By Jennifer Wells
Twenty-five years after the Oka Crisis, the photographer who captured the famous face-to-face standoff tells the unlikely story behind it
“Are you nervous perhaps? Do you think? Are you nervous? You should be.”
The words are uttered sotto voce. They crawl across the skin, like menacing earwigs, issued threats of bullet hitting bone.
The face of the Ojibwa warrior moves in close — sunglasses, bandana, anonymity. The youthful private — field helmet, bare face — shifts. Looks over the shoulder of the warrior, to the left, to the right. Then locks: nose to nose; toe to toe. A straight-ahead, dead-eye stare.
The shutter clicks. An inextinguishable instant.
Twenty-five years ago Shaney Komulainen was working freelance for The Canadian Press, covering the Oka Crisis. Young, eager, a little bit goofy, the 27-year-old photojournalist can be seen fleetingly in video clips as the army advanced on the Kanesatake barricades toward the ancestral Mohawk lands targeted for golf course expansion.
On Sept. 1, 1990, Komulainen wasn’t supposed to be in the area known as the Pines. She had been assigned to the South Shore where the Mohawks had blockaded access to the Mercier Bridge. It was day 52 of a long, hot summer siege when she heard the news on the radio that the army was on the move and her first thought was “Oh, s—. Here I am (away from the action), and something’s finally happening at Oka.”
So she called up Bill Grimshaw, her boss at CP. Or she thinks she did. She believes Grimshaw said, “Get up there. Go.”
Maybe he did. Memory does what it does.
“The thing with Oka is, it had been percolating a long time,” says Grimshaw, now retired from CP. “Every once in a while you’d get a flare-up. But the South Shore — there was a lot of stuff going on. It was psycho every night.”
Grimshaw’s “best guy” was Tom Hanson. It was Hanson who took the renowned shot of Richard Livingston Nicholas, the masked, rifle-wielding warrior standing astride an upturned Sûreté du Québec van on the first day of the crisis. Six weeks later, Grimshaw was thinking any front-page photo was likely going to come from the South Shore.
Komulainen doesn’t recall how long it took her to drive to Oka. She does remember walking between houses, through backyards and past barking dogs. “I guess they thought I was a resident,” she says of the police patrols that paid her no mind. She had her camera gear stuffed under her jacket, film in a waist pouch. “I got in there when the army was coming up the road and they were just talking to the Mohawks and everything was calm. Tense but calm … I was exhilarated to be up there.”
Perhaps she couldn’t appreciate the heavy anxiety that infused the scene prior to her arrival. “I knew the guns were loaded and s— like that. I just kept telling myself, this can’t happen. This isn’t going to happen in Canada.”
Komulainen was still learning. She had previously been challenged by Grimshaw, who had a reputation for being gruff and exacting, to shoot in natural light. “I hate flash,” Grimshaw says today. “It’s overused. It wipes out the ambience. It wipes out everything.”
The sun was getting low. Komulainen was not shooting with a flash. It sounds as though, as much as she was trying to please her boss, she was taking a risk. It was risky — but she didn’t have a choice. She had left her flash in the car, a situation, she says now, that “would have been the death of me when it got dark.”
She estimates there were as many as two dozen members of the media in the vicinity milling about, hoping to pull off that singular image.
There were a number of face-to-face confrontations between soldiers and masked Mohawk warriors — one was captured by Toronto Star photographer Peter Power and ran on the front page of the paper. But it was one private in particular who caught Komulainen’s eye. “It just struck me that his face was so young. He was military, but he was so young.”
His name was Patrick Cloutier, a private with the Royal 22e Régiment. He was 19 years of age.
Piecing together video clips, it’s clear that at least three warriors approached Cloutier in face-to-face confrontations. In one of these, the voice of a warrior initially misidentified in print as “Lasagna” — Ronald Cross, who had gained a high profile in the dispute — can barely be discerned. “Are you nervous?” “Not scared, though, are you?” The word “bullet” stands out in one clip, choppily followed by “crawls up your leg bone.”
Cloutier is stoic. Komulainen wondered if the French-speaking Van Doo fully understood what was being said to him. She remembers the warrior explaining to the private what it feels like when a bullet enters a man’s body, how it moves around.
The warrior was not Lasagna. “I knew it was Freddy Krueger,” she says of the Ojibwa who had been given the slasher movie nickname. His real name was Brad Larocque, a college student from Saskatchewan who had been drawn to the cause earlier that summer. “We knew him as a soft-spoken warrior,” Komulainen says.
She thinks she shot at least 20 frames of the pair, perhaps 25. She had four or five rolls of film, which she passed off to someone headed down the hill. Ian Barrett was there for Reuters, as he had been throughout the dispute. He remembers speeding back to Montreal with Reuters film at the same time that Bill Grimshaw was speeding back to CP with Komulainen’s film, and Tom Hanson’s too. “There were no traffic cops on the highways around Montreal that summer,” Barrett remembers. “You could speed with impunity. So we had this hot film of the army moving in the days when you’d have to process the film and select a couple of pictures and transmit those.”
“We did a lot of fast runs to Oka,” says Grimshaw. On Sept. 1, “I knew it was going to be in demand whatever I had.”
Grimshaw processed Komulainen’s film. Developed, dried, edited, printed, captioned, transmitted — choosing a single print which in the rush to deadline he determined was the superior shot. It takes a great editor, Ian Barrett says, to make a great call.
Why does the picture still resonate today? “Some people look at that photo and say the good guy is the soldier,” says Komulainen. “Some people look at the photo and say the good guy is the warrior. I showed the picture to a bunch of friends and they said nobody’s the good guy.”
This one point is not disputed: “I was the only one who shot it without a flash. That’s what made the picture.”
Rob Galbraith, who spent the summer at Oka shooting a lot for Reuters, places the picture in the top five Canadian photos taken. Ever. “It’s the symbolism of it,” he says. “This is the difference between a newswire photographer and a newspaper photographer. A news wire photographer tries to photograph an image that captivates and you don’t have to write a word for it, whereas a newspaper photographer will normally take photos that need a caption.”
Is that it? Bill Grimshaw presents a different view via email: “Shaney’s was a great photo for the day — but it really was theatre and says nothing about anything.”
There are some unhappy endings in the tale. Tom Hanson and the Mohawk warrior he famously captured in July 1990 died on the same day in 2009 — Hanson after playing a hockey game, Nicholas in a car crash.
Pte. Cloutier was promoted to master corporal, then demoted in 1992, serving a jail term in Edmonton for cocaine use. He served in Bosnia, but was later discharged from the Canadian Forces after leaving the scene of an accident and causing bodily harm while under the influence of alcohol. He later appeared in a porn film, telling Maclean’s magazine he found it “an interesting personal experience.”
Cloutier now works for the Canadian Coast Guard. After initially agreeing to speak with the Star, he chose not to respond.
Shaney Komulainen was in a devastating, career-ending car crash, on assignment for Saturday Night. She shoots little these days. She was also charged with threatening and possession of a weapon — wielding a machete at Oka. CP paid her legal fees; otherwise, she says, she would have been sunk. She was cleared of all charges.
Twenty-five years ago, she says Bill Grimshaw gave her the biggest compliment she ever received from him: “Nice picture, Shaney. Not perfect. Nice.”