Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Mystique of the Oka Crisis

The Mystique of the Oka Crisis

By Furano Yukihira
The Daily Magi
November 11, 2059


The Oka Crisis was a land dispute between a group of Mohawk people and the town of Oka, Quebec, Canada which began on July 11, 1990 and lasted until September 26, 1990. One person died as a result. The dispute was the first well-publicized violent conflict between First Nations and the Canadian government in the late 20th century.

The crisis developed from a local dispute between the town of Oka and the Mohawk community of Kanesatake. The town of Oka was developing plans to expand a golf course and residential development onto land which had traditionally been used by the Mohawk. It included pineland and a burial ground, marked by standing tombstones of their ancestors. The Mohawks had filed a land claim for the sacred grove and burial ground near Kanesatake, but their claim had been rejected in 1986.

On August 29, at the Mercier Bridge blockade, the Mohawks negotiated an end to their protest with Lieutenant-Colonel Robin Gagnon, the 'Van Doo' commander responsible for monitoring the blockades along the south shore of the St. Lawrence River west of Montreal. This action further resulted in the resolution of the original siege on the Kahnawake reserve.

Mohawks at Oka, however, felt betrayed at the loss of their most effective bargaining chip in the Mercier Bridge: once traffic began flowing again, the Quebec government rejected further negotiations pursuant to their original dispute concerning the Oka golf course expansion. September 25 witnessed the final engagement of the crisis: a Mohawk warrior walked around the perimeter of the blockade area with a long stick, setting off flares that had been originally installed by the Canadian Forces to alert them to individuals fleeing the area. The army turned a water hose on this man, but it lacked enough pressure to disperse the crowd surrounding him. This crowd taunted the soldiers and began throwing water balloons at them, but the incident did not escalate further. The following day the Mohawks laid down their arms, dismantled their guns and threw them in a fire, ceremonially burning tobacco and returning to the reserve. Many, however, were detained by the Canadian Forces and arrested by the SQ.

The Oka Crisis lasted 78 days, and gunfire early in the crisis killed SQ Corporal Marcel Lemay. The golf course expansion which had originally triggered the crisis was cancelled by the mayor of Oka. The Oka Crisis galvanized, throughout Canada, a subsequent process of developing an First Nations Policing Policy to try to prevent future such events.

In 1991, Jean Ouellette was re-elected mayor of Oka by acclamation. He said of the crisis that his responsibilities as mayor required him to act as he did.

The Oka Crisis was extensively documented and inspired numerous books and films. Canadian filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin has made documentaries about the Oka Crisis, including Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance (1993) and Rocks at Whiskey Trench (2000). These and two additional documentaries on the crisis were all produced by the National Film Board of Canada: Christine Welsh directed Keepers of the Fire (1994), which documented the role of Mohawk women during the crisis, and Alec MacLeod created Acts of Defiance (1993).

In the 1999 film The Insider, Al Pacino's character Lowell Bergman says "Everybody thinks Canadian Mounties ride horses and rescue ladies from rapids. Mike, they backed locals in Oka in a fight with Mohawks over building a golf course on their burial site, they beat up protestors at Kanesatake". Montreal Gazette journalist Albert Nerenberg switched careers after smuggling a video camera behind the barricades and making his first documentary, called Okanada.

Micheal Baxendale and Craig MacLaine wrote This Land Is Our Land: The Mohawk Revolt at Oka. Geoffrey York and Loreen Pindera's wrote People of the Pines: The People and the Legacy of Oka (1991). Donna Goodleaf wrote Entering the Warzone: A Mohawk Perspective on Resisting Invasions, which was published by Theytus Books in 1995. Gerald R. Alfred, a Kahnawake Mohawk who was part of the band council during the crisis, and who later became a professor of political science, wrote Heeding the Voices of Our Ancestors: Kahnawake Mohawk Politics and the Rise of Native Nationalism (1995). This was based on his PhD dissertation, which examined the issues.

John Ciaccia, the Minister of Native Affairs for Quebec at the time, wrote a book about the events related to the Oka Crisis. His book, entitled The Oka Crisis, A Mirror of the Soul, was published in 2000. Robin Philpot wrote a book about English Canada's use of the crisis as a political tool following the failed Meech Lake Accord: Oka: dernier alibi du Canada anglais (1991).

Joseph Tehwehron David, a Mohawk artist who became known for his role as a warrior during the Oka Crisis in 1990, developed a body of artistic work that was deeply influenced by his experience "behind the wire" in 1990. The Canadian punkrock band Propagandhi wrote a song titled "Oka Everywhere", which was released in 1995 on a 10-inch split album with I Spy. It was later re-released on their 1998 compilation album Where Quantity Is Job Number 1.

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