It’s been a full generation since the scorching summer of 1990 when the military faced off against Mohawk Warriors in the pine forest between the village of Oka and the community of Kanehsatake near Montreal. The 78-day armed siege was the most violent and consequential clash between indigenous people and the Canadian state in modern times.
What has changed since then? What hasn’t? And why, despite repeated warnings about indigenous unrest throughout the country, has there not been another Oka?
The crisis was sparked by a proposed golf course expansion and condo development that would have turned a Mohawk cemetery into a parking lot. It represented something much bigger — a society divided by race and seething with anger.
The images were jarring: tanks rolled through quiet little communities; automatic weapons were brandished on both sides; white rioters burned effigies of Mohawk Warriors; a convoy of cars carrying Mohawk women, children and elders was pelted with rocks as police stood by; and, most iconic of all, a soldier and Mohawk Warrior stared each other down at point-blank range, generations of tension compressed into the few inches between their steely faces. Eventually 50 Mohawks and other supporters, surrounded by razor wire and soldiers, decided to burn their weapons and walk out of the treatment centre where they were holed up. They were not surrendering, just going home. They were roughed up, arrested and in the end most avoided legal consequences.
Today, the Mohawk graves lie peacefully among the pines in the cemetery. The golf course was not expanded and the condos were built elsewhere. Ottawa bought the cemetery and 178 other small parcels which are held for the benefit of the Mohawks, though they are not reserve lands. A map provided by Aboriginal Affairs shows the total Kanehsatake land base of 908 hectares scattered in bits about a larger area.
Government spokesperson Michelle Perron pointed to an online list of steps taken by the federal government between 1990 and 2010 to address concerns of the Mohawks of Kanehsatake. She also said in an email that Ottawa “is currently negotiating a specific claim with the Mohawks of Kanehsatake.”
Needless to say, the Mohawk relationship with Canada is still badly frayed. And yet, surprisingly perhaps, the situation has not re-escalated to anywhere near the point it reached on July 11, 1990, when a SWAT team confronted a previously peaceful protest on a little dirt road. Nor have other tense situations elsewhere in the country boiled over to that extent, though Burnt Church, Gustafsen Lake, Ipperwash and Caledonia all involved overt aggression.
People like Justice Murray Sinclair, former national chief Shawn Atleo and retired Armed Forces Colonel Douglas Bland have noted the ongoing potential for violent revolt. Bland, who has written extensively on the topic, including books such as Time Bomb and Uprising, has long argued that conditions are ripe for an indigenous insurgency in Canada.
That said, he believes Oka created something of a chill effect among governments, making them less likely to intervene in tense situations. Speaking by phone from Kingston, he said in most cases of confrontation the authorities back down, in part out of a fear of igniting a national uprising.
Last fall, several hundred Cree people effectively evicted Manitoba Hydro personnel from the housing complex at the Jenpeg Dam and maintained control of the grounds for six weeks. Though this was far more confrontational than the peaceful dirt-road blockade near Oka in 1990, governments did not respond to the Cree with force or intimidation or even firm posturing in the media.
Or consider the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline between the Alberta bitumen sands and the B.C. coast, a project the feds once backed with fervour. Leaders representing a couple of dozen First Nations in the region have repeatedly said they are willing to stand in front of bulldozers, literally, to stop the multi-billion dollar project. The ones I canvassed during a B.C. trip in 2012 also said they expect to win the battle.
Though Ottawa approved the project last summer, it is still not clear that Enbridge will proceed. It is entirely possible that what could have turned into another Oka — though more peaceful — may well turn into a quiet and very significant victory for indigenous people.
Alanis Obomsawin, the celebrated indigenous filmmaker whose 1992 NFB production Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance stands as the definitive documentary about the Oka siege, says Oka was a national turning point.
It was “a very tense place to be,” she recounted by phone from Montreal about the time she spent behind the barricades. “The warriors and soldiers were often insulting each other . . . one gun shot and you knew there would be a fight.”
In a particularly disturbing scene — one later expanded into its own film — Obomsawin shows a convoy of Mohawk community members leaving Kahnawake being pelted with large rocks by white rioters as police stand by. An elderly man who was hit by a large rock later died of a heart attack in hospital.
Now 82, she says that in her extensive travels to First Nations since 1990, people have often expressed gratitude to the Mohawks because governments treated them differently after Oka.
There is still a formidable undercurrent of tension in the country — intense frustration among many indigenous people, sharp animosity among segments of non-indigenous Canada and a federal government that has clearly calculated that the electorate will let it get away without making significant strides in terms of Aboriginal policy (and without responding substantively to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report).
But re-watching Obomsawin’s jarring and intimate portrait of life on both sides of what was perhaps the most dramatic Canadian event in a generation, it’s hard to imagine it happening again today. Society has softened at least a bit. Governments are exceptionally reluctant to point guns at indigenous people. Indigenous people have more power. People like Joe Clark, Paul Martin, Sheila Fraser, Allan Gregg, John Ralston Saul and retired Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci lend their time and moral clout to healing the rift between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples.
We’re not yet back to the image on the treaty medallions that shows two people, one indigenous, one not, standing tall and shaking hands. The Oka country club is not hosting powwows or handing land back to Mohawks to expand their cemetery. But nor are we as a nation staring each other down and seething like the soldier and Warrior in 1990. Collectively, we’re somewhere in between, inching toward reconciliation.
Will Braun is a writer from Morden, Man. A version of this article first appeared in Canadian Mennonite magazine (www.canadianmennonite.org)