Revisiting The Pines: Oka’s Legacy

Canadian soldier Patrick Cloutier and Saskatchewan Native Brad Laroque alias "Freddy Kruger" come face to face in a tense standoff at the Kahnesatake reserve in Oka, Que., Saturday September 1, 1990. It was a crisis that grabbed international headlines, with armed Mohawks and Canadian soldiers involved in a lengthy standoff that often appeared on the verge of exploding into full-blown combat. Twenty-five years on, the legacy of the Oka Crisis for many of those who experienced the tension west of Montreal is a greater awareness of native issues. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Shaney Komulainen

By Marian Scott / Montreal Gazette

KANESATAKE — Behind the barricade at the entrance to the Pines, Denise David tossed and turned, dreaming of a deadly melée between unknown foes.

Her nightmare was about to come true.

It was the morning of July 11, 1990, a day that would rudely awaken Canadians to the anger simmering in First Nations communities.

All was quiet as darkness shrouded the encampment of about 30 Mohawk protesters — including armed Warriors and unarmed women and children — where David and her 14-year-old daughter slept.

But a long-festering dispute over plans by the town of Oka to expand a golf course into a forest claimed by the Mohawks was about to explode into violence.

At dawn, more than 100 black-clad, helmeted Sûreté du Québec officers, led by the SWAT team, massed outside the Mohawk barricade to launch an ill-fated assault on the Pines.

A dense, choking cloud enveloped the wooded hilltop as police lobbed tear-gas canisters and concussion grenades at the protesters, who had been holding an early-morning tobacco ceremony.

The ferocity of the attack took protesters by surprise, recalled David, then a 36-year-old mother of two and director of a cultural centre in the First Nations community of 800 (now 1,350), 60 kilometres west of Montreal.

“We didn’t expect anything except to be arrested,” said David, who is still haunted by images of children and adults scattering in all directions when a burst of gunfire erupted from both sides shortly after 8:30.

Seconds later, SQ Cpl. Marcel Lemay, a 31-year-old father of one, lay dead and the Oka Crisis — a 78-day standoff that closed the Mercier Bridge, caused the deployment of 3,700 federal troops and drew worldwide attention to Canada’s treatment of indigenous peoples — was on.

A Mohawk Warrior takes cover behind a tree in Kanesatake on Wednesday, July 11, 1990, the morning of the start of the Oka Crisis.

July 11, 1990, catapulted native grievances onto the national agenda, dominating TV news with startling footage of masked Warriors and furious mobs stoning unarmed Mohawks.

It unleashed a wave of solidarity among indigenous communities across Canada, triggering sympathetic blockades and ushering in a new era of native activism to which the 2012 Idle No More movement traces its roots.

It reinforced the link between aboriginal rights and the environmental movement, spurring awareness of struggles to save natural habitats, whether in urban areas or remote communities threatened by oilsands or pipelines.

It inspired younger generations of indigenous artists for whom the Oka Crisis continues to provide fodder for artworks, poems, stories and songs.

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But in Kanesatake, the painful scars from 1990’s summer of discontent still haven’t healed.

“We’re still living with it,” said Mavis Étienne, 70, a Mohawk negotiator during the standoff and administrator at Kanesatake’s drug treatment centre who hosts a Mohawk gospel show on community radio.

“We didn’t go somewhere and attack people. They came and attacked us,” said Étienne, who has undergone therapy to deal with the traumatic events of 1990.

“But some people have not (had counselling), so it’s like that little wound that hasn’t been taken care of,” she said.

Just as most Americans of a certain age can recall when U.S. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, everyone in Kanesatake remembers where they were when the Sûreté du Québec invaded the Pines.

Memories of the crisis dredge up strong emotions, said Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Simon.

“I’ll tell you honestly, even when I talk about it, I still get a pain in the pit of my stomach. I still feel very angry,” he said.

Even though he was not involved in the protest, Simon, then a 29-year-old welder and married father of a toddler, said SQ officers repeatedly pulled him over and harassed him during the crisis because of his Mohawk appearance, and that two of his friends were beaten and tortured by provincial police.

“I’m not looking forward to the (25th-anniversary) commemoration. I just want it over and done with,” he said.

“There’s things that I would rather forget.”

***

The Pines still look much as they did before the events that plastered this normally sleepy backwater on TV screens around the world.

The towering evergreens still reach for the sky, with a fading wooden sign saying “Sovereign Mohawk Lands” hanging from one of them.

Rock music blares from a parked red Chrysler as a few youths play lacrosse in an outdoor rink. The air is fragrant with pine.

The Pine Hill cemetery in Kanesatake in July 2015, 25 years after the Oka Crisis.

But a few things have changed since 1990, like the Hilltop Smoke Shop, with its flashing red “Ouvert” sign — one of about 15 cigarette shacks that have sprung up along Kanesatake’s main road over the last 20 years.

It’s hard to imagine this peaceful glade as a militarized zone overrun by troops, tanks, tear gas, razor wire and low-flying helicopters.

Kanatiio (Allen) Gabriel never imagined things would escalate to that point in 1989, when he helped mobilize opposition to Oka’s plan to expand the golf course and build 50 luxury condos.

“We’d always been using the Pines because it was ours,” said Gabriel, 58, whose family home overlooks the contested woods.

A Mohawk conservation officer before the crisis, he later became director of public relations for the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and worked with residential school survivors in British Columbia.

“I grew up, literally, in the woods here with my cousins. And it was great.

“We had freedom. We were out in the woods all day, every day. One of our parents would call us for supper and we’d come running like little puppies,” he said.

“There’s a pond we used to go to. We used to drag shovels over there and spend a couple hours shovelling off the snow on the pond and we’d make our own rink. You’d have about 20 kids and six dogs playing hockey. It was really idyllic back then.”

For generations, the Mohawks had used the Pines, also known as the Commons, to graze their livestock and cut wood. It was they who had planted the majestic pines and hemlocks in the late 1800s to stabilize the sandy soil, after deforestation caused landslides. It was they who strolled and picnicked in the dappled parkland — just as Montrealers do on Mount Royal. It was their people who were buried in the Pine Hill Cemetery at the eastern edge of the woods.

Despite that, it was the town and a private developer in France that held legal title to the forest, due to the Kanesatake Mohawks’ 270-year history of being squeezed out of the land that Louis XV of France had set aside for them in 1716.

In 1959, over the Mohawks’ strenuous objections, Premier Paul Sauvé, who represented the riding, steamrollered a private member’s bill through the National Assembly, confirming the town’s ownership of the Commons and allowing it to be leased out as a golf course.

The nine-hole golf course was carved out of the Pines in 1961.

After it opened, children from Kanesatake continued to use a shortcut across the green where there had once been a road, Gabriel recalled.

“Golfers would use us as target practice. So that was my first experience with golf when I was about 10,” he said.

In 1989, smouldering grievances over the Pines flamed up when Oka Mayor Jean Ouellette announced the course would be expanded to 18 holes, necessitating the clearing of 22 hectares of forest.

For the Mohawks, it was one land grab too many. Never would they let the trees their ancestors had planted be cut down. Never would they allow construction crews to disturb the eternal rest of their loved ones. Never would they be pushed out of their cherished landscape.

“Our people are willing to lay down in front of the bulldozers and be arrested and re-arrested until this damn thing is settled,” Walter David, Denise David’s brother, told The Gazette in July 1989.

For once, the Mohawks had allies in the battle to save the Pines.

In August 1989, environmental groups concerned over the loss of green space across greater Montreal founded the Green Coalition, an umbrella group fighting to save sites including the Bois Franc forest in Dollard-des-Ormeaux and the Meadowbrook Golf Course, straddling Montreal West, Côte St-Luc and Lachine.

The Kanesatake Mohawk Band was a founding member — and the only nation-member — of the 40-group coalition, co-founder Sylvia Oljemark said.

“At one of the board meetings, a band of Kanesatake Mohawks came,” Oljemark said.

“They were quite complimentary in their thoughts about us and the work we did, but they said, ‘We hear you talk, but would you be willing to die to protect the land that you are defending?’

“I heard a collective gasp. I don’t know how we answered. I think we said that we would go a long way to defend the land and our energies were bound up in what we were doing, but maybe not give up our lives,” she said.

A cyclist on Highway 344 in Kanesatake on, July 7, 2015. This is close to where the main barricade during the Oka Crisis was situated.

In a letter, the Green Coalition asked Premier Robert Bourassa to step in at Oka, demanding “that the integrity of the environment be preserved, and that the interests of indigenous people be protected,” then-Native Affairs minister John Ciaccia recalled in his memoir of the Oka Crisis.

“This was the first time (in Quebec) that native peoples’ interests were clearly mentioned by an environmental group, and it may have been a mistake,” Ciaccia added, because aboriginal issues did not carry much weight with politicians at the time.

In Oka, environmentalists joined forces with the Mohawks to save the threatened forest. On Aug. 1, 1989, the Regroupement pour la protection de l’environnement d’Oka and Mohawks staged a protest at a planned kickoff for the golf course expansion, causing the golf club to cancel the tree-cutting ceremony.

As the conflict dragged on, Mohawk protesters hauled an old fishing cabin into the Pines in March 1990 and began 24-hour surveillance to prevent construction crews from entering. In April, they erected a barricade on the dirt road into the woods.

Masked Warriors in camouflage gear arrived from Akwesasne, Kahnawake and other native communities, armed with assault weapons, hunting rifles, ammunition, walkie-talkies and other equipment.

Moderates like Gabriel, who opposed tobacco and gambling interests behind the Warrior movement — then engaged in a violent struggle over casinos in Akwesasne — were sidelined.

“At the beginning, when it started, it was agreed no weapons. It was agreed it was ecumenical, so there was no politics, no religion. You’re here because you only care about the Pines. But over time, that changed and we lost that control over our agenda,” Gabriel said.

“There was another agenda at play. It was about cigarettes and casinos for some people,” he added.

Mohawk Warriors in Kanesatake in the summer of 1990.

As spring arrived, other local residents joined the protest camp. “Slowly I would stop in, cause they would have a fire going, and eventually that was it. I stayed,” David recalled.

“I had to work during the day, but after work I would go down there. I’d buy food for whoever was there all the time and join in, stay all night,” she said.

The Mohawks’ allies in the environmental movement were worried about the threat of police intervention, especially after June 30, when the town obtained an injunction to remove the barricade.

The morning the SQ attacked the Pines, members of the Green Coalition were on their way to Kanesatake.

“It was July 11, the very day that the whole crisis erupted, with the death of Cpl. Marcel Lemay,” recalled Oljemark, who arrived after the fatal gun battle.

“There was a fellow in our gang that had a prototype of a cellphone, and I called Harry, my husband, and told him where we were and he said, ‘You’re where?’ He was so angry with me. He said, ‘What are doing over there?’

It was volatile, the temperament up there. It was just on a hair trigger. You could see the SQ were completely distraught.

“I said, ‘Well, our friends are here and they’re holed up in the forest way up the hill, in the Pines. We’re very fearful for them. And we’ve come to show our support.’

“It was volatile, the temperament up there. It was just on a hair trigger. You could see the SQ were completely distraught,” she said.

Another coalition member used the cellphone to call Quebec Public Security Minister Sam Elkas, whom members of the group knew from his time as head of the Montreal Urban Community’ environment commission.

“He actually got through,” Oljemark recalled. ” ‘Mr. Elkas,’ he said, ‘you must please demand that the SQ stand down because they’re just contributing to a very dangerous situation here today and they should not be here.’ ”

But it was too late. A man lay dead, and the conflict had already escalated beyond the pine forest of Kanesatake.

***

About 6:15 a.m., the phone rang at the home of Billy Two Rivers in Kahnawake.

“They told me to get to the council office immediately because some occurrence had happened and the Mercier Bridge was blocked,” said Two Rivers, a former professional wrestler who at that time was on the South Shore reserve’s elected band council.

“So I jumped out of bed, took a spit shower and ran over to the council office,” said Two Rivers, now 80.

Half an hour earlier, a dozen Warriors, alerted to the SQ attack by their counterparts in Kanesatake, had blocked the Mercier, a commuter link then used by 67,000 vehicles daily.

Traffic was tied up for hours as drivers followed makeshift cardboard signs rerouting them to other clogged bridges via Highway 132.

Wracked by divisions over casinos and the cigarette trade, Kahnawake’s then 5,600 residents (now 8,000) were split over the bridge closing, said Kenneth Deer, then one of the directors of a high-stakes bingo hall and spokesperson for the Kahnawake longhouse. He would found the Eastern Door newspaper in 1992.

“On July 11, when all of a sudden the bridge gets blocked, some people were saying, ‘Well, yeah, we’ve got to do something,’ and others are saying, ‘Gee, we should have been asked first,’ ” he said.

After three days of community meetings, decision-makers in Kahnawake opted to maintain the blockade in support of Kanesatake, said Deer, who served briefly as a negotiator in the conflict before travelling to Geneva in the middle of July as a Mohawk liaison to the United Nations’ Working Group on Indigenous Populations.

The bridge was the Mohawks’ only major bargaining chip in the dispute, said Two Rivers, who also served as a negotiator during the crisis.

“We were not going to surrender the Pines to anybody,” said Two Rivers, who credited his 24-year wrestling career for the calm leadership he showed during the standoff.

Closing the bridge “was the only major deterrent we had to not have confrontation,” he said.

For residents of Châteauguay and neighbouring suburbs, the summer from hell had just begun. At the height of the crisis, hundreds of Warriors manned 14 barricades and bunkers on highway checkpoints in Kahnawake.

The blockade would stay in place until Aug. 29, stretching daily commutes to the island of Montreal to four hours, with the bridge only reopening to traffic on Sept. 6.

In mid-August, the army announced it was taking over from provincial police at roadblocks in Kahnawake and Kanesatake.

The barricades trapped people inside or outside the besieged communities, with frequent complaints from those inside that troops were withholding food or damaging it by crumbling loaves of bread and stabbing bayonets into jugs of vegetable oil.

On Sept. 1, troops dismantled roadblocks in Kanesatake, tightening the cordon around Mohawk occupiers, who took refuge in a drug-treatment centre, where they made their last stand.

On Sept. 26, 26 men, accompanied by 22 unarmed women and children, ended the standoff by laying down their arms and leaving the centre without a resolution of the original dispute.

Mohawks leave the drug treatment centre in Kanesatake on Sept. 26, 1990. The Oka Crisis was over, but not resolved.

The crisis “made a hell of a burden on Kahnawake. There was a lot of anger and hatred from the outside,” Two Rivers said.

In Châteauguay, thousands of angry non-aboriginals rioted, hurling racist epithets and burning Warriors in effigy.

Parents threatened to pull their children out of a school attended by Mohawk children.

On Aug. 28, an angry crowd of more than 250 stoned a convoy of about 100 Mohawks being evacuated from the reserve, shattering dozens of car windows as the SQ stood by without intervening. An elderly Mohawk man died of a heart attack after being hit by a rock.

After the crisis, peewee hockey teams boycotted teams from the Mohawk reserve.

The Mohawks were unjustly blamed for a crisis they had not started, Two Rivers said. “The victims became the criminals.”

“Kahnawake had to suffer for what happened for about five years before relations normalized between Kahnawake and our neighbours,” said Deer, 67.

The barrage of racist hostility and abuses by police united residents of the reserve against a common threat, he said.

“Before 1990, I think the community was divided over issues like cigarettes,” Deer said. “But after 1990, after being surrounded by the SQ, being treated so badly by the SQ, and also surrounded by the Canadian Army, some people said, ‘Gee, why the hell are we fighting (among ourselves)?’

“So I think the community became a little more united after 1990,” he said.

Martin Loft, 55, program supervisor at Kahnawake’s cultural centre, said his memories of living in a community under siege seem surreal.

How disgraceful that these people wanted to expand a golf course onto a Mohawk gravesite. Who would stand for that? I don’t think too many people in this day and age would stand for that.

“I don’t think anybody can be prepared for it and even sometimes I think about it as a dream. You can’t believe that just along the road there were tanks. There were cannons pointed at people (armed) with sticks and rocks,” he said.

A shared sense of injustice brought Kahnawake residents together, Loft said.

“No matter who you were, you said, ‘That’s not right.’

“I think history has proven it to be so. They stood up for what was right.

“How disgraceful that these people wanted to expand a golf course onto a Mohawk gravesite. Who would stand for that? I don’t think too many people in this day and age would stand for that,” he said.

On July 12, Deer travelled to Kanesatake to represent the Kahnawake longhouse in negotiations with Ciaccia.

After dark, Deer, a former guidance counsellor at Howard S. Billings High School in Châteauguay, took a walk around the perimeter established by the Mohawks, who had reinforced their defences by barricading Highway 344 and digging trenches after the SQ attack.

“It was a beautiful night in the Pines. There were tables underneath the pine trees. They had naphtha lights burning and the women were making sandwiches and stuff like that,” recalled Deer, who chatted with the young Warriors in the trenches, their faces covered with bandanas and camouflage paint.

“I started walking around the perimeter and all these guys are in their gear, in the trenches, and I don’t recognize them but they all knew who I was, and some of them, I could recognize their voices.

“And I said, ‘Hey, I know these guys.’ These were my students,” Deer said.

“Some of these guys don’t have a political bone in their body. These are not wild guys fighting for cigarettes or fighting for whatever. These are just ordinary people,” he said.

“There was no ulterior motive for these guys to be in the Pines, and to be protecting the forest.

“I was absolutely convinced, and I’m still convinced to this day.”

***

Harry Swain was on a two-week vacation in Germany, where the Berlin Wall was being demolished, when he heard the news of the SQ attack in Oka.

“I recall we were having dinner with our ambassador at the time, and we heard over dinner that Cpl. Lemay had been shot and I thought, ‘Oh boy, there goes my holiday,’ ” recalled Swain, who was deputy minister of Indian and Northern Affairs in Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s government.

Best remembered for his controversial remark to reporters at an Ottawa press briefing that the leaders behind the barricades in Kanesatake were a “gang of criminals,” Swain later wrote the book Oka: A Political Crisis and Its Legacy, published by Douglas & McIntyre in 2010.

The crisis “grabbed everybody’s attention, riveted the cabinet and got the army a lot of exercise,” Swain said in a telephone interview from Victoria, B.C.

“The idea that our long forgotten neighbours could get so mad that they would take up guns and put on masks was a shocker,” he said.

And it “has changed the national discourse ever since,” he added.

Coming less than three weeks after the failure of the Meech Lake constitutional accord, the crisis put an enormous strain on Mulroney and Bourassa, Swain said.

“The prime minister and Robert Bourassa had just survived the crash of their constitutional dreams. Those two guys had invested huge amounts of their political capital and their personal effort trying to get Meech through. It was an immense personal blow that just demoralized them and made them feel awful,” he said.

Bourassa had recently been diagnosed with melanoma and was scheduled to undergo surgery in Bethesda, Md.

“Then Oka blew up and he decided he had to stay there. He stayed there the rest of the summer and finally had the operation in the fall, but by then it was too late,” said Swain, who regards Bourassa as an unsung casualty of the crisis.

With a “stubborn, obdurate” mayor and the presence of “a fairly radicalized well-armed bunch of guys,” the conflict had all the makings of a deadly showdown, he said.

Canadian soldier Patrick Cloutier and Saskatchewan Native Brad Laroque alias “Freddy Kruger” come face to face in a tense standoff at the Kahnesatake reserve in Oka, Que., Saturday September 1, 1990. It was a crisis that grabbed international headlines, with armed Mohawks and Canadian soldiers involved in a lengthy standoff that often appeared on the verge of exploding into full-blown combat. Twenty-five years on, the legacy of the Oka Crisis for many of those who experienced the tension west of Montreal is a greater awareness of native issues.

He credits both the army and Mohawk clan mothers for avoiding further bloodshed.

The troops’ textbook discipline prevented the tense standoff from exploding into violence, Swain said.

“The chief of the defence staff, John de Chastelain, and the head of the army, Kent Foster, said to each other, ‘There is nothing in this bloody golf course that’s worth another life.’

“It could have been worse. It could have been just awful. We could have had dozens or hundreds of people killed,” he said.

In the wake of the crisis, the federal government set up a $50-million, five-year Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, which issued a five-volume, 4,000-page report in 1996. Its 440 recommendations included recognition of aboriginal self-government, expansion of First Nations’ land base and initiatives to improve education, health, social services and housing.

But most of the proposals were quietly shelved.

In Kanesatake, the federal government spent $14 million from 1990 to 1995 buying 157 properties to create a contiguous land base for the community, a checkerboard interspersed with properties held by non-natives. In 1997, Ottawa acquired a piece of land next to the golf course so Kanesatake could expand its cemetery.

As long as I am mayor, no development will ever happen in the Pines.

But 25 years later, the town of Oka still owns most of the forest at the heart of the standoff.

Oka Mayor Pascal Quevillon said the town has no plans to sell the Pines and intends to keep it as a natural green space.

“As long as I am mayor, no development will ever happen there,” he said.

“Presently, the two communities live in harmony. There is no tension,” Quevillon added.

The contested forest is part of a 673-square-kilometre area claimed by Kanesatake, which is in ongoing land-claim negotiations with the federal government, Grand Chief Simon said.

While the Oka Crisis empowered First Nations people across Canada, it led to bitter divisions and violence in Kanesatake itself, Simon said.

“All of the First Nations all around us, the Algonquin, Ojibwa, even out West, benefitted greatly from what happened at Oka. But we were the ones that suffered the brunt of it. And we continue, I think, till this day,” said Simon, who had a bomb set off in front of his house in the mid-1990s after he criticized the local band council.

In 2004, opponents of then-Grand Chief James Gabriel occupied the local police station and set fire to Gabriel’s home.

Simon, who has been active in opposing the Energy East pipeline, said the community is gradually healing. “It’s coming together slowly.”

Swain noted that since Oka, contraband tobacco and gambling have become a mainstay of Canadian reserves including Kahnawake, as governments have largely disengaged from law-enforcement in native communities.

While poverty and social problems continue to plague First Nations communities, a rising generation of dynamic indigenous leaders, and landmark decisions on treaty rights like last year’s Supreme Court ruling awarding the Tsilhqot’in people ownership of a 1,750-square-kilometre area in central B.C., offer hope, he said.

“We now have constitutionalized law that says that you cannot infringe treaty rights without the strongest possible justification,” Swain said.

“You just can’t say, ‘Sorry guys, step aside, we’re putting that pipeline through.’”

***

When scenes of the conflict in Kanesatake flashed across the TV the night of the disastrous SQ raid, 12-year-old Clayton Thomas-Müller was transfixed.

“I was watching the news with my mom and some of my aunties when it happened. I remember just being really affected by it,” said Thomas-Müller, an organizer with the Idle No More movement and 350.org environmental organization.

“I think that Oka laid the groundwork for the emergence of powerful social movements like Idle No More,” said Thomas-Müller, 37, a member of the Mathias Colomb Cree Nation who grew up in Brandon, Man.

Seeing people who looked like members of his own family stand up to heavily armed police and the Canadian Army was a life-changing experience, said Thomas-Müller, who was particularly inspired by the feisty women behind the barricades.

Mohawk spokesperson Ellen Gabriel looks down from the barricade in Kanesatake in the summer of 1990.

“Before Oka, I, like many young native kids in public school, used to get picked on a lot,” he said.

“I can definitely say after a summer of watching the likes of (Mohawk spokesperson) Ellen Gabriel speak on behalf of the clan mothers on the national news, I never got picked on again. And I think that that’s the story for a lot of young, native people at the time,” he said.

The crisis marked a turning point in public awareness of First Nations, who went from being “vanishing people” to a political force to be reckoned with, said Sarah Henzi, a sessional instructor in First Nations studies at the University of British Columbia.

It was a moment “of resistance, of standing up, of voicing out” that continues to inspire young aboriginal activists, writers and artists today, said Henzi, who is also co-organizer of the Université de Montréal’s International Graduate Summer School on Indigenous Literature and Film.

At 31, Widia Larivière, a co-founder of the Idle No More movement in Quebec, is too young to remember the Oka Crisis, but she said it has left an imprint on young aboriginal activists like herself.

“It revived a sense of identity and pride, especially among young people,” said Larivière, a member of the Anishinabe (Algonquin) Timiskaming First Nation who grew up in Quebec City.

“Women had an important role in the Oka Crisis,” noted Larivière, a coordinator of Quebec Native Women and documentary filmmaker.

“It’s the same thing also for Idle no More. It was started and founded by women and most of the spokespersons and organizers were also women,” she said.

Kiera Ladner was a 19-year-old political science student at the University of Calgary when Oka burst into the news.

“I think the impact was, ‘Wow, we have something to stand up for,’” said Ladner, now Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Politics and Governance at the University of Manitoba.

Oka galvanized aboriginal students like herself, said Ladner, who helped stage campus demonstrations in favour of the Mohawk protesters.

“The tone of aboriginal politics on campus started to shift. The tone of the student body on campus started to shift from being about individuals and students and trying to survive to being one of huge empowerment politically,” she said.

The crisis “was a powerful moment” that made Canadians take notice of unresolved issues like aboriginal land claims and treaty rights, said Ladner, who co-edited a 2010 book with Leanne Simpson on the crisis, This Is an Honour Song: Twenty Years Since the Blockades, published by Arbeiter Ring.

“I think Kanesatake and Kahnawake were game-changers because it put everything on the front page of the newspaper,” she said.

While aboriginal issues “face this country every single day,” it was Oka that put those issues on the national agenda, Ladner said.

While television brought Oka into the homes of the nation, social media have ushered in a new era of indigenous activism that reaches across international borders, she noted.

Idle No More protesters demonstrate at the base of the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor, Ont., in January 2013.

Grassroots movements like Idle No More, founded in 2012 to promote environmental protection and aboriginal sovereignty, have brought together indigenous and non-indigenous people concerned about such issues as oilsands, fracking and pipelines, Larivière said.

She pointed to a flashmob round dance in Kanesatake in 2013 to oppose the Energy East pipeline.

“There were a lot of non-native people from Montreal who joined the action in support of the Mohawk people. I thought it was really inspiring,” Larivière said.

With almost half of Canada’s 1.4-million aboriginal population under age 24, indigenous youth are at the forefront of movements for social justice and action on climate change, Thomas-Müller noted.

Idle No More is marking the anniversary of the Oka Crisis with a social media campaign from July 11 to Sept. 26, commemorating the dates of the standoff in Kanesatake.

“Indigenous peoples and Canadians alike can share how Oka affected them, either through video, through memes or through written stories,” he said.

Thomas-Müller added that during the upcoming federal election campaign, Idle No More will press for aboriginal demands, including a national inquiry into murdered and missing aboriginal women and girls, and the right of indigenous peoples “to say no to harmful development on their land.”

http://montrealgazette.com/news/local-news/revisiting-the-pines-okas-legacy

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One thought on “Revisiting The Pines: Oka’s Legacy

  1. Maria Cumming

    Thank you for this , it is a clarifying and succinct retracing of the events. So much of the message was intentionally lost during the Oka Stand; the mainstream media merely focused on the violence. There was a really powerful message just being run over by politics. I was watching from Ontario and was just praying that indigenous rights would be entrenched and not lost in the propaganda. I am so glad to see the strength gained from this powerful stand. We owe much to these brave people from Oka and the women who lead us now. Idle No More has galvanized Indigenous peoples all over the world! That is incredible! Thank You.

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