Army's offer to help with Kanesatake flooding revives memories of Oka Crisis

Despite the passage of 27 years, Grand Chief Serge Simon said feelings are still raw in the Mohawk community over the 1990 standoff with Quebec provincial police and, later, the Canadian military that became known as the Oka Crisis.

Grand Chief Serge Simon says offer was 'graciously declined,' mainly because situation was under control

The Canadian Armed Forces assist with flooding in the town of Oka. The neighbouring Kanesatake band council turned down the army's help. (Ellen Gabriel/Facebook)

As the flood waters rose around the Mohawk community of Kanesatake west of Montreal last weekend, Grand Chief Serge Simon and the band council had to decide whether to accept an old foe's offer to help.

Despite the passage of 27 years, Simon said feelings are still raw in the community over the 1990 standoff with Quebec provincial police and, later, the Canadian military that became known as the Oka Crisis.

That was partly why he "graciously declined" the army's offer to help Kanesatake shore up its flood defences, he said.

"The Oka Crisis is still very vivid in a lot of peoples' minds," Simon told CBC on Tuesday. "[They were] surrounded by tanks and helicopters for a period of time there back in 1990, so reopening that wound was not an option."

Army's help not necessary, chief says

Not wanting to aggravate that old wound, however, was secondary to the fact the community just didn't need the military assistance, Simon said.

Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Simon says the Oka Crisis is still 'very vivid' for many in the community. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

With the possibility of flooding on the horizon, the band council declared a pre-emptive state of emergency three weeks ago and began preparations. By Tuesday, they had already used 300 tonnes of sand for sandbags.

"I think we did as good a job as the army would have," Simon said.

Flood waters still managed to reach 30 homes in Kanesatake, and eight had to be evacuated. But worse damage was prevented by an all-out community effort, Simon said.

"We did a good job to help them, managed to get sandbag walls up around the houses. We scrambled like crazy the last couple of days," he said.

Simon said efforts to protect homes began in earnest Saturday and continued almost non-stop until Monday afternoon.

The municipality of Oka welcomed military help after high water levels on the Lake of Two Mountains flooded properties like this one. The neighbouring Kanesatake band council turned down the army's offer of assistance. (submitted by Ellen Gabriel)

Mohawks from Kahnawake and Akwesasne also offered their assistance, and some drove to Kanesatake to help out.

Oka Crisis no reason to refuse help, community member says

Yet not every Kanesatake Mohawk agrees with the decision to refuse the military's offer to help.

While acknowledging the community did a "stand-up job" to fight the flooding, Walter David said the band council should have consulted the community before declining the army's offer.
Walter David, a Mohawk who runs Moccasin Jo café in Kanesatake, says Chief Serge Simon should have consulted the community before turning down an offer of help from the Canadian Armed Forces. (Jay Turnbull/CBC)

"Using the excuse of 1990 — come on, that was 27 years ago, that's kind of ridiculous to use that," said David, who was part of the Mohawk resistance during the Oka Crisis.

"I was here in 1990, and I never had army shoot at me — I had [Sûreté du Québec] shoot at me, and the SQ is still throughout here all the time, year in and year out."

Sept 1, 1990: Canadian soldier Patrick Cloutier and Saskatchewan Ojibwa Brad Laroque alias "Freddy Kruger" come face to face in a tense standoff in Kanesatake which began as a land dispute with the municipality of Oka, Que. (Shaney Komulainen/Canadian Press)

Community decision?

He said the band council should have called a meeting to explain the military intervention and let the community decide.

Walter acknowledged that resentment and even animosity towards the Canadian military remains in Kanesatake, and many didn't want the army's help, but he said it was risky to refuse.

"We were scrambling," he said. "Everybody was tired, shovelling and loading trucks, positioning sandbags around people's homes — they'd been going since Friday, and they're burned out and it would have been nice to have some fresh bodies coming in."

The Lake of Two Mountains spilled its banks, flooding parts of the town of Oka and Kanesatake. (Radio-Canada)

Walter didn't see it as a missed opportunity to reconcile with Canada's military. Rather, it was a chance to let people have a say in a decision with potentially serious consequences for the community.

"Do we need them, or do we not need them?  At least give the people a chance to make a decision."

Aug. 23, 1990: A Quebec Métis places a stick with an eagle feather tied to it into the barrel of a machine gun mounted on a Canadian Forces armoured vehicle at Oka, Que. (Bill Grimshaw/Canadian Press)

With files from CBC's Daybreak