The Oka Standoff – 20 Years Later
By Steve da Silva, writings for BASICS, a free community newsletter in Toronto with Maoist leanings. For my own writings on the revolt at Oka, check out the article The Resistance at Kanehsatake: Looking Back 20 Years After the Barricades.
In 1990, Canada was taken to the brink of civil war for what on the surface appeared to be about a golf course and some sacred trees. What was actually at stake, beyond the surface of things, was the fate of a nation, one that had suffered two and a half centuries of the colonial theft of their land, and was no longer going to take it.
This summer marks 20 years since the armed standoff between Mohawk Warriors and the Canadian Armed Forces near Oka, Quebec, a small Quebec town whose mayor at the time, Jean Ouellette, was trying to push through plans for the expansion of a golf course and the construction of condominiums. The land in question, however, had for decades, if not centuries, been the subject of a land claim upheld by the Mohawk nation of Kanehsatake, whose ancestral graves and grove of pine trees held to be sacred were situated on the land.
Upon announcement of the development plans, the Mohawks set up a peaceful blockade on a secondary road through the pine forest. After disobeying an injunction passed against them and holding the lines, on July 11, 1990 the Sûreté du Québec went on the attack against those maintaining the blockade, losing Corporal Marcel Lemay to an unknown bullet in the mix.
In a gesture of solidarity at a moment when the situation was dangerously escalating, the Mohawks of Kahnawake set up a blockade on the Mercier Bridge that joins Montreal Island to the south shore of the St. Lawrence River, shutting down traffic on a bridge that would see 65,000 cars a day move over it. It was planned as an act of peaceful civil disobedience to bring to a speedy end the negotiations over the land – an action that presumed the government could be brought to the table in good faith.
With these acts, the small town of Oka and the struggle of the Mohawks were thrust into international attention for the course of the 78-day standoff.
While the media focused in the inconveniences faced by non-natives during the blockade, fueling hostility against the Mohawks, on August 14 Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa invoked the Emergencies Act and called in the Canadian Armed Forces, consisting of over 2500 troops, with tanks and reconnaissance aircraft.
The most serious attempt at a resolution made by the Progressive Conservative Federal Government of Brian Mulroney was to offer to buy the land to halt the development, without resolving the question of Mohawks entitlement to the land.
Meanwhile, with the racist corporate media fueling anti-native sentiments, from August 11-15 anti-native actions in the city of Chateauguay (near the Mercier bridge) reached a dangerous crescendo, with as many as 7000 people rioting. Chateauguay was itself home to a federal Progressive Conservative Member of Parliament who suggested that the natives should be shipped off to Labrador “if they wanted their own country so much”.
With fears mounting that the Canadian army would make an aggressive move on Kanehsatake, on August 28 local authorities encouraged Oka residents to evacuate. Meanwhile, the same day an evacuating convoy of natives from Kahnawake was attacked by an anti-native mob, leading one elderly man dead of a heart attack and others with injuries. On August 29, the Mercier Bridge blockade would be brought to an end by the Mohawks of Kahnawake, but the blockage at Oka would continue for nearly another month.
On September 26, facing a stalemate in negotiations, the Mohawks decided to burn their guns, recognizing that while the long-term struggle for the land was not over, they had won a significant amount of attention for their struggle.
It is highly significant to note rather than step in to negotiate a peaceful settlement, all levels of government at the time conceded nearly three months of negative attention to the world’s eye for the sake of a golf course and some condos – a project that was unpopular even amongst non-Native Oka residents to begin with.
Twenty years on, the land question is far from being resolved at Kanehsatake. Mining and construction interests are currently eyeing this Mohawk territory, just the same as with the some 700+ other outstanding land claims that exist across Canada. Just an hour from Toronto, a similar if more protracted drama has played itself out at Six Nations (near Caledonia, Ontario) since April 2006.
The lack of resolve by Provincial and Federal governments to seriously address land disputes in Canada is no accident or oversight. At the centre of this centuries-old, worn-out, predictable drama is a colonial question. Unmitigated access to the resources of these lands is what Canada’s big corporations, especially the extractive industries, are after.
Indigenous people and their traditional relationship to the land stands in the way of these objectives. These corporations are also the enemies of non-native working people; and so few of us stand to benefit from a world as plundered and polluted as these corporations are leaving it. So, 20 years later, let the standoff at Oka remind us of how important the struggle for self-determination of indigenous peoples is to the struggle of the working class and all progressive people, a struggle that persists whether we recognize it or not.