Mohawks march to mark anniversary of Oka Crisis
Published Sunday, July 11, 2010 12:01PM EDT
Kanesatake Mohawks marched Sunday to mark the 20th anniversary of the Oka Crisis.
Holding placards saying "20 Years Later Nothing has Changed," some 300 protesters walked through Oka village, about 70 kilometres west of Montreal, to the site of the contested land.
"We still want to have our identity and pass it on to our children, so that's why I find it very important to have my children here with me," said Julie Gaspe, a member of the Mohawk community at the event.
A raid by Surete du Quebec on July 11, 1990, sparked a 78-day standoff between natives, the law and the army.
Mohawks were protesting plans to expand the Oka golf course onto land they claimed was an ancient burial ground.
"I asked the federal minister of Indian affairs to purchase the land and stop the extension of the golf course because the land was on sacred grounds," recalled John Ciaccia, former Quebec native affairs minister.
The long and complex negotiations proved futile, and the community responded by barricading a road to the reserve to protect the territory.
Police countered by moving in with tear gas, resulting in an armed battle that led to the death of 31-year-old Surete du Quebec Cpl. Marcel Lemay.
Lemay's sister, Francine, was on hand at the march Sunday to release a book she translated about Kanesatake.
Following Cpl. Lemay's death, Mohawks from throughout Canada and the U.S. joined to support Kanesatake, including members from Kahnawake, another nearby Mohawk reserve.
The group blocked access to and from the Mercier Bridge, linking Montreal to the Kahnawake reserve and to Chateauguay on the South Shore.
"There was no plan to take the bridge," said Kenneth Deer, the former coordinator of the Mohawk Nation Office. "Everyone knew that if the police moved in en force in Kanesatake, we had to do something to draw attention."
On Aug. 6, former public security minister Sam Elkas called in the army to intervene.
"People were saying, ‘When are they going to get here?… we can't continue to have the Mercier (Bridge) closed," he said in a recent interview.
"The band council of Kanesatake also asked the (Mohawk) Warriors to remove the barriers and they didn't. The police are there to uphold the law and the law was being broken," said Elkas.
With the army moving forward, and moderates on both sides fearing a bloodbath, eventually the barricades were dismantled, two and a half months after they were erected.
"When I look at it, I think that this is what a man lost his life for? This is what we were almost killed for?" said Ellen Gabriel, president of the Quebec Women's Association.
Land claims remain problematic
The Kanesatake reserve continues to negotiate land development issues with the federal government. Last month, the reservation rejected a company's proposal to develop a niobium mine in the community. The council said Niocan Inc. has no right to develop on land for which Mohawks "have title as well as Aboriginal and treaty rights."
The land in question is the subject of a territorial dispute with the Canadian government.
Kanesatake Chief Gordon Oak said it proved no progress has been made since the Oka Crisis.
"You'd think that there would be some benefit to all this. No, there's no benefit," said Oak. "Things really haven't changed around. We are still fighting for the land, we still have this large land claim that the federal government hasn't come to the table (to discuss)."
Signs of progress
Leaders in the community, both Deer and Gabriel believe some positives came out of the crisis, one of the most memorable and tense moments in recent Quebec history.
"The whole issue was to save the Pines and that was done," said Deer.
"I think the victory, if any, maybe is a renewed sense of pride with the youth," said Gabriel.
Ciaccia believes the incident allowed some progress between the government and native communities.
"The native people have rights they are a different culture with different customs and they have to be respected," he said
With a report from The Canadian Press