Indigenous·Blog

Oka Crisis: 5 films that shed light on the events

The "Oka Crisis" was a tumultuous time in the history of Canada and one that all Canadians should be familiar with. Here are five films that shed light on the events before, during and after what indigenous people call Oka Summer.

Towards understanding a tumultuous time in Canada's history, 25 years after 78 day stand off

Legend of the Storm is a short dramatic film written, directed and produced by Roxann Whitebean. A member of Kahnawake, Whitebean was six years old in 1990, during Oka Summer. (Roxann Whitebean)

It's been 25 years since what Canada calls the Oka Crisis erupted over the expansion of a golf course and a housing development on Mohawk land, some of it on a Mohawk burial site.

Provincial police and the Canadian army showed their might to varying degrees of failure and success over the 78 days before the siege ended.  Two people died. Numerous were injured. Arrests were made and at the end of the day the government of Canada now owns the land where the burial site rests.

The golf course remains at nine holes and the houses were never built.

It was a turning point, in my opinion, that united indigenous people across Canada in a way never seen before and not again until Idle No More.

It was a tumultuous time in the history of Canada in terms of indigenous relations, one that all Canadians should be familiar with. To that end here are five films that shed light on the events before, during and after what indigenous people call Oka Summer.

1. Kahnesatake: 270 Years of Resistance (1993, NFB)

Everything you want to know about the events of Oka Summer, the historical context and the final resolutions, you'll find in this documentary written and directed by the matriarch of the indigenous filmmaking community, Alanis Obomsawin. She spent all 78 days on the inside and managed to get her film out (no small feat).

The film is in depth, informative, and accurate. If you're used to music videos and reality shows you may find the pace a bit languid but it's worth the two-hour investment if you're at all interested in indigenous issues.

2. Indian Summer: The Oka Crisis (2006, CBC)

Written and directed by Gil Cardinal, and based on the books "The Oka Crisis: Mirror of the Soul," by John Ciaccia and "People of the Pines," by Geoffrey York and CBC's Loreen Pindera, this two part mini-series takes some fictional license for dramatic purposes in its recounting of the events of Oka Summer.

But the essence of that summer comes through, including dramatized details that never made the news (much of which was controlled by the government and the Canadian Army).

You'll see a familiar cast of indigenous actors, including Tiio Horn who, at the age of four, was actually inside the Kanehsatà:ke Treatment Center in 1990 along with her older sister and Olympic athlete Waneek Horn-Miller. Waneek was 14 at the time, and it was Tiio that she was protecting when a Canadian soldier stabbed her in the chest with a bayonet when the last of the warriors left the treatment center on day 78.

3. Rocks at Whiskey Trench (2000, NFB)

If you've ever wondered about "Red Rage" or had any question about the level of racism and vitriolic hatred aimed at indigenous people in Canada, this is the film for you.

Released ten years after, it's another documentary about Oka Summer by the master, Alanis Obomsawin. This time she focuses on Whiskey Trench, a stretch of road between two Seagram's distilleries off the Mercier bridge.

'If you've ever wondered about "Red Rage" ... this is the film for you, says Jordan Wheeler about Alanis Obomsawin's documentary, Rocks at Whiskey Trench. (NFB)
On Aug. 28 of that summer Quebecois people lined that stretch hurling rocks (many larger than softballs) at a caravan of women, children and elders fleeing Kahnawake for fear of a Canadian army advanced against their reserve.

Many women, children and elders were injured on that August day. One elder, hit in the chest with a rock, suffered a heart attack in the aftermath. In terms of Indigenous Peoples/Canada relations and history this may well have been the lowest point in the 20th century.

I was 25 at the time, editing an indigenous newspaper, watching on TV with a room full of other journalists, community leaders, chiefs and supporters from communities across Canada at large. Rage spread throughout the room. Many of us were prepared to take that rage to the streets but the chiefs and other community leaders talked us down. For that I'll always be grateful.

4. Legend of the Storm (2015)

Inspired by a poetic allegory published in Whisper N Thunder in 2011, Legend of the Storm is a short dramatic film written, directed and produced by Roxann Whitebean. A member of Kahnawake, Whitebean was six years old in 1990.

The film, from a young Mohawk's girl's perspective, is based on her experiences. One line in the film particularly resonated. "You can't let anger get a hold of you. It'll take you down a long dark road."  That same dark road many of us were prepared to go down during Oka Summer.

The film has its premier at the Montréal First Peoples Festival on July 30th.

5. Mohawk Girls (2014, APTN)

Though not specifically about Oka or the events of 1990, Mohawk Girls lets the audience peer into a Mohawk community in much the same way that Sex and the City brought us into Manhattan.

As the title suggests, this half hour series created by Tracey Deer is about four Mohawk "girls" making the awkward transition into adulthood while navigating life's ups and downs in Mohawk territory.

Mohawk Girls lets the audience peer into a Mohawk community in much the same way that Sex and the City brought us into Manhattan. (Rezolution Pictures)
Dubbed Sex and the City on the rez, this sassy, irreverent and light-hearted comedy will make you laugh more than you cringe.  If you're looking for some indigenous eye candy, you'll find it here.

About the Author

Jordan Wheeler is a Gemini award winning writer living in Winnipeg. His journalistic work, over the last 30 years, has appeared in various publications across the country. He is also a member of the George Gordon First Nation in Saskatchewan.