78 days of unrest and an unresolved land claim hundreds of years in the making
A timeline of the 1990 standoff in Kanesatake that still shapes Indigenous peoples' relationship with Canada
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, Sûréte 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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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."
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.
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 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.
- Listen to Laurent Lavigne's live report here.
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.
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.
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.
Kahnawake food supplies dwindle
Day 2 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.