Judicial Committee of the Privy Council –  A.C. 872
The Mohawk tried to claim property of the Seigneury of the Lake of Two Mountains, although it was rejected by the Court on the basis of a law of Lower Canada.
The Court encouraged the Mohawk to claim the benefits granted to Indians in the Seigneury by the Canadian government and seek aid.
What they received was not satisfactory, which gave rise to the Oka Crisis in 1990.
Between the Mohawks and the Sulpicians, who holds the title to ownership of the Seigneury of the Lake of Two Mountains?
The Sulpicians are owners of the Seigneury, according to the title granted by a law of Lower Canada (unanimous decision).
Between: Corinthe et al. (Elected chiefs of the band of Indians residing in Oka)
And: Ecclesiastics of the Seminary of St. Sulpice of Montreal
Settlement in Two Mountains
In 1663, the Sulpicians, a community of diocesan priests originally from Paris, decided to establish themselves in New France. In 1677, they received permission from the King of France to establish a community and a seminary on the Island of Montreal. They also opened a mission outside the city’s walls with the purpose of educating and preaching the gospel to the Indians living nearby. The mission was then moved to the Lake of Two Mountains in the area known today as Oka. It was a traditional hunting ground for the Mohawk living in villages on the north side of Montreal. They were moved to the Lake of Two Mountains by the Sulpicians who wished to use their lands for agriculture.
In 1717 and 1733, the Sulpicians received two Royal grants to create the Seigneury of the Lake of Two Mountains in exchange for maintenance of the mission for the Mohawks and the construction of a fort and a church for their use. The Mohawks residing there had the free use of the grounds of the Seigneury.
At that point in time, both the Sulpicians and the Mohawks claimed to be the owners of this Seigneury.
In 1841, a law was passed by the Legislature of Lower Canada to settle the dispute. It confirmed that the Sulpicians held the title for the Seigneury. It also stated that the Sulpicians had certain obligations towards the Mohawks residing on the site of the Seigneury: they had to provide for their education and spiritual care, and offer support to those who were in need (the poor, invalids, orphans) and to charitable institutions.
Since then, the question of the ownership of the Seigneury remained a constant source of friction between the parties. The federal government, wanting to resolve this longstanding conflict, ordered the present trial and paid the costs for both parties.
The Mohawks claimed to be the rightful owners of the land, for three main reasons:
The Sulpicians: The Mohawks were only able to live on the Seigneury and use the land out of the goodwill of the Sulpicians. In fact, they had no legal rights apart from woodcutting, raising cattle and living in authorized areas. The Sulpicians’ case rested on grants from the King of France dating from 1717 and 1733, which gave them the title to ownership, which was confirmed in 1841 by the Act of the Legislature of Lower Canada.
Quebec Superior Court (1910): The Indians “had not occupied the land as proprietors”. The Sulpicians were obliged under statute to support and carry on the mission of providing education and spiritual care to the Indians of the Lake of Two Mountains. This duty entailed an Aboriginal “right of residence in that district and of cutting wood and pasturing their horses and cattle”.
Quebec King’s Bench (1911): Both parties appealed the decision. The Bench affirmed the decision of the Superior Court.
Viscount Haldane L.C., Lord Macnaghten, Lord Atkinson, Lord Shaw and Sir Charles Fitzpatrick.
The grants endowed the Sulpicians with title to the Seigneury. In addition to the grants from the King of France, an Act of the government of Lower Canada stated in its preamble that the title to the Seigneury was vested in the ecclesiastics (also declared a corporation by the same Act).
However, the title was held for the particular objectives to ensure the education of the Mohawks and their spiritual care, and to support those who were in need (the poor, invalids, orphans) and any other charitable institutions, if necessary.
The Act was clearly intended to grant the title of the Seigneury to the Sulpicians so as to prevent the Mohawks from claiming proprietary interest in the land by any means. Yet, this does not mean that the Act does not protect the Indians benefits for which it provided.
An alternative for the Mohawk
The Mohawk were invited to make their claims on a different level. Although no title interest in the land was recognized by the Privy Council, this did not mean that it was impossible to secure the Indians benefits in the Seigneury by asking for the Canadian government’s assistance.
After this ruling, the Mohawks called on the federal government to secure their interests in these lands. In 1945, the government took steps to buy tracts of land from the Sulpicians in the Mohawks’ interest, after which the Indians were issued licenses to make use of the property, which included the right of residence and to cut timber. They established the Kanesatake community there. Since the Mohawks’ lands are not contiguous, being intersected with private properties, the federal government never established a reserve within the meaning of the Indian Act (Hurley, 2001).
The Oka Crisis
Some parts of the land bought by the government were also granted to the municipality of Oka with the intention of establishing a park set aside for the Aboriginals near one of their traditional burying grounds. Nonetheless, the municipality authorized the construction of a private golf course on the territory.
The Mohawks’ resistance to the project resulted in the Oka Crisis in the summer of 1990. They were joined by an armed militia, the Warriors, who originated from the Akwesasne reserve and took control of the resistance movement. They set up roadblocks on roads leading to Oka and were joined in protest by Mohawks in Kahnawake who blocked access to the Mercier Bridge on Montreal’s south shore.
The conflict quickly escalated after the death of a policeman during an attempt to dismantle the barricades. The Canadian Army also intervened and negotiations began between the Mohawks, Quebec and the federal government. By the end of September 1990, the conflict ended without the conclusion of a satisfactory agreement between the parties. Today, multiple land claims by the Kanesatake band remain unresolved.
1990 to today
The negotiations regarding the dismantlement of the blockades and the end of the crisis led to the establishment of an observation team for future negotiations. In 1991, the parties agreed on the procedures to be followed for such negotiations. In 1999, the government of Canada and the Mohawks of Kanesatake reached a consensus which led to the conclusion of the Agreement with Respect to Kanesatake Governance of the Interim Land Base. In 2001, bill S-24 was approved and the Agreement became the Kanesatake Interim Land Base Governance Act (AANDC, 2010).
This law recognized the Kanesatake land base and the powers of governance of the Mohawks, and constituted a harmonisation of the regulations concerning Indian lands with those of the Oka municipality. However, this law is neither a treaty nor an agreement regarding land claims. It does not recognize an Aboriginal right or treaty right to be exercised by the Mohawks (Hurley, 2001).
In the interim, from 1991 to 2007, the government of Canada purchased more than 180 properties in order to enlarge and unify the Mohawk land base in the pinery industry (AANDC, 2010). The first purchases were made without prior consultation with the Kanesatake community. In 1994, the government accepted a consultation protocol for the purchases to come; in 1999, a company was tasked with the management of these properties for the use and benefit of the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake (Hurley, 2001).
In 1996, for the first time, the parties agreed on the establishment of an interim police force in Kanesatake. This agreement became permanent in 1999 and was extended until 2006 (AANDC, 2010).
The status of the Kanesatake lands remains nevertheless uncertain. The relative ambiguity regarding the land title was emphasized by the Court of Appeal in 1999 (Hurley, 2001). The claims of the Mohawk to the Seigneury of the Lake of Two Mountains were filed in 2006 and the federal government accepted the claim. The government professed openness to negotiations pursuant to the Specific Claims Policy (AANDC, 2010).
Twenty years after the Oka Crisis, the dispute has been rekindled as a company, Norfolk, has begun developing a parcel of land within the ancestral lands being claimed (CNW, 2010). Although the project did not fall through, the claims were not recognized by the government.
Currently, the land claims of the Kanesatake band to the Seigneury, now 300 years old, remain unresolved (Saillant, 2010).
Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC). 2010. Fact sheet – Progress Report – Kanesatake. In About AANDC – Media Room. Online: www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca. Accessed July 30, 2013.
Beaulieu Christian and Andres C. Garin. 2002. The Impact of International Humanitarian Law on Armed Stand-offs Opposing Aboriginal Peoples to Canadian Authorities: An Overview of the Oka –Kanesatake Crisis, Revue du Barreau 62.
Cnw, Telbec. 2010. Contentieux territorial: Le Conseil mohawk de Kanesatake invite les gouvernements à la négociation. In Affaires générales. Online: http://www.newswire.ca/fr/story/722295/contentieux-territorial-le-conseil-mohawk-de-kanesatake-invite-les-gouvernements-a-la-negociation. Accessed July 30, 2013.
Hurley Mary C. 2001. Projet de loi S-24 : Loi sur le gouvernement du territoire provisoire de Kanesatake. Online. http://www2.parl.gc.ca/sites/lop/legislativesummaries/Bills_ls.asp?language=F&Parl=37&Ses=1&ls=S24 Accessed June 3, 2009.
Lackenbauer Withney P. 2008. Carrying the Burden of Peace: The Mohawks, the Canadian Forces, and the Oka Crisis, Journal of Military and Strategic Studies 10 (2).
Saillant, François. 2010. Qui doit porter la responsabilité de la crise d’Oka ?. In À Babord; Revue sociale et politique- Dossier violence et politique. Online: http://www.ababord.org/spip.php?article1161. Accessed June 30, 2013.
Société Radio-Canada. 2008. Crise d’Oka : La pinède s’enflamme. Online. http://archives.radio-canada.ca/guerres_conflits/securite_nationale/dossiers/39. Accessed June 3, 2009.