Kahnawake Peacekeeper says the 1990 Oka Crisis helped make the force what it is today
MONTREAL -- Few people had as unique a view of the Oka Crisis in 1990 as the officers at the Kahnawake Peacekeepers.
Retired Peacekeeper (PK) Warren White said that the summer of 1990 was incredibly tough, but it helped make the community’s police force what it is today.
“Today you have a well-educated police department,” said White. “They’re very well trained, they’re very community oriented and they believe in their community.”
White joined the force in 1979 and retired in 2013.
Leading up to 1990, White said the relationship with surrounding municipalities and populations was always tense.
“Our relationships with our surrounding communities was always very, very fragile because the governments kept telling the people that we weren’t a police department and they shouldn’t recognize us,” said White.
Kahnawake, unlike Kanesatake where the SQ patrolled the community in 1990, had a local police force in place. When Kahnawake’s warriors joined in solidarity with those in Kanesatake under siege by blocking the Mercier Bridge and highways cutting through the community, the eight-man force maintained patrols.
“We were caught up in a situation that we had no control over,” said White. “Yes, we were a police department, but there were eight of us. How was eight policemen going to control something that was already out of control.”
Current PK Clint Jacobs was watching from across the river in Montreal’s West Island, and seeing his fellow community members suffer helped his decision to apply for the job in 1991.
“There was all this turmoil in Kahnawake and stress, and out there (on the West Island), it didn’t affect them one bit,” he said. “They didn’t quite understand. People were saying, ‘Why do you want to live there? Why don’t you just leave?’ They don’t understand that it’s your home.”
Jacobs ran supplies into the community and helped those who needed transport to a hospital.
“That’s kind of why I became a Peacekeeper because I was too separated from my community, and I never felt more separated than at that time,” said Jacobs.
Peacekeepers helped transport food in to the community that was donated from community groups in the surrounding area, and escorted elders, women and children off the territory.
White was with the caravan that went through the infamous Whiskey Trench where cars full of women and children were pelted with rocks as police officers in LaSalle watched.
“It was terrible to see,” said White. “It wasn’t us that created that incident there. It was the lack of the police departments in LaSalle, in Montreal, the SQ, RCMP from in fact doing anything. They just stood there and watched.”
White remembers being on a boat escorting people across the water when an SQ helicopter stopped him with guns drawn.
“What was ironic about it was the officer who was pointing a gun at me, I knew who he was because I met him before, and I blatantly said to him, ‘what are you doing’ and the officer was shocked,” said White. “He put the firearm away and just flew off, but still… He was in shock that that thing happened.”
Though frustrated, White sympathized with officers on the other side.
“I believe some of them were sensitized through their training to deal with Native people – maybe not as much as what’s being done today – but these are people that over those years, prior to 1990, when we needed expertise, we called them,” said White. “It was the higher ups that were telling them what to do,” said White.
When the standoff ended, Peacekeepers continued to do their job patrolling the community, often having to pull over residents from off the territory for traffic violations and other offences. White and Jacobs said it took years to get non-Indigenous people to respect their authority.
“It was very hard,” said White. “Every time we tried to stop a vehicle that committed a traffic violation, they would flee and we ended up in chases out of our territory. And everybody challenged our authority.”
“As Peacekeepers we kind of got stuck in the middle,” said Jacobs. “You had outside forces that were encroaching, they wanted to extend their jurisdiction on our territory, (and) obviously there were issues with people’s relationship with outside departments was not good at all, and we got stuck in the middle.”
White said things started to change in the late '90s, highlighted by the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake and Quebec government signing the Agreement on Police Services Between Quebec and Kahnawake in March 1999.
White said he feels current PKs benefit from the fights he and his fellow officers went through in the '80s and '90s. The force is now a respected Indigenous policing agency that is held up as an example across the country.
“We were the guinea pigs,” said White. “We learned.”