A sister's grief bridges a cultural divide

Twenty years ago, a young Quebec police constable became the first casualty in the Oka standoff with Montreal's Mohawks. Today, his sister has translated into French a book of Mohawk stories, to help bridge the gap between the two communities.
Lemay (centre) with (left to right) Hilda Nicholas of the Kanesatake Cultural Centre, Arlette Van den Hende (co-author of At the Woods' Edge) and Ellen Gabriel, head of the Quebec Native Women's Association. (Submitted by Barbara Simon)

Francine Lemay had never given a thought to the Kanesatake Mohawks' dispute with the town of Oka over expansion plans for a golf course until the phone rang in her suburban Montreal home on July 11, 1990.

"It was a relative, telling me my brother had just been shot," she said.

Thirty-one-year-old Quebec police corporal Marcel Lemay had been gunned down in a botched police raid on a Mohawk barricade in the disputed pine forest, just a stone's throw from the Oka golf clubhouse and the tiny Mohawk graveyard nestled next to it.

The armed standoff that followed Lemay's death dragged on for 78 days, paralyzing Quebec for an entire summer — and ultimately, forcing Canada to confront a new reality in its relationship with aboriginal people.

It also ripped open an old wound, exposing the distrust between many French-speaking Quebecers and the mostly English-speaking Mohawks, one of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy.

"I didn't know anything about native land claims," said Francine Lemay, thinking back to what she and most Quebecers her age had learned from the nuns who taught them their histoire du Canada.

"The 'bad Indians' were the Iroquois because they associated with the English. The 'good Indians' were the Hurons, because they were allied with the French."

Fourteen years went by before a friend lent Lemay a book called At the Woods' Edge, an anthology of the history of the Kanesatake Mohawks.

Picking up that book in 2004 set her on a journey of reconciliation that will culminate on the 20th anniversary of her brother's death with the publication of À l'Orée des Bois, Francine Lemay's French translation of that anthology.

"That book changed my life," said Lemay. "It really touched my heart, to find out all the injustice, the pain and hurt, all the mistreatment (the Mohawks) received, and the inertia of the government."

Oral history

At the Woods' Edge is a collection of oral history and photographs unearthed from fading family albums and musty trunks, corroborated by letters and court documents gleaned from museums, university libraries and government archives.

The iconic photo from the Oka standoff: Canadian soldier Patrick Cloutier and Brad Larocque, alias Freddy Krueger, come face to face on Sept. 1, 1990. (Shaney Komulainen/Canadian Press)

It was researched and compiled by two Mohawk women, Arlette Kawanatatie Van den Hende and Brenda Gabriel, in the mid-1990s, for the people of Kanesatake themselves.

"After the crisis, people were wondering, 'Who are we, really?'" said Van den Hende, daughter of a Kanesatake Mohawk and a Belgian immigrant. "What is our history?

"We heard so many stories from our elders about the troubles we have had with the land. Every family has a story of loss, of land theft, of dealing with jails and governments and deaf ears."

Francine Lemay was particularly touched by the attempt by federal government in 1881 to end the land dispute at Oka by resettling Mohawk families far away in northern Ontario, in Muskoka. Thirty-five of the 120 families made the move by steamboat in late fall.

"They were promised food for the winter and seeds for the next spring," said Lemay, flipping through the book's pages and pointing out grainy, black and white photographs of a Mohawk family in front of a canvas army tent.

"They got food for two weeks. They lived in their tents that whole winter. A lot of people died of disease and hunger."

A chance meeting

Francine Lemay's curiousity about the Kanesatake Mohawks' history might have ended when she finished reading Van den Hende's book, had it not been for a chance meeting that same week with Mavis Etienne.

'She said, 'I am Marcel Lemay's sister.' It hit me like a brick wall.' —Mavis Etienne

Etienne is a Kanesatake Mohawk who figured prominently during the Oka crisis, acting as a negotiator for the community in the drawn-out talks to bring down the barricades.

She is also an evangelical Christian who is spearheading a project to translate the Old Testament into Kanienkehah, the Mohawk language.

In June 2004, Etienne and her team were invited to speak to a congregation on Montreal's West Island about their project. It happened to be Francine Lemay's church, and that Sunday, Lemay was greeting visitors at the door.

"There was this friendly lady." Etienne recalled. "I shook hands with her, and we went in and gave our presentation."

Cpl. Marcel Lemay, 31, was the only person killed during the Oka Crisis. He died July 11, shortly after police stormed the Mohawk barricade. (Francine Lemay)

After the talk, Lemay approached the congregation and asked to speak to the Mohawks. "She says, I would like to address my statement to the Mohawk people: I want to apologize for the racist media and how the Mohawks have been treated."

"During the Mohawks' presentation, I was shaking all over, even though I was not cold!" Lemay said.

"When I went up to talk, I stopped shaking. I thanked the people for their presentation. And then there was a pause and I identified myself as the sister of the policeman who got shot in the Pines during the Oka crisis."

"She said, 'I am Marcel Lemay's sister.' It hit me like a brick wall," Etienne said.

"I had always wanted to meet a member of his family. I always felt so sad that he lost his life. I went down there and I hugged her, and I said, 'I want to say how sorry I am.'"

Trail of prayers

Everyone in the congregation broke down in tears. After the service, Etienne invited Lemay to an ecumenical gathering she had planned to commemorate the Oka crisis. She called it the Trail of Prayers.

The trail ended in the Pines, the site of Marcel Lemay's death. "I was overtaken by nausea and weakness," Lemay said.

Etienne invited her to leave, but she insisted on staying for the ceremony. Afterward, Tracy Cross, the brother of the late Ronald Cross — the Mohawk warrior known as Lasagna — came up and hugged her, offering his condolences.

"It was like the first phase of my healing," said Lemay. "I let myself mourn my brother — in a heartfelt way, for the first time."

She began to attend Etienne's church in Kanesatake from time to time. Etienne introduced Lemay to another francophone Quebecer, Daniel Lacasse, who had also been drawn to Kanesatake out of curiousity and a quest to build bridges.

Two years later, Lemay and Lacasse were married. Tracy Cross was the best man at their wedding.

'Les sauvages'

Lemay still winces at the racist images of the summer of 1990. She recalls the shouts of "les Sauvages!" and the burning of Mohawk effigies on Montreal's south shore, where commuters rioted to protest against the sympathy blockades on the Mercier bridge, erected by the Mohawk's sister community of Kahnawake.

Sadly, Lemay does not think attitudes among many Quebecers have softened over two decades.

"When I talk with my friends, they still have these old ideas and prejudices," she said. "It's always (illegal) cigarettes, the bingos, the lottery. It seems they do not want to know more."

Quebec provincial police man their barricade at the bottom of the hill while Mohawks maintain their position at the top as the standoff on the Kanesatake Reserve near Oka entered its 14th day on July 24, 1990. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

A year ago, with the 20th anniversary of the crisis approaching, Lemay realized there might be something concrete she could do to change hardened attitudes.

She proposed translating At the Woods' Edge, the book that had transformed her understanding of the Kanesatake Mohawks' history.

"Someone could have knocked me off my chair with a feather when I found out Francine Lemay wanted to translate the book," said Arlette Van den Hende. "I wasn't sure how to take it. I guess she had been on her own healing path and it had brought her to the book."

Painful as a pregnancy

It took Lemay nine months to translate the book — as long and as painful as a pregnancy, she joked. "There were doubts that I was doing the right thing, doubts that it would ever be published — because we didn't have any money!"

But she had given her word, so she pressed on.

"This is like my contribution for the pain the Mohawks endured throughout the centuries, my way to make amends," she said.

By early 2010, word got around Kanesatake about the hundreds of hours Lemay was devoting to translating the book into French, free of charge. Money was found to print 1,000 copies, in time for the 20th anniversary commemoration of the crisis.

Early in June, Lemay returned for a second time to the pine grove where her brother Marcel died — alone this time. It was something she felt she needed to do.

She brought along a detailed map, published in the coroner's report into Marcel Lemay's death, so she could find the exact spot where a bullet felled him.

"We still don't know who is responsible for it," she said. "But through his death, I found friends.

"You can not measure someone's pain. I can not say my pain is greater than what the Mohawks went through, through centuries of abuse," Lemay shrugged, a sad smile on her face.

"I am poorer in a sense, because I lost him. But I am richer in another way, because I gained knowledge about the whole history, the culture — it is hard to tell." 

You can listen here to CBC Radio reporter Loreen Pindera's moving account of Francine Lemay's transformation, first broadcast on CBC's C'est la vie in June 2010.