KANESATAKE — Serge Simon waded into the flood water Tuesday when he heard the helicopter blades chopping air across the shoreline.
Once the military aircraft came into view, Simon squinted and shook his head. In the Kanesatake Mohawk territory — which was besieged by the Canadian Forces during the 1990 Oka Crisis — the sight of soldiers fluttering across the sky triggers bad memories.
“I can’t say I love that sound, it gives me flashbacks,” says Simon, Grand Chief of the Kanesatake band council. “It brings back a lot of old wounds.”
There are about 95 soldiers stationed in neighbouring Oka, where they’re working to keep the region’s water filtration plants running as the area grapples with historic flood levels from the Lake of Two Mountains. The federal government offered to assist Kanesatake last weekend, but Simon refused their help.
Instead, the chief turned to his own community and a sister Mohawk reserve for emergency relief. As waves battered the dikes on the south side of town, Simon says about 100 local volunteers worked in shifts to hold the line and save as many homes as possible.
“When Mohawks mobilize, you can’t stop us,” he said. “You’d have one person bagging two, three pallets of sand by themselves. Elders, women and children they were here, helping wrap the bags. It was amazing.”
The South Shore Kahnawake reserve sent people and equipment to Kanesatake Saturday.
“Once it was clear that we were okay with the flooding, we looked to our sister community and did what we could to help,” said Kellyann Meloche, director of community protection in Kahnawake. “There was never any question in our minds, when our brothers and sisters face disaster, we’re always there to help each other.
“Those who could manage physical labour, they worked it to the bone … I mean, imagine doing 1,000 squats with a 50-pound sandbag. It’ll drain you. Everyone pitched in: the elders made meals and kept us fed, they kept us hydrated and they encouraged us. All of those things keep us going. There was a true spirit of collaboration.”
In the end, eight homes were evacuated and about 30 sustained severe water damage, according to the Kanesatake band council. Given the scale of the flooding, things could have been much worse, Meloche said.
On Tuesday, three young men stood by the local sand pit, visibly exhausted from a weekend of shovelling in the rain and cold. One of the workers said they’d been ordered to stop filling sandbags. Now about two dozen pallets of bags are stacked and ready to go should the tides start climbing again.
Mark Bonspille was on the front lines all weekend, working until his muscles burned with lactic acid and then pushing some more.
“You lose track of time, you stop thinking about how tired you are, you just keep going,” said Bonspille. “You do whatever you can to keep those houses from going under. Unfortunately, some houses were beyond saving.”
The efforts extended from Kanesatake and into the neighbouring village of Oka, where dozens of Mohawk families live along the lakefront. There have been tensions between both communities since long before the 1990 crisis and Bonspille says they still simmer beneath the surface.
But in the midst of a crisis, Bonspille says something incredible happened.
“We just put that tension aside and worked to save each other,” he said. “We were down sandbagging at one of the Native properties in the village and some (non-aboriginal) neighbours were sandbagging a few houses over. When they finished, they gave us their extra sandbags.
“Never mind what happened, let’s get through this disaster. If we wanna go back to hating each other, we’ll go back to hating each other. But if not, it is what it is. Maybe people can change.”
There were people in Kanesatake who disagreed with Simon’s decision not to call in the Canadian Forces. One band member told the Montreal Gazette it was imprudent for the Grand Chief not to do everything he could to save homes on the territory.
“It’s not 1990 anymore, help is help,” he said. “But you can’t take away from what people in town did. It really was inspiring.”