Tag Archives: Kanesatake

Mohawks take PM to task over unanswered land claims on 30th anniversary of Oka crisis

Mohawks from Kahnawake on Montreal’s South Shore stage a rolling protest on Route 132 to the Mercier Bridge on Saturday, July 11, 2020, to mark the anniversary of the start of 1990 Oka Crisis. JOHN MAHONEY / Mont

Members of the traditional longhouse organized the convoys to commemorate the historical event — a 78-day standoff between Quebec Mohawks and Canadian soldiers over the proposed expansion of a golf course in Oka.

Mohawks from Kanesatake to Kahnawake took Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to task Saturday for failing to answer their centuries-old land claims on the 30th anniversary of the start of the Oka crisis.

A convoy of about 100 vehicles carrying Kahnawake residents — many of them sporting Mohawk flags — crossed the Mercier Bridge into LaSalle and back Saturday morning as part of a “rolling blockade” to commemorate the event.

Hours later, a second caravan — this time, carrying Kanesatake residents — took over Route 344 northwest of Montreal though a new development in an area used by Mohawk farmers for generations. Many onlookers stood on their front porch and waved.

Members of the traditional longhouse organized the convoys to commemorate the historical event — a 78-day standoff between Quebec Mohawks and Canadian soldiers over the proposed expansion of a golf course in Oka.

Three decades later, the impasse over land rights remains unresolved — despite Trudeau’s numerous pledges to work toward reconciliation and foster a “nation-to-nation” dialogue with Indigenous communities.

“The summer of 1990 serves as a reminder that the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) are willing to defend their land and protect their people, by any means necessary,” Joe Deom, a spokesperson for the Kahnawake longhouse, told a small gathering in the village Saturday. “The same holds true, 30 years later.”

Ellen Gabriel, a member of Kanesatake’s longhouse, later read the same statement in her community.

Organizers chose to hold rolling blockades instead of marches because of the coronavirus pandemic and the contamination risks that would have resulted from demonstrators being in close proximity to each other, Gabriel told reporters.

The demonstrations come as Kanesatake’s Mohawks continue to fight residential developments in nearby Oka they say would encroach on the pine forest they planted nearly 200 years ago.

“Under Canada’s constitution, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau could intervene and stop all development that’s taking place here, and he refuses,” Gabriel said. Indigenous relations minister Carolyn Bennett “is part of that problem of refusing and trying to silence the voice” of First Nations peoples, she added.

“We are fighting for our land.”

Gabriel and her fellow citizens were joined in Kanesatake by New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh and one of his MPs, Manitoba’s Leah Gazan. Singh said he came to Kanesatake “as an ally” to listen, fight for justice and ensure contested lands are returned to First Nations peoples.

He also took time to reflect on the events of 1990, saying: “What happened on this land was the beginning of a powerful movement. Future movements were all inspired by the strength and resilience of the people here. Thirty years later, the lessons have not been learned. The same problem continues.”

Gazan was more blunt.

“There will never be reconciliation in Canada in the absence of justice,” she said. “The people of Kanesatake have waited for over 300 years for this justice, and their justice continues to be infringed upon. It is time that this longstanding land dispute be resolved, that it gets the attention that it deserves from the current federal government to act now. The people of the longhouse have waited long enough for justice.”

The message — and the anger — was the same in Kahnawake.

Trudeau “has made a lot of promises,” a Kahnawake resident who identified herself as Kaherihshon told the Montreal Gazette in an interview. “He’s talked a really good talk about all the things he was going to do to settle the issues of the First Nations people. What has he done to make anything right? What has he done to settle these land claims? There’s nothing that has been done that has made a difference so far. If he wants real truth and reconciliation, then he has to really sit down with the people and say: ‘What do we have to do to make this better? How are we going to help the people?’ ”

Asked what it would take for reconciliation to begin, Gabriel answered: “Land back. It’s going to be an uncomfortable discussion, but when are we going to have it?”

The Montreal Gazette, July, 11, 2020.


Tensions rise in Oka as mayor speaks of being ‘surrounded’ by Mohawks

Oka Mayor Pascal Quevillon says the village is at risk of disappearing if Kanesatake territory continues to grow. (Matt D’Amours/CBC)

Local developer plans to gift land to Mohawks of Kanesatake through federal program

The grand chief of the Mohawk community of Kanesatake, northwest of Montreal, is demanding the mayor of the neighbouring town of Oka apologize for what he’s calling “hate-filled” and “racist” remarks over a contentious land transfer proposal.

Oka’s municipal council held an information session Wednesday evening to discuss a local developer’s intention to gift 60 hectares of land to the Kanesatake Mohawks and sell them another 150 hectares through a federal program.

The village wants to be consulted on Grégoire Gollin’s proposed land transfer.

While the gesture was made in the spirit of reconciliation, it has also enflamed tensions between Oka and Kanesatake, 29 years after the armed standoff that began over Oka’s plan to turn some of that land in question, known as The Pines, into an expanded golf course.

Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Simon says recent comments by Oka Mayor Pascal Quevillon will not help the two parties reach a compromise.

Speaking with La Presse columnist Isabelle Hachey, Quevillon said that he was concerned that the village would become “surrounded” by Kanesatake territory.

He said the Mohawk land is plagued with illegal dumps, cannabis and cigarette merchants and contaminated water.

“The day that enters the village, it’s certain that no one will want to come live in Oka. Our homes will lose value. [Mohawks] will buy them at a discount,” he told La Presse.

He said that if that day comes, there may be another Oka Crisis — but this time it would be the people of Oka rising up against the Mohawks.

Speaking on Radio-Canada’s Le 15-18, the mayor repeated his criticisms and said that Simon did not have control over the people of Kanesatake.

He said what citizens of Oka see does not match the picture that Simon paints of the community.

Members of the Mohawk community sing outside the church where the Oka municipal council information session took place. (Radio-Canada)

Mayor says he wants to avoid another Oka Crisis

Members of the Mohawk community drummed and sang outside the church where the meeting was held, and others, including longtime activist and artist Ellen Gabriel, sat inside and listened.

Quevillon told the audience he wants to meet federal and provincial representatives right away, and that he, too, wants to avoid another Oka Crisis.

In a show of displeasure, three Oka councillors walked offstage during the meeting, saying they don’t agree with Quevillon’s rhetoric.

Before the meeting, Simon said the mayor was spreading hatred by saying properties will lose value if more Mohawks move in and that the community has no intention of erasing Oka from the map.

Simon said development projects would benefit everyone, but as the rhetoric escalates, potential investors will be scared off.

And now, he says, he’s concerned about the safety of his people.

“What if a mob shows up there tonight and decides that they’re going to take it out on them?” he told reporters, pointing to a nearby home where Mohawk elders live.

Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Simon says the mayor’s recent comments are ‘hate-filled’ and racist. (Matt D’Amours/CBC)

He said some people are considering making a criminal complaint against Quevillon, describing his recent comments as hate crimes.

“What he’s doing here could have an impact across the country,” Simon said.

At a public band council meeting earlier Tuesday, Simon shared the memorandum of understanding signed between the council and Gollin, whose wooded tract includes part of the Pines — the land at the heart of the dispute in the Mohawks’ unresolved centuries-old land claim.

In 2017, Mohawks protested against the clearing of land at the edge of The Pines for Gollin’s Domaine des Collines d’Oka housing development.

Gollin has since said he would freeze land sales, preferring to transfer the land to the Mohawks.

“As a citizen, I don’t have to wait for the government to do my contribution to reconciliation,” Gollin said.

‘We are not the thieves’

Simon said the agreement for the 60-hectare land transfer is not legally binding and that he would consult the people of Kanesatake before any deal is made, through Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Ecological Gifts Program.

The additional 150 hectares of land that Gollin wants to sell to the federal government could be purchased with settlement money being negotiated between Kanesatake and the federal government, Simon said.

The Oka Church was packed with people on both sides of the debate when Oka Mayor Pascal Quevillon took the stage Wednesday evening. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

However, Quevillon said that if that settlement money is paid out, the town of Oka, population 4,000, isn’t big enough to survive.

“We are not the thieves,” he said after the meeting. “For 300 years, you have allowed residents of Oka to live here.”

“We are not being listened to, it’s as if we don’t exist.”

At the heart of that dispute was Kanesatake’s still-unresolved land claim, which includes the municipality of Oka and much of the surrounding land.

With files from Matt D’Amours and Radio-Canada

By: CBC News · Posted: Jul 18, 2019


Frustration Mounts as Land Dispute Continues in Oka, Que.

A sign is erected in Kanesatake, Que., where a housing project threatens a piece of land known as The Pines. (Steve Bonspiel/Facebook)

Residents of Mohawk community call on federal government to intervene in dispute over housing development

CBC News Posted: Aug 02, 2017

Frustration continues to mount in Kanesatake, Que., where residents of the Mohawk community are once again rallying to protect a stand of trees known as The Pines from encroaching development.

A protest was held on Tuesday near a housing project, Domaines des Collines d’Oka, about 60 kilometres northwest of Montreal.

The development is on land which is part of the Kanesatake Mohawks’ decades-old unresolved land claim.

The tension comes nearly three decades after an explosive and historic conflict erupted in the same area between the community, Sûreté du Québec and the Canadian Army.

Now, the Mohawks want Canada to intervene.

“The government and all the Crown actors need to act to stop the land fraud that’s been going on for 300 years,” said Ellen Gabriel, a resident of the community who become known to many as a spokesperson during the Oka Crisis in 1990.

“Stop the development that is depriving this generation and will deprive future generations from enjoying our lands as they become privatized and urbanized.”

Minister invited to community

Gabriel said that on July 15, Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett agreed to visit the community, but no date for that visit was set.

According to a news release issued by the Mohawks involved in Tuesday’s protest, “Minister Bennett also stated that she did not know what ‘they could do.'”

CBC News asked Indigenous Affairs if the department would be intervening in the situation at Kanesetake, but has yet to receive an answer.

Mohawk leader Ellen Gabriel, far left, listens to Oka Mayor Pascal Quevillon during a protest on July 12 at the site of the Collines D’Oka housing development. (Matt D’Amours/CBC)

On July 12, the developer said the project is already three-quarters finished and an additional 20 homes are planned for the disputed land.

“[The federal government] is talking about reconciliation, but this is not a good example of reconciliation as far as we’re concerned,” Gabriel said.


Mohawks March To Mark 25th Anniversary Of 78-Day Oka Crisis Standoff

Mohawks from Kanesatake, Que., march to mark the 25th anniversary of the Oka Crisis, in Oka, Que., on Saturday, July 11, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Mohawks from Kanesatake, Que., march to mark the 25th anniversary of the Oka Crisis, in Oka, Que., on Saturday, July 11, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

The Canadian Press

Festivities took place Saturday to mark the 25th anniversary of the Oka Crisis, the tense 78-day standoff over disputed woods between Oka and Kanesatake.

Mohawks took a symbolic march through the pines near the controversial golf course at the root of the standoff.

Various native and non-native leaders spoke Saturday, as activities took place including a feast, a lacrosse game and a tug-of-war.

They also chanted and danced in town.

Marcel Lemay was shot on July 11, 1990, as police clashed with Mohawk Warriors in Kanesatake, just west of Montreal.

Lemay said it took time, but she has moved on and let go of the past, saying the priority now is to build trust between those on and off the reserve.

“My mandate is to destroy walls of ignorance or prejudice,” she said.

When shots rang out on that day in 1990, it forever changed those involved said Victor Bonspille, the Chief on Council of Kanesatake.

“I think it changes our community in a way where we’re all more united in terms of protecting our lands and our culture and our identity,” said Bonspille.

The Mohawks were upset the town of Oka had approved a golf course expansion onto territory they had never surrendered to the government.

The Canadian Forces were eventually called in and it was only in late September that the crisis ended.

Many now say both communities must move past their differences.

“I haven’t been here in the pines really much, maybe four or five times since the Oka Crisis, because I felt like I lost my sense of belonging here, and I used to be in the pines all the time. So I think it gave me some closure,” said Kanestake Grand Chief Serge Simon.

The pines are still under dispute, but Simon and Oka Mayor Pascal Quevillon are working closely together to protect it from future development.

“We’re going to hash out the details like what consists of the pines and how are we going to protect it. We’ve already had some discussion and I see there’s going to be some differences at that table which might require a mediator,” said Simon, with Quevillon adding that they plan to open a dialogue on how to protect the pines.

A quarter century later there are still many wounds left to heal. Tensions remain between the communities of Oka and Kanesetake, but many believe that positive steps have been taken towards reconciliation.

“Let’s be realistic. We’re not going anywhere, they’re not going anywhere, are we going to live in animosity and distrust forever? No, we can’t,” said Simon.

The province said it has plans to help add stability to the reserve.

“We’re working on a daycare centre. We’re working on improving educational opportunities, we’re working on better protection for elders, we’re working on economic development,” said Quebec Native Affairs Minister Geoffrey Kelley.

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

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.

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.


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.

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.”

By Marian Scott / Montreal Gazette