Racism cut deep during Oka Crisis as 30th anniversary brings memories flooding back
MONTREAL -- Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer will never forget her first taste of racism.
On the afternoon of Aug. 28, 1990 she was huddled in the back of a car headed into LaSalle’s Whisky Trench.
It was a month into the 78-day standoff in Kanesatake. On Montreal’s South Shore, community members in Kahnawake blocked the Mercier Bridge as an act of solidarity.
Her family, along with many others, decided to leave the reserve for fears of violence.
Police forced nearly 70 cars to wait on the bridge for hours in the baking heat.
On the other side, a crowd gathered and grew increasingly angry.
Sky-Deer’s family drove straight into the ambush. The car was pelted with rocks and debris.
"I was in the second vehicle so right away the windows smash," she recalled. "There's glass all over me. You can hear the yelling and at that point you go into survival mode. I braced my head and took cover."
Sitting next to her, Sky-Deer’s grandmother started crying, which made her cry in fear.
"You could see the people holding signs calling us 'savages.' I never really experienced or understood what racism was until the events of 1990."
She was 10 years old.
Before the barricades went up in the Pines, Ellen Gabriel remembers going to meetings to discuss the controversial expansion of the course at Oka Golf Club.
She recalls feeling threatened because of prevailing attitudes at the time.
"My maternal side grew up in the village. And they experienced a lot of racism … being called 'savages,' laughed at when they spoke our language," she said.
At the Highway 138 barricades near Chateauguay, effigies of Indigenous people and Premier Robert Bourassa were hung and burned.
Kanesatake Council Grand Chief Serge Simon said during the 78-day standoff, the LaSalle rock throwing incident was one of the most shocking acts he witnessed.
"To see them pelted the way they were. There was nothing more blatantly racist than that," he said.
Both Oka Mayor Pascal Quevillon and Quebec’s Indigenous Affairs Minister Sylvie D'Amours contend the Crisis was not about race, it was about land.
Many who were involved in the crisis say the land is where the conflict started, but it became fuelled by racism.
For Gabriel, racist attitudes are still present, but take another form.
She points to the lack of clean drinking water in Indigenous reserves across Canada as an example.
Since the Liberals were elected in 2015, 87 long-term water advisories in Indigenous communities have been lifted across Canada.
Another 56 remain, and the Liberals have promised to eliminate all long-term boil water advisories by 2021.
Gabriel said until the basic needs of Indigenous people in Canada are met, Justin Trudeau’s pledge of reconciliation is just a facade.
"He (Trudeau) needs to be taught what reconciliation means. There's a notion the government will decide as always," she said.
She added that the government will only negotiate with band councils, which were established under the Indian Act, and not the traditional longhouses.
Growing up, Jennifer Kanerahtoronkwas Paul attended school in Kahnawake. She spent one year at a Montreal private school, an experience she said opened her eyes to how she is viewed by others.
"Children experience racism at a really young age," she said. Many get their first taste in sports and schools in Montreal.
"When I'd show up to school I'd say my name is Kanerahtoronkwas and they'd look at me funny and not understand the importance of my name. They’d ask questions like 'Do you actually live in a house and not a teepee?'"
Still today as a student at Bishops University, she has to play the role of educator to explain why certain comments were racist or hurtful.
Paul was born after the Oka Crisis, but said many similar tensions came back during the rail blockade in support of the Wet’suwet’en Nation.
"That was the first time we got a taste of the real racism," she said. "It brought back a lot of emotion of the Oka Crisis and for many people it felt very similar."
30 YEARS LATER
For Sky-Deer, visiting the Whiskey Trench brings all those memories back.
"I remember feeling heartache and heartbreak, wondering why do people hate us so much," she said.
Over the last 30 years, she said attitudes haven’t changed much. Experiencing the rock throwing was a first taste of racism, but it certainly wasn’t the last.
"When you're Indigenous in Canada, you know what it's like to be looked at different," she said.