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Oka standoff, Quebec

Kanesatake divided over police chief's legitimacy
Thompson's opponents say they have no intention of recognizing his position

Quebec Oka crisis

Kanesatake remains a community divided today as interim police chief Ed Thompson continued to avoid patrolling the highway that runs through it.

Route 344, at the border of the village 50 kilometres west of Montreal, remains under the effective control of his opponents, who said yesterday they have no intention of recognizing the legitimacy of Thompson and six of his police officers.

Thompson and his staff are limiting their patrols to the village of Oka where Mohawks live.

Policing responsibilities and the authority of Grand Chief James Gabriel are among several issues that have divided the community into two camps.

The situation exploded on Jan. 12, when Gabriel brought in an outside force of aboriginal officers to take control of the police department.

The community's police commission, backed by Gabriel's rivals on the Mohawk band council and Gabriel's opponents on the council, balked at the move. A mob then surrounded the station, and later torched Gabriel's house.

Gabriel fled the community along with eight of 12 Kanesatake officers loyal to him. None has returned to this day.

Chief John Harding, one of several Kanesatake leaders who oppose Thompson and Gabriel, said yesterday the situation will not change until there is an agreement with the community on policing.

"Until such time as the community has ratified an agreement, they are not welcome here, and they are not trusted," Harding, who is allied with chiefs Steven Bonspille and Pearl Bonspille, said yesterday.

The main problem with the police under Thompson, Harding added, was lack of an independent body to ensure the separation of the police from political power in the community.

"The powers that are controlling the police right now reside in Laval under James Gabriel and three other chiefs," Harding said. "A politically controlled police is not acceptable under international standards or for a Mohawk community."

The only way to resolve the conflict is for the appointment of former Kahnawake police chief John Diabo to take over, pending talks with Ottawa and Quebec City on a permanent solution that is broadly acceptable in the community, Harding said.

A supporter of Gabriel and Thompson, who asked that her name not be used, confirmed that police patrols are limited to the village of Oka.

"The highway is controlled by a group of animals, standing at the top of the hill," she said.

Thompson's men are unable to patrol the highway without being challenged, she said.

"They try, but a group of people meet them, push their weight around and threaten them."

Grand Chief calls for government aid

OKA: Gabriel's house torched

MONTREAL -The Grand Chief at Kanesatake is calling on the federal and provincial governments to help bring an end to the current standoff at the reserve, but both governments say they have no plans to use force to resolve the situation.

Although Gabriel had fled and no one was hurt in the blaze, he said the crowd intended to burn him and his family alive.

Last April a group of dissident Mohawks, led by three chiefs, put up a blockade of Highway 344, the only road leading into the community of Oka.

The protest was triggered by a policing deal agreed to by Gabriel and the federal government.

The community was already upset by Ottawa's insistence that it only deal with Gabriel, despite the fact he lost a non-confidence vote two years ago. A federal court overturned that vote.

Neither the federal nor provincial governments seem interested in intervening in the current dispute.

Federally, Anne McLellan is in the minister responsible for public safety and emergency preparedness. Speaking with the CBC Tuesday morning, officials in McLellan's office said they consider the standoff a local police matter.

In Quebec City, public security minister Jacques Chagnon's office parroted that sentiment, saying that officials are keeping a close eye on the situation.

Both levels of government said that while they will try to help bring a peaceful end to the standoff the use of force is not yet an option.

Premier Jean Charest's office said the provincial government is watching the situation at Kanesatake closely, but for now, there is no plan to intervene in the dispute.

A spokesperson for the premier said the government still recognizes Grand Chief Gabriel as the leader of the band council, despite the fact some band members are rejecting Gabriel's authority.

Mohawk protesters torch chief's house

Demonstrators were angered at a decision to bring in outside police

KAHNESATAKE, QC -- Demonstrators burned a house, torched a car, blocked a highway and occupied a police station last night to protest the firing of the police chief in this Mohawk community. Grand Chief James Gabriel, who has reportedly received threats after seeking a tougher stand on crime on the reserve, left the community shortly after his house and car were destroyed by fire. No one was in the house at the time of the fire and there were no injuries.

About 30 people also felled trees to block a highway near the reserve and occupied the headquarters of the Peacekeepers, the reserve police force.

"It's a bad reaction on the part of a criminal element," Gabriel said in a telephone interview with Montreal Le Devoir. "Most of these people are involved in criminal activities."

Most of the activity took place earlier in the day and there were reports calm had been restored in the evening.

Some said the protest was sparked because of indications the RCMP was about to intervene on the reserve.

The band council announced in November it had concluded a deal with Ottawa to crack down on contraband cigarettes on the reserve.

Some on the band council did not support intervention by the federal force.

"It's not necessary to have that kind of intervention." John Harding, a dissident band council member, told Radio-Canada, the French-language network of the CBC.

Quebec provincial police did not immediately intervene and were not asked to help out, said Const. Chantal Mackels of the provincial force.

She said provincial police stationed a lone cruiser on the highway to reroute traffic and prevent drivers from running into the obstacles. Provincial police do not have jurisdiction on the reserve.

The band council recently voted to install a new police chief in an effort to curtail such activities as cigarette smuggling.

On Highway 344, which was blocked by the protesters, there are now 27 different places to buy cigarettes where there were only three two years ago.

The new police chief started yesterday.

Reports said several cars -- including some belonging to the Peacekeepers, the reserve police force, were damaged in the protest.

The reserve, near Oka, gained national headlines during the 1990 Oka land claims standoff that saw a police officer killed when police stormed barricades erected to prevent expansion of a golf course onto land Mohawks considered sacred.

Negotiations to calm situation ongoing

KANESATAKE, QC - Grand Chief James Gabriel, whose house was burned after tensions boiled over on the reserve over policing, said today he's convinced it was an attempt on his life.

Gabriel said he and his wife and children had left the house before the fire started on Monday night.

"They missed their chance," he told RDI, Radio-Canada's all-news channel, without naming who he believes was responsible for the fire.

Gabriel said he has "no doubt" the aim of the fire was to kill him.

"They had no clue that I wasn't there."

The reserve, near Oka just west of Montreal, gained notoriety in 1990 over a land-claims standoff that saw one provincial police office killed when officers stormed barricades erected to prevent expansion of a nearby golf course on land Mohawks considered sacred.

RDI also reported today that negotiations could be taking place on the reserve to help end the crisis.

Some protesters have said they were angry because the current chief was fired because he was deemed soft on crime. Others said the uproar stemmed from fears that the RCMP was being called in to curtail a lucrative contraband cigarette trade.

Terry Isaac, the new police chief, has said he's on the reserve to fight the drug trade.

Isaac arrived on Sunday with 60 officers drawn from 18 aboriginal communities. Aboriginal officers from outside the reserve have been blocked inside police headquarters and prevented from doing their job. Some of the Mohawks on the reserve want the aboriginal police from outside their community to leave.