MONTREAL -- The town of Oka has submitted a proposal to designate the area of forest known as The Pines, the land where the Oka Crisis played out 30 years ago, as a municipal heritage site.

The move has once again ratcheted up tensions between the town council and neighbouring Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) community of Kanesatake.

“It’s bad faith on the mayor’s part,” said Serge Otsi Simon, Grand Chief of the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake, which has condemned the proposal as a "threat" to Mohawk sovereignty.

“This land is part of our treaty rights,” he said, in an interview with CTV News, “and now [if we want to do anything in The Pines], we’re going to have to go seek permission from the municipality who we deem as an illegal entity within our treaty lands.” 

According to the Province’s Cultural Heritage Act, municipalities have the power to recognize a "site situated in its territory as heritage property," but the MCK grand chief believes an exception should be made in this case.

“When it comes to municipalities situated within unceded Aboriginal territory, that article should not apply,” said Simon, who intends on challenging the move in court. 

The Kanien’kehá:ka of Kanesatake have a long-standing claim to roughly 260 square miles of land pledged under a treaty signed in 1760, which includes the land where the town of Oka sits, according to Simon.

“This type of pilfering and misappropriation of our culture and our heritage is going to stop,” he added.

Much of the land in question is owned by Gregoire Gollin, a developer, who last summer agreed to transfer title of over 70 hectares of the land back to the people of Kanesatake. The first of its kind ‘ecological gift,’ would ensure the forest is protected from further development; the details are being finalized with the federal government.

But, according to Pascal Quevillon, mayor of Oka, the municipality is in a better position to protect the land. 

In an hour long public consultation broadcast on youtube, the mayor referenced illegal dump sites and cannabis shops on the Kanesatake territory as proof that the Mohawk Council is unable to properly regulate its territory.

He made similar claims in the summer of 2019 when he first tried to block the land transfer from Gollin to Kanesatake.

“If the forest becomes the property of Kanesatake with the ecological gift, and since the Mohawk Council doesn’t control what’s going on on its territory, what’s going to happen then?” Quevillon asked during the live stream consultation on Oct. 19.

The move to designate The Pines as a heritage site is about conservation, according the Oka mayor.

“We already have a plan that was there before the mayor came up with this cockamamie idea,” said Simon, who sees the heritage site proposal as illegitimate and steeped in racism.