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Suspicious fire on disputed land

While Pierre Caron, the homeowner, doesn’t know who committed the act, he said he believes it was young people who were violent without rational reasoning. (COURTESY VIRGINIE ANN)

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Genevieve Caron was supposed to move into her new house at the end of the month. She had left her job as a teacher in Two Mountains, where she taught for more than 25 years, wishing to get closer to her family in Oka.

But before Genevieve had time to call it home, her dream went up in flames.

Her house in Domaine des Collines, which borders the edge of Kanesatake’s pine forest, caught fire early Saturday morning, September 12.

The municipality of Oka’s Fire Department received a call around 3 a.m. from neighbours, of a house burning in the development site. The house was the latest one under construction, on Belleville road.

“We need to take the entire house down now and restart from scratch,” said her father, the homeowner Pierre Caron. “And because of who, and why? I don’t even know.”

While the incident is still under investigation, the Two Mountains Surete du Quebec (SQ) confirmed that the fire is being treated as a criminal act. No one was reported injured.

No suspect nor arrest has been made, yet many sources reported hearing and seeing a group of people, during the day and later at night, loudly driving around on four-wheelers.

“They were screaming and laughing, saying that they were gonna burn everything down,” said a source who asked to remain anonymous.

Since 1990, Kanesatake has had a bunch of cases of arson in and around the territory; a form of revenge and violence that has become almost acceptable, according to grand chief Serge Otsi Simon.

“There have been all kinds of rhetoric and nasty comments from community members wanting to burn houses down,” said Simon.

“People pump themselves up on social media, it gets in people’s head that they are going to become Kanesatake’s hero and then they do something like this.”

Ironically, the house that was set fire belongs to a Mohawk family.

Caron, who was raised in Kahnawake and whose mother is from town, said he knew about the community issues surrounding the development site before buying the lot for his daughter.

He bought the land earlier this summer after she sold her old condominium and accepted a new position as a French teacher at the Oka elementary school.

Genevieve’s father had been building the house since the end of June with Martin Robbins, a Maliseet man from Viger, close to Riviere-du-Loup. Robbins said he’s been in shock since the fire.

“It’s incomprehensible,” said Robbins. “The fire could have caught onto other houses and have killed people. It’s inconceivable.”

Caron invested around $300,000 in his daughter’s house and lost all of his construction and painting tools in the fire. He said he still has to figure out if the insurance will cover the loss.

However, while the materials are replaceable, Caron confessed that his daughter has been inconsolable.

“I am a Mohawk, my children and my grandchildren are also Mohawk,” said the 72-yearold man who lives a few blocks away in the Domaine. “We are one family. Why would somebody go after us because we are building a house?”

The fire came at a time where Kanesatake is facing conflicts from all angles. In the last few months, disagreements have grown deeper between the community and the band council. This is relating to key issues emanating from an alleged lack of transparency from elected officials.

Among the tension, the development site where Caron’s house caught on fire has been at the heart of protests since 2017.

The Rotinonhseshá:ka ne Kanehsatà:ke, People of the Longhouse, have been demanding to put a stop to the residential project overlooking the Pines.

The project was an agreement between landowner Grégoire Gollin, the Municipality of Oka and the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake (MCK) from 2005. At the time, MCK gave consent without fully consulting the community.

Moreover, in June 2019, the grand chief signed an agreement with Gollin, wherein he committed to transferring more than 60 hectares, as an eco gift to the community, but not for free.

The deal still needs the final approval from the community, but the Longhouse deplored the fact that no consultation has been made.

When asked about including the People of the Longhouse at the negotiation table, Gollin said he did offer to meet with Ellen Gabriel, one of the representatives, but was met with refusal.

“Who am I supposed to discuss land claims with?” said Gollin. “With a single person? This isn’t the appropriate way. I don’t want to hand over the land to the band council, but neither to a single person. My goal is to get the community to decide on the best way to repatriate lands.”

Earlier this summer, on August 25, a camp was erected at Domaine des Collines to begin occupation against all land development.

Caron said he spent the summer waving at the People of the Longhouse who were peacefully sitting at the camp near his daughter’s house. He explained that he saw various people on-site in the past months and that he enjoyed talking with them regularly.

“I understand what they are defending,” said Caron, who moved to Oka in 1957. “But this happened and no one has been at the campsite since then.”

Gollin, who is also the land developer of Domaine des Collines, filed a general complaint with the SQ on the same day of the fire, demanding to stop any unauthorized activities on his properties.

In the meantime, Gollin said he questions the fact that even though the land defenders from the campsite issued a statement condemning the violence, the Haudenosaunee and Warriors flags are still up at the camp.

“People are terrorized,” said Gollin. “We are not in a context where people’s lives aren’t at risk anymore. The neighbourhood is afraid. We need to take the flags somewhere else.”

The Kanien’kehá:ka land defender’s statement, released on September 13, condemned the actions of the unknown person(s) who caused the fire.

“We denounce all those who attempt to discredit our righteous cause for their insatiable greed,” read the statement. “We condemn the actions of the agents provocateurs, the saboteurs whose economic greed has reduced the preciousness of our Homelands to an economic commodity.”

With pressure rising against the land defenders, they were adamant that they were nowhere near the site that day, and that the group of people seen on Friday was a different crew, not associated with their cause.

“We’ve been there for the past three years defending this area and we have never, ever shown hatred towards the people that are living in the area, or have done anything similar that would imply we set the fire,” said Al Harrington, one of the land defenders at the camp.

The motive for the fire is yet to be discovered. The SQ continues to patrol the development site daily while investigating the fire.

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