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Patrick Cloutier, a 'Van Doo' perimeter sentry, and Anishinaabe Warrior Brad Larocque, a University of Saskatchewan economics student, facing off became one of Canada's most widely circulated images.
Royal Canadian Mounted Police|
Sûreté du Québec
Non local activists:
|Casualties and losses|
: 20+ CF wounded.|
Royal Canadian Mounted Police: 10 Constables hospitalized.
: 1 SQ Groupe d'Intervention operative killed.
1 Mohawk elder killed.|
The Oka Crisis (French: Crise d'Oka) 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 78 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.
Mohawk people first settled in the Montreal area in the early 18th century, moving north from their homeland in the Hudson River valley. They 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, and who had been weakened through prolonged contact with French settlers. Mohawk settlement in the St Lawrence river valley was influenced to a great extent by French Jesuit missionaries who sought converts from among the Mohawk and who established Jesuit missionary villages for them at Kahnawake and Kahnesatake.
In 1717, the governor of New France had granted the lands encompassing "the Pines" and the Pine Hill Cemetery, where local Mohawk ancestors had been buried, (and to whom it was considered sacred burial ground) to the Society of the Priests of Saint Sulpice or Sulpician Fathers Seminary, a Roman Catholic order that was based out of Paris, France. 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 nine square miles 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. 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.
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 kilometers from their original 165.
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. 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 Kanehsatà:ke 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.
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.
As a protest against the 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, 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 Warriors had amassed should remain.
The SQ deployed an emergency response unit, the Groupe d'intervention (Intervention group), which responded to the barricade by deploying tear gas canisters, concussion grenades in an attempt to force the Mohawks to disperse. In response, gunfire ensued from both sides, 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, 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 approximately 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 seized 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 Warriors established a network for communications between the Mohawk villages Akwesasne, Kanesatake and Kahnawake, that used hand-held radios, cellular phones, air raid sirens and fire hall bells, as well as local radio stations, and human patrols. The situation escalated as the local Mohawks were joined by Natives from across the country and the United States. Despite pressure to do so, their barricade was not dismantled. 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 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). 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, 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 guns and returned to the reserve after ceremonially burning tobacco.
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.
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. Two SQ officers were suspended and investigated for allegedly beating Casalpro while in captivity, but were not subsequently charged. Cross served a six-year sentence for assault and weapons charges related to his role on the crisis and died of a heart attack in November 1999. 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.
The golf course expansion that had originally triggered the crisis was cancelled and the land under dispute purchased from the developers by the federal government for $5.3 million. 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. 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.
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).
Montreal Gazette journalist Albert Nerenberg switched careers after smuggling a video camera behind the barricades and making his first documentary, called Okanada. 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.
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, 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.
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 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.
A vast amount has been written in both English and French and on the Oka crisis, including, but not limited to:
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
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