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Snapshots in History: July 11: Remembering the Oka Crisis

July 11, 2013 | John P. | Comments (0)







(Credits: Clips from CBC Television’s The National – 1990)



On July 11 and beyond, take a moment to remember the Oka Crisis that began on July 11, 1990 from a land dispute between the town of Oka, Québec and the aboriginal Mohawk community of Kanesatake over the expansion of a golf course and residential development onto land that had been traditionally used by the Mohawk people as a sacred pine grove. A previous land claim filed by the Mohawk people in 1986 had been rejected by the Government of Canada’s Office of Native Claims for not meeting legal parameters. A court decision that allowed the golf course construction to go ahead
was matched by the erection of a barricade blocking access to the land. The aboriginal people were not consulted about the proposed golf course expansion and neighbouring residential development. Oka’s Mayor Jean Ouellette asked Québec’s provincial police force, the Sûreté du Québec (SQ), to intervene at the barricade, offering the claim that there had been criminal activity at the barricade. The Mohawk people, using the oral Constitution of the Iroquois Confederacy (or the Great Law of Peace / Gayanashagowa) as a guide, asked their women in their roles as the caretakers of the land and the “progenitors of the nation”, whether the weapons cache of the Mohawk warriors should stay in place. The Mohawk women replied that weapons should only be used if the SQ fired first, and in a defensive manner. The SQ responded with an emergency response team that deployed tear gas canisters and flash bang grenades. It is unclear which side fired first but gunfire ensued for 15 minutes with one resulting casualty, SQ Corporal Marcel Lemay, who later died after a bullet entered his body on the left side in an area not protected by his bulletproof vest.

Aboriginal people from across Canada and the United States joined the Kanesatake Mohawk people in solidarity. Ensuing blockades and barricades on both sides escalated the conflict, including the blockade of the Mercier Bridge by Mohawk people from the nearby territory of Kahnawake. The federal government’s proposal to purchase the land in question to prevent the expansion of the golf course was not an acceptable solution for the Mohawk people as the responsibility for the land remained outside of aboriginal control.

Tensions escalated in nearby Châteauguay between the Mohawk and non-aboriginal communities. The SQ was now assisted by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP); 14 Mounties were injured on August 14, 1990. The government of Québec requested military aid from the government of Canada under the auspices of the National Defence Act. The Royal 22nd Regiment (the “Van Doos”) took over control of three blockades on August 20, 1990 and closed the gap between the Mohawk blockades to five metres. On August 29, 1990, the Kahnawake Mohawks ended their blockade of the Mercier Bridge after negotiating with Lieutenant-Colonel Robin Gagnon of the Van Doos regiment. The Kanesatake Mohawks were not pleased at this development and their protest continued well into September, culminating in a Mohawk warrior setting off flares left by Canadian Forces personnel. Canadian Army soldiers responded by turning a water hose on the warrior. Other Mohawk warriors responded in kind by launching water balloons. On September 26, 1990, the Mohawks of Kanesatake laid down their weapons and took them apart, then threw them into a fire, followed by the ceremonial burning of tobacco and a final return to the Kanesatake reserve. The SQ and Canadian Forces did detain and arrest some Mohawk people.

The Oka Crisis was a watershed moment in Canadian history and for Canadian indigenous people standing up for their rights. Whatever one thinks of the Oka Crisis and how it was handled on all sides, much has been produced to document this event. Here are some items about the Oka Crisis that are available for loan from Toronto Public Library collections:



  Oka a political crisis and its legacy

Oka: a political crisis and its legacy / Harry Swain, 2010. Book. Adult Non-Fiction.

The author, who served as deputy minister of Indian and Northern Affairs from 1987 to 1992, offered a 20-plus year look back at the Oka Crisis and the key players involved in the crisis, including Québec’s then-Native Affairs Minister John Ciaccia, then-Québec Premier Robert Bourassa, then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, then-federal Indian Affairs Minister Tom Siddon, and then-Chief of the Defence Staff General John de Chastelain. Swain noted that health and socioeconomic conditions for Canadian aboriginal people are disgraceful. The Indian Act must be replaced. The government of Canada must commit to legitimate and lasting reform in order to achieve real reconciliation with aboriginal people in Canada.


The Oka crisis: a mirror of the soul [1st ed.] / John Ciaccia, 2000. Book. Adult Non-Fiction.

Ciaccia served as the provincial Native Affairs minister at the time of the Oka Crisis. In fact, Ciaccia had written a letter of support for the Mohawk people of Kanesatake, citing their unfair and unjust treatment over the lack of consultation and compensation for disappearing land, especially for something like a golf course.


People of the pines: the Warriors and the legacy of Oka / Geoffrey York and Loreen Pindera, 1991. Book. Adult Non-Fiction.

Then-Globe and Mail reporter York and then-CBC Radio reporter Pindera offered a detailed account of how the Oka Crisis started, escalated, and finally ended. Some reviewers at the time such as John Goddard of The Toronto Star (“Mohawk crisis: Necessary fight or battle of bravado?”, Toronto Star, October 29, 1991, F13) were concerned that while the authors intended to convey sympathy for the Mohawk people, the resulting portrayal of the individuals in the book might not engender sympathy from readers.


Consider the National Film Board documentaries on the Oka Crisis written, directed, and produced by Alanis Obomsawin:

Kanehsatake: 270 years of resistance [DVD] / Alanis Obomsawin and Wolf Koenig, c2006, [1993].  DVD. Documentary. Adult Non-Fiction.

This National Film Board of Canada documentary won 18 Canadian and international awards, including the Distinguished Documentary Achievement Award from the International Documentary Association and the CITY TV Award for Best Canadian Feature Film from the Toronto Festival of Festivals.

Obomsawin’s documentary was historically important because it provided an alternative viewpoint to the mainstream viewpoint of the Canadian government protecting the status quo. Obomsawin and her film crew joined the Oka encampment to provide a first-hand account from the aboriginal perspective. CBC rejected airing the documentary so the world premiere occurred on the United Kingdom’s Channel Four, and its North American premiere at the Toronto Festival of Festivals.


Alanis Obomsawin: the collection = Alanis Obomsawin: la collection [DVD] / Alanis Obomsawin, 2008. DVD. Documentary. Adult Non-Fiction.

This National Film Board compilation includes three documentaries by filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin: Kanehsatake: 270 years of resistance; Rocks at Whiskey Trench (75 vehicles containing aboriginal women, children, and elderly were stoned by angry residents from LaSalle as they tried to leave the reserve); and, My name is Kahentiiosta (a female Mohawk participant at the Oka Crisis standoff).




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