Issues still unresolved 25 years after Oka Crisis: Mohawk leaders
A quarter of a century ago this Saturday, Quebecers awoke to a crisis.
The Mohawk Crisis of 1990 was a summer-long stand-off between natives, police and armed forces and citizens in several communities.
Today, many wonder if that long, hot summer led to anything constructive between Canada and its aboriginal people.
An explosive chapter in Canada's history, it’s one that put Quebec and its native people on the world stage for 78 long days and nights.
It was July 11, 1990.
An early-morning exchange of gunfire took place after provincial police moved in to dismantle a barricad erected by the Mohawks in Kanesatake, just west of Montreal, to protect pines and sacred burial grounds from a golf course expansion.
During the firefight, SQ officer Marcel Lemay was killed.
A century’s-old tinderbox of distrust ignited.
In Oka, the Mohawk and police built barricades and faced off, while in Kahnawake, the Mohawk Warriors blocked off the Mercier Bridge, leaving South Ahore residents cut off and angry.
Canadian soldiers were deployed to both communities – their presence welcomed by some but adding to the tension.
Quebec and Canada's native affairs ministers spent two and a half months trying to bring about a peaceful resolution, until 78 days later, a final group of defiant Mohawk emerged from the pines.
Reflections in 2015
Native and political leaders from across the country gathered at the Assembly of First Nations in Montreal this week, reflecting on the crisis, and what was learned from it.
“I think we've learned a great deal. Perhaps I'm an optimist by nature, but I think a lot of things have moved forward,” said Quebec Native Affairs Minister Geoff Kelley.
“I've been coming to these things for 30 years and things I heard today are things I heard 30 years ago,” said NDP MP Romeo Saganash, who represents Abitibi-Baie James and Nunavik.
Ellen Gabriel was the spokesperson for the Kanesatake Mohawk throughout that long, hot summer.
Five years later, she reflected.
“We're still going to have to struggle for this land,” she said in July 1995. “Nothing has been resolved. Absolutely nothing.”
Her feelings haven't changed over two decades after that.
“We are still struggling with this issue. We have lost more land in Kanesatake that we had 25 years ago and so the struggle is there,” said the activist and artist.
The death of a police officer was tragic, she said, but many have forgotten why it happened.
“For a golf course, a family lost one of their members,” she said, adding that Quebecers and Canadians are still taught very little about what really went on that summer.
“It wasn't anything about people bearing weapons or wearing masks. It really was about us trying to protect our land,” she said. “This is a community that was being attacked. We were violated. Our whole fundamental human rights were violated. Access to medicine, access to food, access to the kinds of things that people enjoy as human rights.”
Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Simon remembers seeing the SQ tactical squad moving in the morning of July 11.
“I thought, ‘They're going to kill everybody up there,’” he said.
When he heard a police officer had died, he had one thought: “We're going to pay for this one. This is not going to go under-answered.”
What happened next, Simon said, left his community traumatized.
“It was incredible. The SQ would not allow any food to come in to our territory. Our people were systematically searched illegally,” he said.
He agrees there's never been a resolution to the question of who owns the land that sparked the crisis. Nothing has been settled.
He said, however, most of the development around the pines has stopped, and he's working with Oka Mayor Pascal Quevillon to keep it that way – that no development ever happens that threatens the peace of that region.
Kahnawake Grand Chief Joe Norton led his community throughout the standoff, and has recently been re-elected as grand chief.
“To me the commemoration, I'm kind of dreading it a little, because of all those that anger. All that hatred that comes back,” he said. “I think there's still a lot of anger in me.”
Several Supreme Court decisions that have sided with natives since 1990, but Norton said, relations with the federal government have deteriorated.
“Government is resistant. It just digs its heels in, doesn't want to recognize court rulings, doesn’t care about those things and just keeps pushing its agenda,” he said.
His assessment of what his people learned that summer: “Whatever is happening positively for us, we have to do it on our own. Canada will not and the provinces will not participate in any of that to help.”
“The only thing the Oka Crisis did was bought us some time,” added Simon, “because now we see this Harper government and we're starting to see the same kind of attitude towards us that led to the Oka Crisis, 25 years later, but we're a little bit smarter than that now. We've learned our lessons. They haven't. So now instead of using this (fist) we're using this (head) and that's been very effective lately.”
“I think the people who should be asked, ‘Have we learned any lessons?’ Are people like Stephen Harper and Brian Mulroney and Jean Charest and (Philippe Couillard), the premier of Quebec,” said Gabriel.
Still, Gabriel is optimistic.
She feels young Canadians – the next generation of Canadian leaders – understand why indigenous people were trying to protect their land and its resources back then, and now, too.
“I have more hope in the youth today than the people who are middle-aged and up, because we are more set in our ways, but I think education, compassion, respect and honour will break down those barriers that have been halting true peace and reconciliation amongst our people – but it is an ongoing process and people need to understand that,” she said.
“I think it reinforced the importance of dialogue and understanding and that kind of turning a deaf ear to issues, we paid a huge price for it, not just Quebec society, the Canadian government, but the Mohawks as well,” said Kelley.
“People say they don't ever want to see anything like that happen again,” added Simon. “Well then, why don't they sit down with us? Why don't they have a good dialogue with us? Why don’t they help to resolve the issues rather than inflame them,” he said. “The conflict happened because of the breakdown in dialogue and there was no respect, so this was the result. I don't want that to be repeated.”
Twenty-five years later, it seems that is the one thing everyone can agree on.