Crisis Inspired Many Native People

A decade later, the 82-year-old woman hasn’t forgotten the clamour of a hot, angry summer afternoon. It sounded like a big thunder roll, she remembered, the sound of rocks striking the cars in a convoy of Mohawk elders, children and woman trying to leave the nastiest crisis between natives and whites in modern Canada.

“I can hear it still,” the woman said. Sometimes, when I’m laying down and I can’t sleep, I think about it.”

Sitting in her kitchen in the Mohawk reserve of Kahnawake, just outside Montreal, Mary D’Ailleboust recalled the day she and her daughter and Mona, 47, granddaughter Monica, 23 – who was seven months pregnant – and Monica’s three children, aged 7, 5 and 2, packed themselves into their Chevy.

It was during the 1990 Oka crisis and a convoy of children, elderly and weak residents were leaving Kahnawake. They didn’t know a mob of whites outside the reserve would bombard their cars with rocks, a hideous low moment in the country’s relations with its aboriginal people.

“People should not forget what happened,” Mrs. D’Ailleboust defiantly said. “They’re more savage than we are. Remember that we are a people. We owned this land.”

It was 10 years ago July 11 that the most acute aboriginal crisis in modern times in Canada began. The 78-day Oka crisis left lingering bitterness between Mohawks and their neighbours. But at the same time, Oka would become a turning point, hauling into a broader consciousness native grievances that had long simmered away from public attention.

“I look at Oka as a victory, a victory for native rights,” said Kenneth Deer, editor of the Mohawk newspaper The Eastern Door. “In the end, the governments had to listen to us.”

He mentioned recent native gains such as the unprecedented powers provided in the Nisga’a treaty or creation of the northern territory of Nunavut. “Look at Nunavut, there wouldn’t be a Nunavut, without Oka. We had to suffer for other people’s gains.”
Oka inspired aboriginal people all over Canada.

“It made me feel better to be native. I felt stronger,” said Barney McLeod, an Ojibwa sculptor living in Vancouver, who quit his construction job in Toronto during the crisis and drove all night to deliver canned food to Kahnawake. “A lot of people felt sorry for themselves for being native. But after Oka, native people became prouder and stronger.”

The crisis began in the scenic town of Oka, 60 kilometres west of Montreal, in a dispute over a planned condominium expansion to golf complex. The housing was to be built on land claimed by the neighbouring Mohawk community of Kanesatake and would have encircled the native cemetery.

Mohawk protesters set up barricades in the pine forest at the heart of the dispute. At 5:30 am on July 11, a Surete du Quebec (provincial police) tactical squad arrived in Oka and officers positioned themselves around the pines. Within an hour of the SQ’s arrival, in support of their fellow natives in Oka, hard-line Mohawks at Kahnawake south of Montreal blocked the Mercier bridge, a major thoroughfare used daily by 70,000 suburban commuters.

Caught between two hot spots, the provincial police rushed the Oka barricades at 8:45 am. A gunfight erupted, killing police officer Corporal Marcel Lemay. A surreal, angry summer had begun. For 78 days, armed natives would be in a standoff against thousands of police officers and soldiers.

It was a summer of anger because non-Mohawk residents in Chateauguay, the bedroom suburb that was cut off by the bridge blockade, became incensed that natives defying their police were blocking their commute to work.

During those torrid nights in the summer of 1990, mobs enraged vigilantes roamed the outskirts of the reserve, waving baseball bats. They roughed up anyone who looked native, they roughed up white people who tried to drive through their road blocks, they roughed up reporters. And then they turned their ire on the police, who tear-gassed them during several nights of wild rioting.

It could have been avoided, and not just because, as coroner Guy Gilbert’s inquest later established, the federal government failed to quickly settle the Oka land dispute or because the SQ launched its assault so hastily.

In the months before the conflict, Mohawk communities had been in turmoil, torn between supporters if the elected band councils, non-violent traditionalists, and so-called Warriors, armed, militant hard-liners.

The emergence of the contraband tobacco trade and gambling halls was pitting Mohawks against Mohawks, degenerating sometimes into furious gun battles. Kahnawake radio host Joe Delaronde, an outspoken critic of the Warriors, recalled getting death threats and finding a skinned cat on his lawn. So when the tactical squad arrived in Oka, it faced a volatile environment, full of short-fused, bellicose gunmen. “We were ready for them, but people in the pines were not fighting over casinos or cigarettes,” Mr. Deer said.

That’s because the stakes in the conflict were also numbingly familiar to all native communities, pitting aboriginal territorial claims against the business concerns of their non-native neighbours. Their land hemmed in, with little industrial or agricultural base, the Mohawks had for generations struggled economically. Generations of Mohawk men expatriated themselves to become iron-workers on the construction sites of the northeastern United States. More recently, they tried to cash in on their tax-exemption status by selling tax-free goods or opening gambling halls.

“In hindsight, you can see how all that fueled the social crisis among the Mohawks,” Montreal anthropologist Pierre Trudel said.

A month before the July 11 gunfight, Mr. Trudel had visited Kanesatake just after a police raid against the local Mohawk bingo.

The Mohawks that Mr. Trudel noted bitterly that the SQ no longer dared enter their sister community of Kahnawake because of the emergence of the Warrior Society there. The lesson was clear to Mohawks: Having guns was the best deterrent to what they saw as police meddling on their land.

Peaceful channels failed that summer and so “the machos won the day and got to shoot each other,” Mr. Trudel said.

After the barricades came down, anarchy reigned in Kanesatake for years. The new elected chief was weak, and lawlessness descended on the community. It is only recently that progress has been made in policing area. The golf course was never expanded but land talks with Ottawa are still ongoing and the Mohawk community remains deeply divided.

For months, Mohawks in Kahnawake did not want to go to Chateauguay. “Our economy was in shambles and Chateauguay also suffered because we stopped buying there,” Mr. Deer said. “You wondered if the person serving you was someone who had rioted or burnt us in effigy.”

Today, a decade later, the two communities are slowly emerging from the shadows of the crisis. Little-league baseball and pee-wee hockey teams from Chateauguay have even come back to play against Mohawk teams.

In Kahnawake, the Mohawks have more autonomy. Mohawk Peacekeepers are the sole patrollers on the reserve, after an agreement with Quebec. The province also held back from cracking down on past contentious areas such as gambling, extreme-fighting tournaments or liquor licensing, leaving them to Mohawk-run institutions.

It falls short of self-determination but, for now, “we’ll assert what we can get,” Mr. Deer said.

“There’s certainly some deep wounds,” Mr. Delaronde said. “But we have to realize that it’s not the entire non-native population that was against us. Nineteen ninety was going to happen somewhere. It just happened here.”