A little more than a century ago, the Catholic parish of Kanesatake, a Mohawk community near the town of Oka, Quebec, was suffering the kind of devastation typical of what happened to Indigenous people in the 19th century. Livestock grazing, commercial clear-cutting, and the burning of forests for farming—activities by Canadians of European descent—had turned the area’s old-growth forest to desert. Mohawk roads and homes were buried by repeated sand avalanches.
What happened next wasn’t typical: From 1888 to 1920, the parish planted 100,000 trees under the guidance of their Sulpician Order priest, Father Joseph-Daniel Lefebvre, transforming the desert back into a magnificent forest. What happened in Oka changed the attitude of the Catholic Church concerning forest conservation—and eventually inspired reforestation efforts throughout the continent.
The activities of Euro-Canadians had caused desertification astonishingly quickly after they were permitted to live in the area in the mid-1800s. (The decision to allow them in had been made by the Sulpicians, a Paris-based order of Catholic priests officially known as the Society of Saint-Sulpice. The French government, and later the British, had granted the Sulpicians control of the area, first as trustee for Indigenous peoples and later as outright owner.) With the arrival of Euro-Canadian settlers, mature trees were cut down for timber or killed by forest fires; livestock ate the young tree seedlings, finishing off a dying forest.
Similar abuses to the land would cause desertification throughout much of North America, where forests were clear-cut into oblivion. Before 1860, white pine was the dominant tree along the Ottawa River, and indeed in much of eastern North America. Today, only 2.5 percent of the area of Quebec that was predominately white pine is still that way. A few short years after non-Indigenous people first grazed their livestock on Oka’s fragile soils, settler activities had resulted in desertification so severe that the community’s western road network was buried by sand avalanches.
Father Lefebvre, pastor of the Kanes-atake parish, arrived in Oka in 1876; he would stay there until his death at 86 in 1915. Before coming to Kanesatake, he had worked for nearly two decades in France, where he saw massive reforestation to rehabilitate sand barrens and deforested mountains prone to erosion and flooding.
Religious and ethnic divisions in Oka caused his first attempt at tree planting in 1876 to fail. Then, in 1886, an avalanche of sand 40 feet high buried two-story homes, and the community began to pull together on a remarkable 32-year enterprise.
THERE WERE NO nurseries on the continent that could provide coniferous seedlings on the scale needed to reforest acres and acres of desert dunes. The Mohawks gathered pine and spruce seedlings from the north, which they transported by canoes. Over more than three decades, they planted the seedlings—without pay—under the direction of two Mohawk leaders, Laurent and Francis Dicker. Straw was placed near the saplings to protect them from being buried by wind-tossed sand.
Eventually, the Mohawks surpassed Lefebvre’s European methods, using bunches of hemlock planted together. By the 1920s, Oka was freed of the curse of sand landslides. The revived forest had become a refuge for bald eagles, golden eagles, and pine warblers.
All written personal recollections of those who took part in the reforestation vanished in 1922, when a blaze destroyed the Oka presbytery. What survived were accounting records of the tree planting (27 logbooks written by Lefebvre over a period of 20 years), the trees themselves, and the model of what could be done.
Oka’s example transformed the attitude of the area’s Catholic Church toward forest conservation. Before the tree planting commenced, the church had tended to side with colonization. Afterward, the church’s leadership helped push Quebec to be in the forefront of forest conservation throughout the continent. The Quebec Forest Service, created in 1906, imposed jail time for offenders who set forest fires. The church reinforced these efforts through sermons and other activity.
The new Quebec Forest Service reforested 15,350 acres of shifting sand dunes. The story was spread by Ferdinand Larose, an agronomist who studied in the Oka area during its reforestation. Returning to his native eastern Ontario, Larose became the driving force for reforestation there, creating a 28,000-acre forest, now named in his honor, on former desert wastelands. It is the world’s second largest human-created forest, outdone only by France’s restored forests in the Alps.
Ironically, whenthe Canadian government finalized the transfer of lands from the Sulpicians to a Mohawk reserve in 1945, the government refused to include the restored forest, claiming the lands were unoccupied. This official decision was made despite the fact that the community had a cemetery there and used the forest for picnics, lacrosse games, and other activities.
The government decision set the stage for what became known as the “Oka crisis,” an armed occupation during the summer of 1990. A planned golf course expansion and housing development in 1989 threatened to deforest a third of the Mohawks’ 175-acre restored forest. (The forest already had been partially damaged by the construction of a nine-hole golf course in 1961.) In March 1990, the Mohawks erected a nonviolent blockade to prevent the golf course’s expansion. Violence erupted in July when police made a failed attempt to remove protesters blocking access to the restored forest; a police officer was killed. Protesters from another Mohawk community blocked a major traffic artery into Montreal, the Mercier Bridge. This solidarity action, which sparked anti-Indigenous riots of 40,000 people, came to an end only after the Quebec provincial police on the scene were replaced by the Canadian army. Eventually, the federal government spent $5.2 million (Canadian) to buy the disputed land in Kanesatake.
During the months-long crisis, the historic significance of the Oka reforestation was virtually ignored in the Canadian media, even though a book detailing the reforestation, Donald MacKay’s Heritage Lost: The Crisis in Canada’s Forests, had come out just a few years before the standoff. But the importance of the reforestation story is not lost on the Mohawks.
Danny Beaton, of the Mohawk Turtle Clan, told Sojourners, “In our way of life, the plants are family to us and help us to survive. We must honor and respect and be thankful to them, because they help us daily. The trees are like a natural bank that keeps Mother Earth’s blood where it should be, so all life can drink.”
John Bacher is a researcher for the Preservation of Agricultural Lands Society. His most recent book is Two Billion Trees and Counting: The Legacy of Edmund Zavitz (2011, Dundurn Press).