Oka Crisis

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Oka Crisis
Kanesatake Resistance
Oka stare down.jpg
Patrick Cloutier, a Royal 22nd Regiment perimeter sentry, and Brad Larocque. This photograph, titled Face to Face, became one of Canada's most widely circulated images.
DateJuly 11 – September 26, 1990
(2 months, 2 weeks and 1 day)

Canadian tactical victory, Partial Mohawk political victory

  • End of Mohawk blockade
  • Federal government purchased the Pines from Municipality of Oka to prevent further development.[1]


Commanders and leaders
John de Chastelain Ellen Gabriel
Units involved

Canadian Armed Forces

Royal Canadian Mounted Police
Sûreté du Québec

Warrior Society

  • Local and non-local sympathizers

Forces Mobile Command:

  • 4,500 soldiers
  • more than 1,000 vehicles[2]


  • Small number positioned at various barricades & patrols

Sûreté du Québec:

Non-local activists:

  • more than 2,500 activists/warriors[3]

Local activists:

  • 75–600 armed warriors (at various times; including non-locals)
  • Dozens of unarmed local activists
Casualties and losses
1 killed[4]
30 wounded[5][6]
1 killed[7]
75+ wounded[2]

The Oka Crisis (French: Crise d'Oka),[8][9][10] also known as the Kanesatake Resistance,[1][11][12] was a land dispute between a group of Mohawk people and the town of Oka, Quebec, Canada, which began on July 11, 1990, and lasted 77 days until September 26, 1990, with two fatalities. The dispute was the first well-publicized violent conflict between First Nations and the Canadian government in the late 20th century.

Historical background[edit]

Mohawk people first settled in the Montreal area in 1673, moving north from their homeland in the Hudson River valley.[13] In about 1658, the Mohawk displaced the Wyandot people (or Hurons) native to the area, with whom the Haudenosaunee (of which the Mohawk were a tribe) had long been in conflict. In the fall of 1666, hundreds of French soldiers and Algonquin and Huron allies, attacking southward from Lake Champlain, devastated four Mohawk villages near Albany, which brought peace between the Haudenosaunee and the French and their allies for the next 20 years.[14] Starting in the 1680s, there was a military conflict between the English allied to the Mohawks and the French allied with other indigenous tribes. In the early 1690s, the Mohawks were weakened through a prolonged and severe military effort by the French. In 1673, the Jesuit mission at Saint-François-Xavier brought about forty Mohawks from the village of Kaghnuwage, on the Mohawk River, in present-day New York state. In 1680, the Jesuits were granted the seigneurie Sault-Saint-Louis, now named the village of Kahnawake, with a current area of over 4000 hectares.[15][16][17][18]

In 1676, the Compagnie des Prêtres de Saint-Sulpice (or the Sulpicians, or the Sulpician Fathers), a Roman Catholic order, then based in Paris, France, founded Montreal Island's first mission at the foot of Mount Royal to minister to the needs of Iroquois / Mohawk, Algonquin and Huron neophytes and to distance them from French settlers in Ville Marie.[19] In 1696, the Sulpicians moved the mission to one on the edge of the Rivière des Prairies, near the Sault-au-Récollet rapids, in north end Montreal Island. In 1717, the Compagnie de Saint-Sulpice de Paris was granted a concession (3.5 lieues of frontage, 3 lieues deep) named fr:seigneurie du Lac-des-Deux-Montagnes.[20] In 1721, the Sulpicians moved the Sault-au-Récollet mission to two villages on seigneurie du Lac-des-Deux-Montagnes territory with the Algonquins and Nipissings being assigned the village to the east and the Mohawks being assigned the village to the west including territory known since the late 1880s as "The Pines" (formerly "sand dunes behind the village ... part of the Common Lands on which the Mohawks pastured their cattle")[21] and the adjacent indigenous cemetery.[22][23] The seigneurie du Lac-des-Deux-Montagnes was expanded through two grants, one in 1733, consisting of small pie-shaped segment with 2 lieues of frontage to the east of initial concession land, and, in 1735, for a larger segment representing about 40% of the seigneurie's total area.[22][24][25] In all three instances the land was granted provided it would be used for the benefit of Indigenous residents.[clarification needed][26] Following the conquest of New France in 1760, the Mohawk began advocating for the recognition of their land rights to British officials. Their requests to be released from the rule of the Sulpicians and reporting of seminary officials to white settlers were ignored.[1] The Mohawk continued pursuing their right to the land, petitioning, and failing, to obtain the recognition of Lord Elgin's recognition of their claims in 1851. Eight years later, the Province of Canada extended the official title of the disputed land to the Sulpicians.[1]

In 1868, one year after Confederation, the chief of the Oka Mohawk people, Joseph Onasakenrat, wrote a letter to the seminary claiming that its grant had included about 23 km2 (9 sq mi) reserved for Mohawk use in trust of the seminary, and that the seminary had neglected this trust by granting themselves (the seminary) sole ownership rights.[27][28] In 1869 Onasakenrat attacked the seminary with a small armed force after having given the missionaries eight days to hand over the land. Local authorities ended this stand-off with force.[29][30] In 1936, the seminary sold the territory under protest by the local Mohawk community. At the time they still kept cattle on the common land. By 1956, the Mohawk were left to six remaining square kilometres from their original 165.[28][30]

In 1959, the town approved the development of a private nine-hole golf course, the Club de golf d'Oka, on a portion of the disputed land.[28] The project area bordered The Pines, as well as a Mohawk burial ground in use, at that time, for nearly a century.[31] The Mohawk suit filed against the development did not succeed. Construction also began on a parking lot and golf greens adjacent to the Mohawk cemetery.

In 1977, the Kanesatake band filed an official land claim with the federal Office of Native Claims regarding the land. The claim was accepted for filing and funds were provided for additional research of the claim. In 1986 the claim was rejected on the basis that it failed to meet key legal criteria.[32]

In March 1989, the Club de golf d'Oka announced plans to expand the golf course by an additional nine holes. As the Office of Native Claims had rejected the Mohawk claim on the land three years earlier, his office did not consult the Mohawk on the plans. No environmental or historic preservation review was undertaken. Protests by Mohawks and others, as well as concern from the Quebec Minister of the Environment, led to negotiations and a postponement of the project by the municipality in August pending a court ruling on the development's legality.

In 1990, the court found in favour of the developers and the mayor of Oka, Jean Ouellette, announced that the remainder of the pines would be cleared to expand the golf course to eighteen holes and to construct 60 condominiums. Not all residents of Oka approved of the plans, but opponents found the mayor's office unwilling to discuss them.[33]


On March 11, as a protest against the court decision to allow the golf course expansion to proceed, some members of the Mohawk community erected a barricade blocking access to the dirt side road between Route 344 and "The Pines".[34] A court injunction in late April ordering the dismantling of the barricade was ignored, as was a second order issued on June 29, 1990.[35] Mayor Ouellette demanded compliance with the court order, but the land defenders refused. Quebec's Minister of Native Affairs John Ciaccia wrote a letter of support for the Mohawk, stating that "these people have seen their lands disappear without having been consulted or compensated, and that, in my opinion, is unfair and unjust, especially over a golf course.[3]

On July 11, the mayor asked the Sûreté du Québec (SQ), Quebec's provincial police force, to intervene with the Mohawk protest, citing alleged criminal activity at the barricade. The Mohawk people, in accordance with the Constitution of the Iroquois Confederacy, asked the women, the caretakers of the land and "progenitors of the nation", whether or not the arsenal which the Mohawk Warrior Society had amassed should remain.

The SQ deployed their Emergency Response Team (ERT), a police tactical unit, which responded to the barricade by deploying tear gas canisters and concussion grenades[36][23] in an attempt to force the Mohawk to disperse. In response, gunfire ensued from both sides,[36] and after a 15-minute gun battle the police fell back, abandoning six cruisers and a bulldozer. Although an initial account reported that 31-year-old SQ Corporal Marcel Lemay had been shot in the face during the firefight,[37] a later inquest determined that the bullet which struck and eventually killed him struck his "left side below the armpit, an area not covered by [his] bullet-proof vest".[4]

Before the raid, there were approximately 30 armed Mohawk in and around the barricade; following the gun battle, this number grew to 60–70 and would later swell to 600.[2] The Mohawks seized six vehicles, including four police cars, and commandeered the front-end loader to crush the vehicles and use them to form a new barricade across Route 344.[37]

Members of the SQ Police 3 September 1990
Members of the Seton Lake Indian Band blockade the BC Rail line in support of Oka, while an RCMP officer looks on. Later in the day, several elders protesting were arrested, and a confrontation with the band community ensued as Mounties drove the cars holding those arrested through the reserve en route to Lillooet.

The Mohawk established a network for communications among the Mohawk villages/reserves of Akwesasne, Kanesatake and Kahnawake, using hand-held radios, cellular phones, air raid sirens and fire hall bells, as well as local radio stations, and human patrols.[23] The situation escalated as the local Mohawk were joined by Natives from across Canada and the United States. Despite pressure to do so, their barricade was not dismantled.[23] The SQ established their own blockades on Highway 344 to restrict access to Oka and Kanesatake.[34] Another group of Mohawk at the nearby reserve of Kahnawake, in solidarity with Kanesatake, blockaded the Mercier Bridge at the point where it passed through their territory, thereby sealing off a major access point between the Island of Montreal and Montreal's densely populated South Shore suburbs.[34][38]

The blocking of the Mercier Bridge resulted in sometimes violent confrontations between the Mohawk and non-Indigenous commuters. On August 28, as Mohawk elders, women and children attempted to leave the Bridge following a negotiated deal between the Mohawk and police officials, members of the LaSalle community threw rocks at their vehicles.[39] Mohawk elder Joe Armstrong, 71, was struck in the chest by a large rock, and suffered a fatal heart attack the following day.[40] At the peak of the crisis, the Mercier Bridge and routes 132, 138 and 207 were all blocked, creating substantial disruption to traffic.

Anger grew among local residents as the crisis dragged on. A group of frustrated Châteauguay residents started building an unauthorized, unplanned roadway circumventing the Kahnawake reserve. Long after the crisis, this unfinished roadway was eventually incorporated into Quebec Autoroute 30.

Frustration over traffic congestion and diversion due to the bridge and road blocks were occasionally expressed publicly. Residents of Châteauguay burned an effigy of a Mohawk warrior while chanting "sauvages" (savages).[3] Radio host Gilles Proulx raised tensions with comments such as the Mohawks "couldn't even speak French". These remarks inflamed tempers that had been running especially high from comments preceding this crisis, including those by Ricardo Lopez, the federal Member of Parliament for Châteauguay, who denigrated the Mohawk.[41]

On August 8, Quebec premier Robert Bourassa announced at a press conference that in accord with Section 275 of the National Defence Act, he was requesting military support in "aid of the civil power". Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was reluctant to have the federal government and, in particular, the Canadian Forces, so involved. Under the act, however, the Solicitor General of Quebec, under direction from the Premier of Quebec, had the right to requisition the armed forces to maintain law and order as a provincial responsibility; this action had precedent. Two decades earlier during the October Crisis, Bourassa had requested and received military aid.

Around this time the SQ apparently lost control of the situation, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) were deployed on August 14. They were prohibited from using force and were soon overwhelmed by riots catalyzed by Mohawks and mobs resulting from the blocked traffic. This resulted in ten constables being hospitalized for their injuries.[5][better source needed]

General John de Chastelain, Chief of the Defence Staff, placed Quebec-based troops in support of the provincial authorities; some 2,500 regular and reserve troops from the 34 and 35 Canadian Brigade Groups and 5 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group were put on notice. On August 20, a company of the Royal 22e Régiment, led by Major Alain Tremblay, took over three barricades and arrived at the final blockade leading to the disputed area. There, they reduced the stretch of no man's land, originally implemented by the Sûreté du Québec before the barricade at the Pines, from 1.5 kilometres to 5 metres. Additional troops and mechanized equipment mobilized at staging areas around Montreal, while reconnaissance aircraft flew air photo missions over Mohawk territory to gather intelligence. Despite high tensions between the two sides, no shots were exchanged.

Resolution and aftermath[edit]

On August 29, the Mohawks at the Mercier Bridge negotiated an end to their protest blockade with Lieutenant-Colonel Robin Gagnon, the "Van Doo" commander who had been responsible for the south shore of the St. Lawrence River during the crisis. This stand-down eventually contributed to the resolution of the original siege on the Kahnawake reserve, and on September 26 the Mohawks there dismantled and burned some of their weapons. During the surrender, as the military began arresting land defenders and some began to flee, 14-year-old Waneek Horn-Miller was stabbed near the heart by a Canadian bayonet, and nearly died.[42][28]

Mohawks at Oka felt betrayed at the loss of their most effective bargaining chip in the Mercier Bridge: once traffic began flowing again, the Quebec government rejected further negotiations pursuant to their original dispute concerning the Oka golf course expansion.[42] September 25 witnessed the final engagement of the crisis: a Mohawk warrior walked around the perimeter of the blockade area with a long stick, setting off flares that had been originally installed by the Canadian Forces to alert them to individuals fleeing the area. The soldiers turned a water hose on this man, but it lacked enough pressure to disperse the crowd surrounding him. This crowd taunted the soldiers and began throwing water balloons at them, but the incident did not escalate further.[43]

Among those charged and convicted for their participation was Ronaldo Casalpro (who used the alias Ronald "Lasagna" Cross during the conflict). Casalpro was beaten by Sûreté du Québec officers after his arrest, and while three were suspended without pay, the case took so long to process that they had already left the force.[44] Two SQ officers were suspended and investigated for allegedly beating Casalpro while in captivity, but were not subsequently charged.[44] Cross served a six-year sentence for assault and weapons charges related to his role in the crisis and died of a heart attack in November 1999.[44] Casalpro's brother, Tracy Cross, later served as the best man at the wedding of slain SQ Corporal Lemay's sister, Francine, who had reconciled with the community after reading At the Woods' Edge, a history of Kanesatake.[45]

The golf course expansion that had originally triggered the crisis was cancelled and the land under dispute was purchased from the developers by the federal government for $5.3 million.[1] The municipality initially refused to sell the land until Mohawk barricades were dismantled, but acquiesced when the government threatened to expropriate the land without compensation.[46] The Oka Crisis motivated the development of a national First Nations Policing Policy to try to prevent future incidents, and brought Native issues into the forefront in Canada.[43] In 1991, Ouellette was re-elected mayor of Oka by acclamation. He later said of the crisis that his responsibilities as mayor required him to act as he did.[47]

In media[edit]

The Oka Crisis was extensively documented and inspired numerous books and films. Canadian filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin has made documentaries about the Oka Crisis, including Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance (1993) and Rocks at Whiskey Trench (2000). These and two additional documentaries on the crisis were all produced by the National Film Board of Canada: Christine Welsh directed Keepers of the Fire (1994), which documents the role of Mohawk women during the crisis, and Alec MacLeod created Acts of Defiance (1993).[33]

Montreal Gazette journalist Albert Nerenberg switched careers after smuggling a video camera behind the barricades and making his first documentary, called Okanada.[48]

Gerald R. Alfred, a Kahnawake Mohawk who was part of the band council during the crisis, and who later became a professor of political science, wrote Heeding the Voices of Our Ancestors: Kahnawake Mohawk Politics and the Rise of Native Nationalism (1995). This was based on his PhD dissertation, which examined the issues.

John Ciaccia, the Minister of Native Affairs for Quebec at the time, wrote a book about the events related to the Oka Crisis. His book, titled The Oka Crisis, A Mirror of the Soul, was published in 2000. Harry Swain, then the federal deputy minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, wrote "Oka: a Political Crisis and its Legacy," in 2010.

Robin Philpot wrote a book about English Canada's use of the crisis as a political tool following the failed Meech Lake Accord: Oka: dernier alibi du Canada anglais (1991).

Anarchist author and activist Peter Gelderloos said that the Oka Crisis should serve as a model for activists to get what they want for four reasons.[49]

  1. "It succeeded in seizing space.
  2. It spread ideas of indigenous sovereignty and inspired many others in North America to fight back.
  3. It did not have elite support.
  4. The golf course expansion on their lands was defeated, and the conflict came to a dignified conclusion for the Mohawk."

Mohawk filmmaker Tracey Deer co-wrote the script for the 2020 film Beans, the first narrative film depiction of the Oka Crisis from the perspective of a 12-year-old Mohawk girl.[50]

In art[edit]

Joseph Tehawehron David, a Mohawk artist who became known for his role as a warrior during the Oka Crisis in 1990, developed a body of artistic work that was deeply influenced by his experience "behind the wire" in 1990.

In popular culture[edit]

In the 1999 film The Insider, Al Pacino's character Lowell Bergman says "Everybody thinks Canadian Mounties ride horses and rescue ladies from rapids. Mike, they backed locals in Oka in a fight with Mohawks over building a golf course on their burial site, they beat up protestors at Kanesatake".

The Canadian punk rock band Propagandhi wrote a song titled "Oka Everywhere", which was released in 1995 on a 10-inch split album with I Spy. It was later re-released on their 1998 compilation album Where Quantity Is Job Number 1.

The 2020 film Beans, which won the Canadian Screen Award for Best Motion Picture, portrays the incident through the eyes of a young Mohawk girl. Tracey Deer, who lived through the crisis as a child, directed and co-wrote the film.

See also[edit]

Notes & references[edit]

Footnoted citations[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e Marshall 2013a
  2. ^ a b c "Oka Crisis, 1990". Warrior Publications. June 11, 2014.
  3. ^ a b c Obomsawin 1993
  4. ^ a b "Officer shot from Mohawk gunmen's location in pines". The Hamilton Spectator. August 14, 1995.
  5. ^ a b "Canada's Aboriginal People: The Oka Crisis, Sovereignty, Rec". prezi.com.
  6. ^ La Crise d'Oka – 11 juillet 1990. YouTube. November 22, 2013. Archived from the original on December 21, 2021.
  7. ^ Bennett, Miller & Vandal 2020a
  8. ^ Campbell 2010a
  9. ^ "Resisting, reclaiming and reconnecting to culture". CBC Unreserved. CBC. May 15, 2016. Retrieved March 20, 2017.
  10. ^ Barrett 2015, p. 165
  11. ^ Baird 2020a
  12. ^ Ladner & Simpson 2010
  13. ^ Rumrill 1985a
  14. ^ Thompson 1991a, pp. 4–5
  15. ^ Alfred 1995
  16. ^ Béchard 1975
  17. ^ Bonvillain 2005, pp. 38–42
  18. ^ LMDQ, Kahnawa:ke : Kahnawake ou Caughnawaga pour les québécois (réserve amérindienne mohawke).
  19. ^ According to Rolland Litalien P.S.S., when they arrived in the new mission, the Sulpicians had no responsibility for priestly formation even though their manor house was called 'Séminaire de Saint-Sulpice', the word séminaire designating a house for religious education., as in, for example, the séminaire des ursulines. Evidently, the expression 'Séminaire de Saint-Sulpice' stuck to apply more permanently until the mid-twentieth century.
  20. ^ Boily 2006, Inter alia, see esp. on pp. 169-170 full transcript of the 1717 concession.
  21. ^ Thompson 1991a, p. 32
  22. ^ a b LMDQ, Oka (municipalité)
  23. ^ a b c d Lackenbauer 2008a
  24. ^ Pertusati 1997, p. 29
  25. ^ Simard, Robert (2020). Histoires et mémoires des Laurentides, p. 9 de 11.
  26. ^ RRCAP 1996a, p. 197
  27. ^ Katlatont Gabriel-Doxtater & Kawanatatie Van den Hende 1995
  28. ^ a b c d Oka Timeline: An Unresolved Land Claim Hundreds of Years in the Making, CBC, November 19, 2015
  29. ^ York & Pindera 1991
  30. ^ a b Tekastiaks 1990
  31. ^ Miller 2000, p. 355
  32. ^ "Our Heritage", Kanesatake Website, (accessed March 12, 2008) Archived March 7, 2005, at the Wayback Machine
  33. ^ a b MacLeod 1992
  34. ^ a b c Riopel & Béland 2020a
  35. ^ Miller 2000, p. 382
  36. ^ a b Scott 2015b
  37. ^ a b Anon-AP 1990a
  38. ^ Deer 2020a
  39. ^ Miller 2000, p. 383
  40. ^ Boisclair 2020a
  41. ^ Hamilton 2008a, "Ricardo Lopez, a former Tory MP and Canadian Alliance candidate running for the Liberals in Salaberry-Beauharnois, had recommended in 1988 that all Indians be shipped to Labrador."
  42. ^ a b Montgomery 2016a
  43. ^ a b "Oka". Canada History. Retrieved November 19, 2021.
  44. ^ a b c Ha 2000a
  45. ^ Scott 2015a
  46. ^ St-Amand & Stewart 2018, p. 75
  47. ^ Ouellette, Jean (guest); Medina, Ann (interviewer); Maitland, Alan (host) (July 11, 1991). Oka: A year later (Audio clip). The CBC Digital Archives. Retrieved June 24, 2008.
  48. ^ "Behind the lines at Oka: How two journalists managed to get a camera behind army lines". YouTube. July 2, 2015. Archived from the original on December 21, 2021. Retrieved January 11, 2018.
  49. ^ Gelderloos 2015a, Ch. 1, p. 16 of 52
  50. ^ "Beans". EMA Films. Retrieved September 15, 2020.


Further sources[edit]

A vast amount has been written in both English and French on the Oka crisis, including the following:

English works

  • Taiaiake Alfred (1999). Peace, Power, Righteousness: An Indigenous Manifesto Don Mills: Oxford University Press
  • Alan C. Cairns (2000). Citizens Plus: Aboriginal Peoples and the Canadian State, Vancouver: UBC Press;
  • Canada, Parliament of; House of Commons (1991). Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs, The Summer of 1990: Fifth Report of the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs, Ottawa;
  • John Ciaccia (2000). Oka Crisis: A Mirror of the Soul, Dorval, QC: Maren Publications;
  • Tom Flanagan (2000). First Nations? Second Thoughts, Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press;
  • Donna Goodleaf (1995). Entering the War Zone: A Mohawk Perspective on Resisting Invasions, Penticton, BC: Theytus Books;
  • Rick Hornung (1991). One Nation Under the Gun: Inside the Mohawk Civil War, Toronto: Stoddart;
  • Craig Maclaine (1990). This Land is Our Land: the Mohawk Revolt at Oka, Montreal: Optimum Publishing;
  • J.R. Miller (2004). Lethal Legacy: Current Native Controversies in Canada, Toronto: McCelland & Stewart Ltd.;
  • Donald B. Smith (1982). "Onasakenrat, Joseph", in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11, University of Toronto / Université Laval, 2003–, accessed November 16, 2021';

French works

  • Gilles Boileau (1991). Oka, terre indienne, Histoire Québec, 5(2), 35–39;
  • John Ciaccia (2000). Crise d'Oka : miroir de notre âme, Montréal: Leméac;
  • Francois Dallaire (1991). Oka : la hache de guerre, Sainte-Foy, Québec: Éditions de la Liberté;
  • Jacques-A. Lamarche (1990). L'Eté de Mohawks : bilan des 78 jours, Montréal: Stanké;
  • Robin Philpot (1991). Oka : dernier alibi du Canada anglais, Montréal: VLB;
  • Hélène Sévigny (1993). Lasagne : l'homme derrière le masque, Saint-Lambert, PQ: Éditions Sedes.

Documentary films

  • Acts of Defiance (1992). Montreal: National Film Board of Canada;
  • Rocks at Whiskey Trench (2000). Montreal: National Film Board of Canada
  • My name is Kahentiiosta (1995). Montreal : National Film Board;
  • Spudwrench: Kahnawake Man (c. 1997). Montreal : National Film Board of Canada;
  • The Oka Legacy (c. 2016). CBC/Sonia Bonspille Boileau.

External links[edit]