As It Happens

Years after Oka, Mohawk activist Ellen Gabriel says Indigenous people still treated as 'dispensable'

When As It Happens was covering the Oka crisis in 1990, Ellen Gabriel stood out. She was the tough-as-nails voice and face of the Mohawk people in Kanesatake. She reflects on that tense summer, and whether another 'Oka' could happen again.

Ellen Gabriel, the voice of the Mohawk people in Kanesatake, reflects on the crisis for As It Happens' 50th

Human rights activist Ellen Gabriel says Canada is making the same mistakes now as it did during the Oka crisis. (Julia Page/CBC)

This story was initially published on Nov. 13, 2018.


The Oka Crisis may have happened nearly three decades ago, but Mohawk activist Ellen Gabriel fears that Canada is at risk of making the same mistakes again. 

When Gabriel spoke with As It Happens in July 1990, all eyes were on Oka, Que. The town was set to expand a golf course into Mohawk territory, but the Mohawk community of Kanesatake  — including Gabriel  —  stood their ground.

The result was a tense 78-day standoff with Québec's provincial police force, failed negotiations and the feeling that an any moment, full blown combat might erupt.

The crisis came to a chaotic ending on Sept. 26, 1990. There were mass arrests, and a 14-year-old was accidentally stabbed in the chest by a soldier's bayonet. She survived. 

​Gabriel spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about the crisis, and what she thinks of the future, for the show's 50th anniversary radio special.

Here is part of that conversation. ​

When you hear your voice on this show nearly 30 years ago, you come across as tough as nails. You say, "Our lives are at stake and it doesn't seem to matter." When you listen to that, what does it take you back to?

Well, it takes me back to a place of feeling very angry, very indignant at being shot at, at having our lives also put at risk, and people not understanding that this was a problem created by the government of Canada not listening to the voices over 300 years ago.

It takes me back to that point — I can feel my heart pounding just thinking about it. 

Canadian soldier Patrick Cloutier and Saskatchewan Native Brad Laroque come face to face in a tense standoff at the Kahnesatake reserve in Oka, Que., Saturday Sept. 1, 1990. (Shaney Komulainen/Canadian Press)

Did you think you were going to be killed?

I did, when the army moved in on Sept. 1, after the Mercier Bridge [barricade] had been dismantled.

People said "You know, you really should go into hiding because they're going to torture you."

And so, I was really, really wary of what I should do. Should I leave? Where is a safe place? And I really didn't know.

This was something for us in this country, to see thousands of soldiers going into a civilian area of our country — they had tanks, they had Grizzlies, they had helicopters, trucks, artillery pieces, they had their personal weapons with bayonets affixed to them — into this protest. To see this was shocking for Canadians, and it must've been terrifying.

When you have post-traumatic stress, you're running on adrenaline. The situation has not changed. You don't have that kind of fear of, "Will I get hurt, or will I get killed?" It's like, "I'm going to stand here, I'm going to stake my ground and you can either go around me or through me."

And I think that's the way a lot of people who were on the front lines felt. Like, "I don't care if there's a tank. I don't care if you're going to have your bayonets on. We are going to stake our ground. We are going home on our terms."

I think that's the crux of what we want to do, if we're talking about reconciliation, nation-to-nation. It has to be on our terms as well. 

Today, I think people are trying to flesh out what exactly this nation-to-nation means in 2018. But in other ways the status quo remains, which is unfortunate.

At the time, there was an intense backlash from Quebecers. There were these horrible scenes of these effigies of "Indians" being set on fire. ... I remember hearing people yelling at Mohawks, "Go back where you came from," which always struck me as truly interesting. What made Quebecers turn against you so completely?

You know, it was ripe for it, because there's inconvenienced motorists looking at us ... we're still the savages that they've learned about in the history textbooks. There's all kinds of reasons for the racism.

As Indigenous people who have been in the invisible so-called minority in Canada, we're good targets. 

It's not just us experiencing it now, but the multigenerational experiences that sort of make us feel more defiant, and say, well, you know, we're used to how you treat us.

But the media has a really large responsibility. You know, they are the conscience of society and they should be the ones telling, reminding government that they have all these obligations, why are you not respecting it?

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)

It seems unlikely that any city council would approve a plan to build an 18-hole golf course on disputed Indian land, where there is a graveyard, where there are sacred pines. But we've talked to a lot of Indigenous people across the country, who have vowed to block any pipelines to their land. ... What do you expect that we're going to see over the next months and years?

Well, hopefully — this is my ideal situation — there will be citizens of Canada who will put pressure on their government to uphold the honour of the Crown, to enact the principles of free, prior and informed consent so that we can avoid situations of what happened 20 years ago.

You know, these problems are not problems that we've created — these are problems that have gone under the status quo of imperialism ... that if we stand in the way of Canada's prosperity, we're dispensable.

When government ... only listens to the corporations, not only are Indigenous people in trouble, but the society as a whole is in trouble because we are all experiencing climate change.

So let's work together.

Written and produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.