78 days of unrest and an unresolved land claim hundreds of years in the making

Here's a look back at the key events of the standoff between Kanesatake Mohawks and police and the Canadian military in the summer of 1990 that still shapes the relationship between Indigenous peoples and Canada.

A timeline of the 1990 standoff in Kanesatake that still shapes Indigenous peoples' relationship with Canada

The 1990 standoff began on July 11, 1990 near Oka, Que., when provincial police raided a Mohawk protest camp in a pine forest that was to be razed to expand a municipal golf course. A police officer was killed. The Sûreté du Québec retreated, and Mohawk warriors barricaded the highway with SQ vehicles.

In 1990, the municipality of Oka, Que., planned to expand a golf course in a white pine forest claimed by its neighbours, the Mohawks of Kanesatake.

The ensuing conflict came to a head on July 11, 1990, when provincial police raided a protest camp in the Pines. Shots were exchanged. A police officer, Sû​ré​te du Québec Cpl. Marcel Lemay was killed — sparking the 78-day standoff known as the Oka Crisis.

The disputed territory at Oka is a part of a 300-year-old land dispute over the seigneury of Lake of Two Mountains — a vast tract of land covering 400 square kilometres that includes prime agricultural farmland and the airport at Mirabel, Que. The land claim remains unsettled.

Here's a look back at the key events of the standoff in the summer of 1990.

Mohawks tell Oka mayor, 'This is our land'

April 1, 1989

Some 300 Kanesatake Mohawks march through Oka to protest against Mayor Jean Ouellette's plan to expand the town's golf course on land Mohawks claim is theirs. "I will occupy this land [if that's] what it takes," vows Grand Chief Clarence Simon, standing in the disputed clearing in the Pines. Ouellette calls on the federal government to settle the land ownership issue once and for all.

April 1, 1989: Golf course protest

8 years ago
Duration 1:49
Featured VideoCBC's Luise Massari reports on the first protest by Kanestake Mohawks against Oka's plans to expand its golf course.

Occupation of the Pines begins

March 10, 1990

After Oka's municipal council votes to proceed with the golf course expansion project, a small group of Mohawks drag a fishing shack into the Pines and block access to a snow-covered dirt road that runs through the clearing.

On March 10, 1990, a small group of Mohawks drag a fishing shack into a clearing in the pine forest and vow to stay there, after Oka Mayor Jean Ouellette says he'll proceed with a golf-course expansion onto the disputed land. (Ellen Gabriel)

Oka seeks injunction to dismantle barricade

April 26, 1990

Mohawks increase surveillance in their protest camp in the disputed pine forest. Oka council responds with an injunction, demanding concrete blocks across a dirt road be removed. "We can't stand by while public roads are blocked," a town spokesperson says. "If I have to die for Mohawk territory, I will," a protester says, adding this dire warning: "But I ain't going alone."

April 1990: Mohawks increase surveillance

8 years ago
Duration 1:58
Featured VideoCBC's Paul Carvalho reports on mounting tensions in Oka/Kanesatake over the golf course project.

Warriors in the Pines

May 7, 1990

Masked and armed warriors appear in the Pines, sparking fear and anger in the town of Oka. "It's an illegal occupation," says Oka Coun. Gilles Landreville. The Kanesatake protesters deny the presence of the Mohawk Warrior Society.

May 12, 1990: Warriors in the Pines

8 years ago
Duration 2:36
Featured VideoPaul Carvalho reports on Oka townspeople's growing fears as masked warriors patrol the Pines.

Mohawks unite

July 4, 1990

After Oka serves Kanesatake's band council with a second injunction on June 29, supporters and warriors from the neighbouring Mohawk communities of Kahnawake and Akwesasne arrive in the Pines to show their support for the protest camp."We're not going to allow them to take the barricade down," says Mohawk artist and protester Ellen Gabriel.

July 4, 1990: Another injunction defied

8 years ago
Duration 1:31
Featured VideoCBC's John Curtin reports on increased activity at the protest camp in the Pines after Oka obtains a second injunction to dismantle the barricade.

Sam Elkas issues an ultimatum

July 5, 1990

Public Security Minister Sam Elkas gives the Mohawks four days to dismantle the barricade and the protest camp in the Pines or suffer the consequences. Two months earlier, on May 7, Elkas had vowed he would not send in the police "to play cowboys over the question of a golf course."

Quebec Public Security Minister Sam Elkas had vowed in May 1990 he would not send in police "to play cowboys over the question of a golf course," but on July 5, he gave Mohawks four days to take down the barricade at Oka. (CBC)

Mohawks wait behind barbed wire

July 9, 1990

Another deadline to dismantle the barricade in the Pines passes without police intervention. The clearing looks increasingly like an armed camp: barbed wire goes up, warriors in battle fatigues cover their faces. Federal negotiator Yves Désilets shows up, however, the Mohawks in the camp harden their stance, demanding "nation-to-nation" talks directly with Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.

July 9, 1990: Behind barbed wire

8 years ago
Duration 1:29
Featured VideoCBC's John Curtin reports on the hardening stance of the Mohawks as another deadline to take down the barricade comes and goes.

Oka Mayor Jean Ouellette demands police action

July 10, 1990

Oka Mayor Jean Ouellette makes a formal request to the Quebec provincial police, the Sûreté du Québec, to clear the barricade and stop the "criminal acts" in the Pines next to the golf course. "We are counting on you to settle this problem without any further delays or requests on our part," he told police in a letter.

July 10, 1990: Oka Mayor demands police act

8 years ago
Duration 1:22
Featured VideoJohn Curtin reports on the Oka mayor's ultimatum.

Standoff begins

July 11, 1990

Provincial police stage a pre-dawn raid on the Mohawk barricade, releasing tear gas after Mohawks refuse to budge. CBC radio reporter Laurent Lavigne is live on air when he finds himself dodging bullets and coughing up tear gas in this dramatic report.

Botched police raid: SQ Corporal Marcel Lemay dies

July 11, 1990

Tear gas blows back at police, and an SQ officer is killed in the exchange of gunfire between the provincial police tactical intervention squad and Mohawk warriors. Police retreat, leaving behind cruisers and a bulldozer, used by Mohawk protesters to barricade Highway 344 through Kanesatake.

July 11, 1990: Botched police raid

8 years ago
Duration 4:16
Featured VideoCBC's Neil Macdonald and Paul Workman report on the first day of the standoff at Oka/Kanesatake.

Kahnawake Mohawks block Mercier Bridge

July 11, 1990

Kahnawake Mohawk warriors block the Mercier bridge and all approaching highways in solidarity with Mohawks in Kanesatake.

July 11, 1990: Kahnawake blocks Mercier bridge

8 years ago
Duration 1:11
Featured VideoKahnawake Mohawk warriors block the Mercier bridge and all approaching highways in solidarity with Mohawks in Kanesatake.

Native Affairs Minister John Ciaccia arrives in the Pines

July 12, 1990

Quebec Native Affairs Minister John Ciaccia is escorted past the new barricade on Highway 344 in Oka/Kanesatake to attempt to negotiate dismantling the barricade in exchange for a police retreat.

Quebec Native Affairs Minister John Ciaccia, accompanied by Mohawk spokeswoman Ellen Gabriel (centre), is escorted past police barricades into the Pines in Kanesatake on July 12, 1990. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Kahnawake food supplies dwindle

July 12,1990

Day 2 of the Mohawk standoff, and already Kahnawake residents find themselves cut off, in retaliation for the Mercier bridge closure.

July 12, 1990: Kahnawake food supplies dwindle

8 years ago
Duration 2:02
Featured VideoDay two of the Mohawk standoff, and already Kahnawake residents find themselves cut off, in retaliation for the Mercier bridge closure.

Tempers flare in Châteauguay

July 13-14, 1990

Furious Châteauguay residents attack Mohawks driving through town. "The warriors are all a bunch of damned terrorist!" proclaims one man. The next night, the first Mohawk effigy is lit ablaze.

July 13-14, 1990: Tempers flare in Chateauguay

8 years ago
Duration 1:52
Featured VideoFurious Chateauguay residents attack Mohawks driving through town. The next night, the first Mohawk effigy is lit ablaze.

Negotiations break down in Kanesatake

July 19, 1990

Eight days into the standoff, negotiations with Quebec Native Affairs Minister John Ciaccia stall. Indigenous Canadians are holding solidarity protests across the country. In Ottawa, Federal Indian Affairs Minister Tom Siddon — silent until now — commits to buy the disputed land at Oka but demands the barricades come down.

Negotiations over conflict at Oka break down

33 years ago
Duration 4:55
Featured VideoThe eyes of the world focus on Oka,Que. in July 1990. Aired July 19, 1990 on CBC's The National.

Bourassa calls in the army

Aug. 7-8. 1990

Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa invokes the National Defence Act, calling on the Canadian military to replace Quebec provincial police in Oka and Kahnawake. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney appoints a special mediator, Quebec Chief Justice Alan Gold, to kickstart negotiations with the Kanesatake Mohawks.

August 7, 1990: Bourassa's deadline approaches

8 years ago
Duration 0:31
Featured VideoOn the eve of the Quebec premier's threat to call in the army, Kahnawake chief Billy Two-Rivers is grim.

Arrests on the Louis-de-Gonzague Bridge

Aug. 12, 1990

South Shore protesters clash with provincial police on the bridge near Valleyfield, the detour route for those cut off from Montreal. Their leader Yvon Poitras, a former SQ officer, is among those arrested. Meanwhile, in Kanesatake, federal negotiator and Quebec Chief Justice Alan Gold has arranged a ceremony to relaunch negotiations between Mohawks and government leaders, who are roundly condemned for signing a document in the presence of masked Mohawk warriors.

A former SQ officer turned leader of Solidarité Chateauguay, Yvon Poitras, is among those arrested after south shore protesters clash with police on the Louis-de-Gonzague bridge near Valleyfield. (CBC)

Van Doos arrive in Oka

Aug. 20, 1990

The Royal 22nd Regiment, stationed in the farming village of Saint-Benoît since Premier Bourassa called in the army, moves in hundreds of troops, enclosing the Mohawk community of Kanesatake from all sides.

August 20, 1990: Van Doos arrive in Kanesatake

8 years ago
Duration 1:44
Featured VideoThe Royal 22nd Regiment moves in troops and armoured personnel carriers to take over SQ barricades.

Barricades come down on the Mercier Bridge

Aug. 29, 1990

Lieutenant-Colonel Robin Gagnon negotiated a "military-to-military" agreement with Mohawk warriors at Kahnawake to dismantle the barricades on the Mercier Bridge, a process that took eight days. On Sept. 6, the bridge reopened. By then, the final holdouts in Kanesatake were confined to the treatment centre, surrounded by razor wire.

Kahnawake Grand Chief Joe Norton on the Mercier Bridge, two days after the barricades come down and the army begins its retreat. (CBC)

The Canadian army moves into the Pines

Sept. 1, 1990

The Canadian army tightens the noose, closing in on the remaining Mohawk Warriors at the site of the original barricade in the Pines. A few dozen Mohawks retreat to a treatment centre across from the Pines, now surrounded by barbed wire.

Canadian army intervenes at Oka

33 years ago
Duration 3:11
Featured VideoThe Canadian army takes down the blockades.

After 78 days, the standoff ends

Sept. 26, 1990

After a 78-day impasse Oka Mohawk warriors abandon the barricades. Slowly individual /mohawk warriors come out of the forest. The army is unprepared for this last minute surrender.

Oka Crisis ends

33 years ago
Duration 7:41
Featured VideoAfter 78 days, the Mohawks decide to surrender.

Key warriors arraigned

Sept. 27, 1990

Ronald (Lasagna) Cross and another high-profile warrior, Gordon (Noriega) Lazore of Akwesasne, are arraigned in Saint-Jérôme the day after the last Mohawks ended their standoff. In all, about 150 Mohawks and 15 non-Mohawks were charged with various crimes. Most were granted bail, and most were acquitted. Cross and Lazore were held for nearly six months before being released on $50,000 bail. They were later convicted of assault and other charges.

A badly beaten-up Mohawk Warrior Ronald (Lasagna) Cross leaves Saint-Jérôme courthouse the day after his arrest. (Bill Grimshaw/Canadian Press)


Loreen Pindera


Loreen Pindera is a journalist with 35 years' experience in CBC newsrooms in Thunder Bay, Winnipeg, Iqaluit and Montreal. Her book People of the Pines: The Warriors and the Legacy of Oka, co-authored with Geoffrey York, is a primer on the 1990 Mohawk land dispute.