CAUGHNAWAGA, QUEBEC, JULY 19 -- Canada's federal government has agreed to acquire a tract of land that has been the subject of armed dispute between Mohawk Indians and officials of a Montreal suburb, Quebec's minister of Indian affairs announced today.
At a press conference in Montreal, the province's Indian affairs minister, John Ciaccia, said federal officials had approved the purchase -- or expropriation if necessary -- of 55 acres of woodland that Mohawks of the Kahnesatake community claim as ancestral land. The suburban town of Oka, 18 miles west of Montreal, planned to use it for an addition to a golf course.
Ciaccia did not say the land would be recognized as Mohawk ancestral territory, but it was clear from his description that the federal action would be intended to block the golf course extension that the Indians have been fighting.
Ciaccia said federal officials also had agreed to recognize the need for a reservation for the Kahnesatake Indians in Oka and to make a commitment to the Indians' social and economic development. The Indian community near the golf course is not recognized by the federal government as a reservation.
Ellen Gabriel, a Mohawk negotiator, said that before any land agreement, several Mohawk conditions to end the armed standoff must be met, including a 48-hour grace period to allow any Mohawks behind barricades to leave without police interference. Government officials had rejected earlier demands of amnesty for any Indians who may have committed crimes during the confrontation.
During the last week and a half of the four-month golf-course dispute, about 200 Mohawks, armed with automatic assault rifles and other weapons, have faced off against hundreds of Quebec provincial police. A police officer was shot to death on July 11 when the police tried to remove a barricade erected on the disputed land. It is not clear whether the officer was shot by fellow police or armed Indians.
Earlier in the day, Canadian law enforcement authorities had beefed up their forces around the besieged Kahnawake Indian reservation near Montreal, while heavily armed Mohawks from the tribe's militant Warrior Society responded in kind behind their barricades, vowing to fight to the death if attacked.
The government said a special assault task force of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had been moved into Montreal, across the St. Lawrence River from this embattled reserve, and was standing by in case its use was requested by Quebec provincial officials.
The police move appeared to be in response to demands from white residents that Canadian Army troops be used to reopen the Mercier Bridge, a main thoroughfare to Montreal Island from the south bank of the St. Lawrence. An army unit is bivouacked nearby on alert, officials have said.
The bridge was blocked last week by armed Mohawks from the Kahnawake reserve in support of the Oka golf-course disputants.
Anger in the predominantly white town of Chateauguay and other communities on the river's south shore has been increasing daily because the bridge closing has turned a normal six-mile commute to Montreal into a 90-minute drive. Every night, up to 4,000 whites have gathered at the approaches to the bridge, threatening to cross a 200-yard "no man's land" and forcibly remove the Indians' heavily fortified barricade.
Tonight, about 2,500 people continued to taunt the Indians as helmeted riot police stood by. While the Mohawks beat drums and chanted war songs, the Chateauguay residents held up signs demanding that they surrender.
On the Route 138 approach to the Mercier Bridge, the Kahnawake department of public works had erected two six-foot-high bunkers fashioned out of heavy-gauge steel retaining walls normally used in ditch construction. Surrounding the barricade were bulldozed earthworks that appeared impregnable to all but heavy weaponry.
Young Mohawk "warriors," their faces masked, continuously passed in cars on their way to what the Indians called "the front." Some of the cars were flying the flag of the Warrior Society, which was involved in a series of violent roadblock clashes in June at the Akwesasne St. Regis Mohawk Reservation, which straddles the U.S.-Canadian border 60 miles west of here. Two people died in those clashes.
"If the Army comes in here, it is going to be a bloodbath. They will have to kill us all before we give up," one of the warriors said. "For two years, we haven't allowed Quebec police in here, and we're not going to now," he said, referring to roadblock standoff two years ago in which the Mercier Bridge was closed for 32 hours before a peaceful resolution was negotiated.
White residents complain that the key commuter bridge to Montreal has become an unreliable thoroughfare because of the Indian protests and that their property values have suffered as a result.
At another blocked bridge on Route 207, the Mohawks have erected a sign warning, "War zone -- Enter at your own risk."