The Oka Crisis was supposed to be a wake-up call. Little has changed in 27 years

The land in dispute? It's still in the hands of Oka. Mohawk land illegally taken, yet no one is doing anything to take it back.

The land in dispute? It's still in the hands of Oka. Mohawk land — illegally taken

A picture taken during the Oka Crisis on July 11, 1990. (Tom Hanson/The Canadian Press)

"Just go in there and exterminate them like the rats they are."

"What are we waiting for? Let's get rid of them." 

"Put them all in the Big O and blow it up." 

I heard these words from random non-Natives as a 14-year-old boy, 27 years ago to the day. I feel a mixture of pride, anger, sadness and resolve when I think of that fateful summer, and what went on for those 78 days in Kanesatake: the Oka Crisis.

The dispute was over Mohawk land, over which the mayor back in 1990 wanted to build a golf course. On July 11, the Sûreté du Québec — Québec's provincial police force — was called in, guns blazing.

I remember hearing the first-hand account from my father, who was in the famed Pines that morning, where it all unfolded. He was manning the ambulance still owned by our family today. I remember looking out the window and seeing streams of cars heading down the road, five-and-a-half kilometres away, to help.

I witnessed my neighbour jumping in a car with other men, brandishing a rifle, prepared to fight.

The look on their faces was of defiance. If the fight was coming to us again, so be it. We wouldn't back down.

The police left that morning with their tails between their legs, as one of their own lay wounded. Cpl. Marcel Lemay later died, marking July 11 as a dark day for his Québécois family to mourn along with us.

Under the Great Law of Peace — the basis for our Haudenosaunee Confederacy, also known as the Iroquois Confederacy — there are three key elements: peace, power and righteousness.

The Great Law, which was established thousands of years ago, meant six of our Onkwehón:we (Indigenous) nations halting war and burying our weapons against each other forever, but on this day we were left with no choice but to fight.

So we did.

July 11 clearly outlined how much work we still have to do as Native people in Canada: to educate, to fight for our rights, to survive. But it wasn't only us versus them.

Fighting our own

What happened behind the lines in the summer of 1990 wasn't all about the collective well-being.

People were beaten up, houses were shot up, personal effects and life-saving equipment were stolen and destroyed — and some of it was Mohawk-on-Mohawk violence.

The name of the warriors in our language, Rotihsken'rakéhte, means they "carry the burden of peace," but a handful those who hid behind the mask had violent intentions, similar to the police.

They know who they are. Some, not most. The ones who fought for the right reasons kept it together at the key moments.

Today we honour the ones who fought for all of us, not in their own self-interests.

The way we treat each other has to change if we're going to make our nation better, but little has.

The land in dispute? It's still in the hands of Oka. Mohawk land — illegally taken. Yet no one is doing anything to take it back.

Forget the negotiations; it's our land, so why is Canada dealing all the cards? Shame on the municipal, provincial and federal governments, all of which continue to be complicit in the oppression and control of our people.

What kind of "proud" country continues to profit off the theft of our land, and continually denies our right to get some of it back, yet tells everyone how great it is by celebrating 150 years of colonialism?

If anything, we should be talking about the return of all illegally begotten Mohawk land, not just that small tract.

If we keep allowing the outright thievery of what has always been ours, what will we have left? What are you doing to change the uneven racial landscape in this country?

Shaping the future

When the Oka Crisis happened, it was supposed to be a wake-up call, and although certain things changed (Kanesatake got some of its land back, the golf course expansion was halted and the situation put Indigenous rights to the forefront), there is still much to work on, together.

We can start by talking to each other about Indigenous issues, educating and learning, while refusing to repeat the mistakes the led to July 11, 1990.

We can't change the past but we can all shape the future, which starts with giving the respect and honour our people deserve. We're sick and tired of playing second fiddle on our own land, being told to sit down, shut up, and listen.

That conciliatory attitude is wearing thin. When things haven't progressed to the point where we're treated equally, there will come a day when Canada will have to make a decision: honour its obligations, promises and our ancestral rights, or get out of our way.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Steve Bonspiel

Editor, The Eastern Door

Steve Bonspiel is the editor/publisher of Kahnawake Mohawk Territory’s award-winning weekly newspaper The Eastern Door. He has won numerous provincial and national awards for his articles and editorials. Bonspiel is Mohawk, from Kanesatake, currently based in Kahnawake, Que.