Standoff at Oka|
A Mohawk standoff becomes a rallying cry for native anger and frustration
In 1988, George Erasmus, the leader of the Assembly of First Nations, delivered a dire warning about unsettled native land claims in Canada:
|In March 1990, Mohawks warriors at Kanesatake set up a blockade over disputed land with the municipality of Oka. In August, Canadians soldiers were called in to serve at the standoff.
"We want to let you know that you are dealing with fire. We say, Canada, deal with us today because our militant leaders are already born. We cannot promise that you are going to like the kind of violent political action we can just about guarantee the next generation is going to bring to our reserves."
Two years later, his words proved prophetic when a land claim dispute turned violent and held the attention of the country.
In March 1990, Mohawks at Kanesatake, west of Montreal, set up a blockade to prevent bulldozers from breaking ground for a golf course that would be built on a native burial ground. The Mohawks disputed the land with the nearby municipality of Oka.
Among those buried in the cemetery the body of Kanawatiron, known as Joseph Gabriel, who had died in the 1930s.
In 1911, Kanawatiron was part of a native group that objected to the building of a railway through the reserve. Under the headline "Indians Threaten War Against Railroad Men," the Montreal Star reported the incident:
"Witnesses say there were at least forty braves armed with shotguns, revolvers and bludgeons, who with regular war cry accompaniment, informed the railroad labourers that they could proceed at their peril, as the property they were about to cross belonged to the Iroquois. The navvies [labourers] are said to have retired gracefully."
Seventy-nine years later, the events at Kanesatake would not end so gracefully.
On July 10, 1990, four months after the native roadblocks went up, the mayor of nearby Oka asked the provincial police, the Sûreté du Québec), to enforce an injunction from the Quebec superior court to have the blockade torn down.
The next day, 100 police officers armed with concussion grenades and tear gas, some with assault rifles, took up positions around the blockade.
Tensions ran high; eventually gunfire rang out from both sides.
Debbie Etienne, a social worker who lived in Kanesatake, remembered the ensuing chaos:
"People were screaming, asking if anyone got hit. I heard somebody was shot."
Someone was shot, and killed. It was Corporal Marcel Lemay of the Sûreté du Québec Police quickly surrounded Kanesatake.
Quebec's minister of Indian Affairs, John Ciaccia, reacted to the crisis with surprise:
"I never thought it would go so far," he said. "Nothing had prepared me for what would happen."
Throughout summer tensions increased. Natives at the nearby reserve of Kahnawake showed their support for the Warriors by erecting a blockade on the Mercier Bridge, effectively closing the road that carried commuters from the south shore of the St. Lawrence to Montreal. After a month of the blockade, tempers were flaring among commuters.
There were other incidents of violence, and pressure grew on the Quebec government to resolve the crisis, which had now become a rallying cry for natives frustrated with political marginalization.
Ellen Gabriel was with her people behind the Kahnawake barricades.
"I think aboriginal people really strongly identify with what was happening here, and they said, yeah, something like that has happened to us. Maybe not to that extreme but [they] recognize that pain."
On August 14, after a series of almost daily violent incidents, Premier Robert Bourassa called upon the army for support. Horrified Canadians watched as soldiers faced off with armed Mohawks from the militant Warrior society.
"The Warriors wanted the army," said Ciaccia, "because then they could say they were fighting nation against nation, the Mohawk army against the Canadian army ...They played it for all it was worth around the world."
On August 29, the Kahnawake Mohawks dismantled the barricades at the Mercier Bridge, defusing tension among commuters and leaving the Kanesatake Mohawks isolated.
On September 26, after a long and tense standoff, the Warriors surrendered, and most of the leaders were arrested.
"We didnt get our land," Debbie Etienne said. "But I think on the inside we gained a lot, because our kids saw the truth.... It proved what my grandparents [told me] and their grandparents told them ... We are not a violent people; they created the violence."
The only casualty was Marcel Lemay, whose wife was pregnant with their second child. No one was charged with the murder.
Some native leaders condemned the standoff at Oka, but others suggested it was a logical and inevitable outcome of five hundred years of inequality.