK, along with Gabriel representing the People of the Longhouse.
During that meeting, Gareau and Gabriel gave their statement on the archeological digs.
“Our position was always clear,” said Gareau, “that we didn’t permit any digging whatsoever to go ahead. Basically, what we are seeing is how the municipality of Oka always acts, they just go ahead with projects without any concerns for our rights to the land.”
Despite the division, the municipality of Oka was granted permission after MCK conducted an online survey. The survey, which was shared on Facebook, resulted in 35 out of more than 1,500 community members voting in favour of the digs.
“There wasn’t that much of participation in this survey but 75 percent voted in favour,” said MCK grand chief Serge Otsi Simon, who claims members tried to interfere with the voting system. “For most of the community, the overall sense is that the community wants to find what’s buried.”
Construction sources on-site confirmed that five digs were planned for Tuesday before they were stopped by the protest. They said that MCK had been informed that they were going to start the digs and that the community was supposed to send members to overlook it. Still, they decided to proceed without community supervision.
The mayor of Oka, Pascal Quevillon, also confirmed that they received permission from the Ministry of Culture and Communications, after they were mandated to consult the community.
“I don’t understand why they are here, the community has accepted,” said Quevillon, who explained that the digs are mandatory in order to respect the government requirements.
With this recreational centre project, Oka has access to a financial aid program from the provincial government, covering up to 65 percent of the cost.
While tensions grew, the archeologist on the project, Richard Fiset, said he was not expecting to come face-to-face with protesters. “The digs benefit both the municipality and the Indigenous history,” said Fiset, adding that he was told not to speak about it.
From the single hole that was made, Fiset was able to identify different layers of wood and rocks, the bottom of a shoe from the 1960s and some metal.
On Wednesday morning at 7 a.m., as they came back to do more digging, they were once again closed down by protesters.
The Eastern Door tried to reach the Oka municipality, but was not able to confirm when they were planning to resume the excavation.