Mavis Étienne is a Kanesatake Mohawk and an evangelical Christian. She is a counsellor, a broadcaster and a Bible translator. She is also a peacebuilder.
In the early 1990s Étienne’s Mohawk community near Oka, Quebec found itself in a major confrontation with Quebec police when the mayor of Oka announced plans for the expansion of a golf course and the building of condominiums on the site of a sacred Aboriginal burial ground. The Mohawk people had been trying to negotiate a comprehensive claim on the land for decades. When negotiations with the municipality to stop construction on the golf course broke down, the Mohawk put up barricades on a road, thereby preventing any work on the golf course. The Quebec police were sent in to dismantle the barricades by force; in a botched raid, one police officer, Marcel Lemay was shot and killed.
The situation escalated quickly, with the Mohawk community setting up more barricades, with increasing resentment on the part of the Quebecois population, and with the police and also the Canadian military moving in to surround the Mohawk. Étienne acted as a mediator in that context, helping to de-escalate a very tense situation and prevent further violence. The land issue was not quickly resolved, but no more lives were lost. Many Indigenous groups across the country drew strength from the Mohawk defense of their traditional land.
In subsequent years, Étienne led healing ceremonies and continued her translation work. In 2004 she and her team spoke at a church on West Montreal Island. At the service a woman from the congregation got up and apologized to Étienne and her companions about the racist behavior that they had so often experienced from Francophone Quebecois. She also identified herself as Francine Lemay, sister to Marcel Lemay. Ever since her brother’s death, Lemay had been seeking to understand the Mohawk people and their story.
Mavis and Francine became good friends and partners in helping the Francophone community better understand the original inhabitants of the land. Lemay in fact translated an English anthology compiled by the Mohawk about their history into French. She said, “This is like my contribution for the pain the Mohawks endured throughout the centuries, my way to make amends.”
Étienne believes that God had a purpose in bringing her and Lemay together. She believes love has empowered them to forgive and to reach people with a message of reconciliation.
MCC has gathered stories of Women Peacebuilders as part of our annual Peace Sunday Packet. The complete 2016 Peace Sunday Packet can be viewed here.