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Protesters and Activists
|Sûreté du Québec: 10-100 Groupe d'Intervention operatives, 2000 regular police, dozens of vehicles||
Local activists: 600 armed warriors, dozens of unarmed local activists
|Casualties and losses|
|20 CF wounded.
10 Constables hospitalized.
1 SQ Groupe d'Intervention operative killed.
|75 wounded, 100 charged, 1 Mohawk elder killed.
The Oka Crisis 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 until September 26, 1990. Sûreté du Québec (SQ) Corporal Marcel Lemay was killed by a bullet whose source has never been officially determined. Rumours circulated that the reason no source had been determined was that it had been a police bullet and that Lemay had been conducting an internal investigation which was connecting the death of two Mohawk men to SQ guns. The dispute was the first well-publicized violent conflict between First Nations and the Canadian government in the late 20th century.
The crisis developed from a local dispute between the town of Oka and the Mohawk community of Kanesatake, Quebec. The town of Oka was developing plans to expand a golf course and residential development onto land which had traditionally been used by the Mohawk. It included pineland and a burial ground, marked by standing tombstones of their ancestors. The Mohawks had filed a land claim for the allegedly sacred grove and burial ground near Kanesatake, but their claim had been rejected in 1986 on technical grounds.
In 1717, the governor of New France granted the lands encompassing the cemetery and the pines to the Society of the Priests of Saint Sulpice or Sulpician Fathers Seminary, a Roman Catholic order based in Paris. The Mohawk claimed that the original grant included about nine square miles reserved exclusively for their use. Although the Sulpician Seminary was supposed to hold the land in trust for them, the seminary expanded this agreement to grant itself sole ownership rights.
In 1868, one year after Confederation, the chief of the Oka Mohawk people, Joseph Onasakenrat, wrote a letter to the seminary condemning it for illegally holding the land and demanding its return. The petition produced no results for the Mohawks. In 1869 Onasakenrat attacked the seminary with a small armed force, after giving the missionaries eight days to hand over the land. Local authorities ended this stand-off with force.
In 1936, the seminary sold the remaining territory for development and vacated the area, under protest by the local Mohawk community. At the time they still kept cattle on the common land.
In 1961, the city built a private nine-hole golf course, the Club de golf d'Oka, on a portion of the land. The Mohawk filed suit against its construction but, by the time the case was heard, much of the land had already been cleared. Construction also began on a parking lot and golf greens adjacent to the Mohawk cemetery.
In 1977, the 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. Nine years later, the claim was rejected, on the grounds of failing to meet key legal criteria.
In March 1989, the Club de golf d'Oka announced plans to expand the golf course by an additional 9 holes. 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.
The tensions between native and non-native people in Canada have been high around communities bordering reserves, mainly over competing uses of land. Such tensions contributed to the Oka Crisis. The immediate cause of the crisis was the 1989 announcement by the mayor of Oka, Jean Ouellette, that the remainder of the pines would be cleared to expand the private, members-only golf club course to eighteen holes. In addition, he had approved development of sixty luxury condominiums in a section of the pines. 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. Not all the people in Oka approved of the plans, but opponents found the mayor's office unwilling to discuss them.
As a protest against a court decision to allow the golf course construction to proceed, some members of the Mohawk community erected a barricade blocking access to the area. Mayor Ouellette demanded compliance with the court order, but the protesters refused. Quebec's Minister of Native Affairs John Ciaccia wrote a letter of support for the natives, 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."
On July 11, the mayor asked the Sûreté du Québec (SQ), Quebec's provincial police force, to intervene with the Mohawk protest. He claimed there had been 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 warriors had amassed should remain.
The SQ deployed an emergency response unit, the Groupe d'Intervention (Intervention group), consisting of approximately 10-100 persons, which responded to the barricade by deploying tear gas canisters and flash bang grenades in an attempt to create confusion in the Mohawk ranks. It is unclear whether the police or the Mohawks opened fire with gunshots first, but after a 15-minute gun battle, the police fell back, abandoning six cruisers and a bulldozer. The police's tear gas blew back at them. Although an initial account reported that 31-year-old SQ Corporal Marcel Lemay had been shot in the face during the firefight, 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".
Before the raid, there were some 30 armed warriors in and around the barricade, following the gun battle, this number grew to 60-70, and would swell later to 600.
The Mohawks capitalized on the chaos by seizing six vehicles, including four police cars, and commandeered the front-end loader to crush the vehicles and use them to form a barricade across the main highway.
The situation escalated as the local Mohawks were joined by natives from across the country and the United States, together refusing to dismantle their barricade. The Sûreté du Québec established their own blockades on highway 344 to restrict access to Oka and Kanesatake. Another group of Mohawks at the nearby location 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 heavily populated South Shore suburbs.
At the peak of the crisis, the Mercier Bridge and Routes 132, 138 and 207 were all blocked, creating substantial disruption to traffic and anger as the crisis dragged on. A group of Châteauguay residents started building an unauthorized, unplanned  highway around the Kahnawake reserve. After the crisis, the highway was completed and is now part of Quebec Autoroute 30.
The federal Crown-in-Council agreed to spend $5.3 million to purchase the section of the pines where the golf course expansion was to take place, to prevent any further development. This proposal left the Mohawks outraged, as the problems that led to the situation had not been addressed.
Frustration over traffic congestion and diversion due to the bridge and road blockades was occasionally expressed publicly. Residents of Châteauguay burned an effigy of a Mohawk warrior while chanting "sauvages" (savages). 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 the federal Member of Parliament for Châteauguay, Ricardo Lopez.
On August 8, Quebec premier Robert Bourassa announced at a press conference that he had, as per Section 275 of the National Defence Act, requested 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 move had precedent in Canada, including two decades earlier during the October Crisis which had been requested by Robert Bourassa at that time as well.
It was around this time that the SQ had apparently lost control of the situation, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were deployed on August 14. They were prohibited from using force and were soon overwhelmed by riots caused by Mohawks and mobs created by the blocked traffic (during the course of which, ten constables were hospitalized).
The Chief of the Defence Staff, General John de Chastelain, 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 kilometers to 5 meters. Additional troops and mechanized equipment mobilized at staging areas around Montreal, while reconnaissance aircraft staged air photo missions over Mohawk territory to gather intelligence. Despite high tensions between the two sides, no shots were exchanged.
On August 29, at the Mercier Bridge blockade, the Mohawks negotiated an end to their protest with Lieutenant-Colonel Robin Gagnon, the 'Van Doo' commander responsible for monitoring the blockades along the south shore of the St. Lawrence River west of Montreal. This action further resulted in the resolution of the original siege on the Kahnawake reserve.
Mohawks at Oka, however, 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. 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. The following day the Mohawks laid down their arms, dismantled their guns and threw them in a fire, ceremonially burning tobacco and returning to the reserve. Many, however, were detained by the Canadian Forces and arrested by the SQ.
Among those charged and convicted for their participation was Ronald 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. Cross served a six-year sentence for assault and weapons charges related to his role on the crisis. Casalpro/Cross died of a heart attack in in November 1999. His brother, Tracy Cross, later served as the best man at the wedding of Francine Lemay, sister of Marcel Lemay. Francine reconciled with the community after reading At the Woods’ Edge, a history of Kanesatake by Brenda Katlatont Gabriel-Doxtater and Arlette Kawanatatie Van den Hende.
The Oka Crisis lasted 78 days, with gunfire early in the crisis killing SQ Corporal Marcel Lemay (31 years old), and later on in August a Mohawk elder named Joe Armstrong (71 years old) was fatally wounded when a large boulder was tossed at his chest; allegedly in plain view of dozens of police and civilians during an anti Mohawk riot during an evacuation of activists and protesters from the contested area. The golf course expansion which had originally triggered the crisis was cancelled by the mayor of Oka. The Oka Crisis galvanized, throughout Canada, a subsequent process of developing a First Nations Policing Policy to try to prevent future such events, but throughout the ‘90s, Kanehsatake was also the focus of attention for alleged lawlessness, drug crimes (mostly involving cannabis), and connections to organized crime. The theory was that the SQ were unwilling to patrol Kanehsatake, and as a result there was a surge in criminal activity.
In 1994, an assistant to the Quebec Native affairs minister publicly requested then-chief Jerry Peltier to “exercise his civil authority to investigate individuals who terrorize a certain part of the population”. Sporadic gun-fire was also alleged to occur in the town.
For years, Kanehsatake has been ruled by a pro-assimilation band council with its own police force (established in 1997). In 1999, these police shot and paralyzed Joe ("Stonecarver") David, a warrior active during the crisis. The band council has also pursued self-government agreements with Canada and Quebec, further undermining Mohawk sovereignty.
In January 2004, Kanehsatake was again headline news when local residents barricaded 60 police officers in the Kanehsatake Mohawk police station. In addition, police chief James Gabriel’s house and vehicles were set on fire, after he had fled to Montreal. The Aboriginal officers had been brought in from across the province to reinforce local police. Again, the pretext used was that of criminal activities and drug trafficking.
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 documented the role of Mohawk women during the crisis, and Alec MacLeod created Acts of Defiance (1993).
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".
Micheal Baxendale and Craig MacLaine wrote This Land Is Our Land: The Mohawk Revolt at Oka. Geoffrey York and Loreen Pindera's wrote People of the Pines: The People and the Legacy of Oka (1991). Donna Goodleaf wrote Entering the Warzone: A Mohawk Perspective on Resisting Invasions, which was published by Theytus Books in 1995.
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, entitled The Oka Crisis, A Mirror of the Soul, was published in 2000.
Joseph Tehwehron 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.
While serving a college internship at the Mohawk Survival School, Ric Oliveira was the only American journalist allowed to live on the reservation during the time of the crisis.
The Canadian punkrock 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.
- Ellen Gabriel
- Timeline of Quebec history
- First Nations
- Gustafsen Lake Standoff
- Ipperwash Crisis
- Grand River land dispute
- Seton Portage#Land claims issues
- Burnt Church Crisis
- "Oka Crisis, 1990". Warrior Publications.
- Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance. YouTube. 20 September 2011.
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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
- Ha, Tu Thanh (2000-07-11). "Crisis inspired many native people - The Globe and Mail". The Globe and Mail. Retrieved 9 December 2015.
- Scott, Marian (July 10, 2011). "Oka Crisis: Sister of slain corporal builds bridges". Montreal Gazette. Retrieved 9 December 2015.
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- Hornung, Rick (1992). One Nation Under the Gun: Inside the Mohawk Civil War. Pantheon. ISBN 0-679-41265-4.
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- Alanis Obomsawin (2000). Rocks at Whiskey Trench. National Film Board of Canada. IMDb
- Geoffrey York & Loreen Pindera (1991). People of the pines: The warriors and the legacy of Oka. Little, Brown. ISBN 0-316-96916-8.
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