Sunday September 20, 2015

Sisters recall the brutal last day of Oka Crisis

Waneek Horn-Miller holds on to her 4-year-old sister as chaos breaks out. The 78-day siege, remembered as the Oka Crisis, ended with the army moving in to push the Mohawk out on Sept. 26, 1990.

Waneek Horn-Miller holds on to her 4-year-old sister as chaos breaks out. The 78-day siege, remembered as the Oka Crisis, ended with the army moving in to push the Mohawk out on Sept. 26, 1990. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

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Most kids spend the summer playing with friends or chilling out at home.

But when sisters Waneek Horn-Miller and Kaniehtiio Horn were just 14 and four years old respectively, these Kahnawake Mohawks were behind the lines of one of Canada's most infamous standoffs. The media branded it the Oka Crisis but for those who were there and those who supported them, it is remembered as the Mohawk Resistance.

"My mother, Kahentinetha Horn is a native activist, old-school from the '60s. She was there and me and my little sister ended up following her there," recalled Horn-Miller.

"I just wanted to be where ever my mother was and where my fun sister was and it just happened to be behind the lines surrounded by the Canadian Army," said Kaniehtiio Horn.

I just wanted to be where ever my mother was and where my fun sister was and it just happened to be behind the lines surrounded by the Canadian Army. - Kaniehtiio Horn

In the summer of 1990 the town of Oka, Quebec planned to expand a golf course without consultation onto a piece of land the locals call The Pines. The land is sacred to the Mohawk who were opposed to the expansion because it is where their people are buried.

Defending The Pines

The line was drawn. A peaceful blockade prevented the expansion. But soon the Sûreté du Québec were called in while warriors in fatigues and masks stood at the front line. Community members like Horn-Miller and her family stood to defend of the land.

"It was scary but also exciting," she said.

Soon the situation would become all too real and scary. Tensions would only rise. While she had been the target of racism growing up, Horn-Miller says that was just schoolyard stuff. Behind the blockade, the sisters witnessed nightly race riots, people throwing rocks and burning effigies of Mohawks.

Waneek Horn-Miller

Waneek Horn-Miller is now 39 years old and has competed in the Olympics as part of Canada's Water Polo Team. (Waneek Horn-Miller)

But it isn't just the violence that stayed with Horn-Miller. Watching the TV coverage, she was inspired by the solidarity camps being held across across the country by other Indigenous people."We knew that if people were out there and praying and supporting, that kept us safe every day," she said.

Ending the siege

It would be a 78 day siege of the community that ended with the army moving in to push the Mohawk out. The last stand took place at the Kanesatake treatment centre on the September 26, 1990. 

After a community meeting, it was the women who decided that they would walk out peacefully, ending the siege. With military helicopters flying low, spotlights glaring down and soldiers pointing guns at them, Horn-Miller carried her young sister alongside other women and children as they walked to what they thought was the safety of the media barricades.

Even though she was only four years old, Kaniehtiio Horn said she remembers being in the middle of the chaos holding her big sister's hand. "In the distance, past the soldiers there was this metal bar on the ground with all these spikes sticking out of it. Maybe 20 feet behind that were all of these people in normal clothes, not wearing camouflage so in my four year old mind I was like, 'well those people don't seem threatening lets go over that way.'"

They didn't make it far before violence broke out. People started running, soldiers tackled warriors, fights broke out and everyone scrambled to get to safety. Up until that point Horn-Miller said she was able to keep her old sister calm by singing a traditional song to her.

"She just looked around at this violence breaking out around her... and she started to make this sound that will forever haunt me."

"Now as a mother I can tell you that I know every sound a child makes, whether they're hungry or tired or scared or hurt there's different cries and we know what that is. But there's a very special one they make when they think they're going to die."

Horn-Miller, still holding her sister, ran and made it to the media barricade. When she got there she recognized a soldier who had refused to allow her grade 10 school books past the blockade a couple of weeks earlier.

"I pointed at him and said I know you… as I pointed at him I pulled my little sister behind my back and right at that point I got hit in the chest... and I fell forward and then someone kicked my feet out from underneath me and I landed on my back and my little sister fell on top of me," she recalled. 

"I felt like my head was going to explode. I was so angry and scared, I was in terror, I had lost it."

I felt like my head was going to explode. I was so angry and scared, I was in terror, I had lost it.
- Waneek Horn-Miller

Now 29 years old, her little sister Kaniehtiio Horn is a Gemini Award nominated actress for her role in the acclaimed TV series Moccassin Flats. But in 1990 she was a just a terrified 4 child. 

"All of a sudden I got jerked backwards and that's, I guess, as soon as she got stabbed. I remember falling to the ground on my back and then her rolling over and taking me into an embrace," Horn said.

"I just wanted my mom."

Someone grabbed both girls then, dragged them away and returned them to their mother.

"I handed my little sister to her and I looked down. I felt like my chest hurt and I looked down and I had blood all over the front my shirt and I went 'oh my god'. I looked in my shirt and I had a huge gash in my chest," Horn-Miller said.

She had been stabbed in the chest by a soldier's bayonet.

But instead of medical care, the Mohawks were herded onto a school bus and taken into temporary custody. It would be 22 hours before she was released and taken back to Kahnawake where she finally saw a doctor.

A centimetre from death 

"He said had it been a centimetre either way it would have gone right into your heart and you would have died," Horn-Miller said.

​She went on to compete in the Olympics, become a sports commentator and role model. She says surviving Oka changed her perspective.

"I get a second chance and that's pretty much what pushed me forward after that."

Kaniehtiio Horn

Now 29 years old, Kaniehtiio Horn is a Gemini Award nominated actress for her role in the acclaimed TV series Moccassin Flats. (Kaniehtiio Horn)

Looking back Kaniehtiio Horn said a lot of people glorify the Oka Crisis now. During the height of the Idle No More movement, she added, many native people were saying they wanted another Oka or they wanted to be the next warrior staring down a soldier.

"You don't want it. Take it from me, you don't want that experience. It was so damaging and still is even back home," she said.

We've been going through conflicts like this for 500 years.  - Kaniehtiio Horn

She believes that wound is slowly healing as people try and move on from that painful page in their history. But Horn said it is just one page in a long history of resistance.

"Oka is one of the most important conflicts that's happened in the past short little while but you know what, we've been going through conflicts like this for 500 years."