Land Back, the unheeded lesson of 'Oka Crisis,' 30 years on

The only basis for just relations with Indigenous peoples remains land restitution

This Saturday, July 11, is the 30th anniversary of the start of the “Oka Crisis,” or as it is more accurately known, the Siege of Kanehsatà:ke. I thought it might be a good moment to post an excerpt from my book, The Trudeau Formula: Seduction and Betrayal in an Age of Discontent, which covers this history, and some of what has happened since then.

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A megaphone slung over her shoulder, Ellen Gabriel walks at the front of the march as it winds its way through Oka Village, an hour drive west of Montreal. On an overcast Saturday in August 2017, nearly 200 people move slowly behind her and several elders, down the road from the Mohawk First Nation of Kanehsatake.

Gabriel—an artist with a youthful face and penetrating eyes—became widely known for her poise and eloquence during the “Oka Crisis” of 1990. That’s when this road was crisscrossed by barricades and barbed wire, and Mohawk residents on one side stared down the Canadian army on the other. The images of camouflaged, rifle-toting Warriors became iconic symbols, either of menacing lawlessness or courageous defiance.

Far less remembered is what started the conflict. The town of Oka wanted to add nine holes to an exclusive, whites-only golf course, so its mayor decided to bulldoze a revered patch of forest called the Pines, the last of the Mohawk's collectively-held lands. A Mohawk graveyard would be paved over for a parking lot.

For months, local Mohawk residents tried to avert a crisis, then finally erected a a peaceful blockade—a mound of dirt piled on a sandy road in the woods. When the mayor appealed to Quebec’s police to crack down aggressively on their protest, Mohawk traditionalists prepared for arrest, with some taking up arms in self-defence. Gabriel, barely 30 years old, became their spokesperson.

At dawn on July 11, Quebec police and members of the Canadian army raided the area in paramilitary style. The raid ended in a shoot-out, leaving an officer dead, likely from the police’s own fire. Within weeks, the Canadian military invaded with tanks and thousands of troops. Mohawk behind the barricades were denied the passage of food and water. In their sister community of Kahnawake, children and women were attacked by a white mob as they fled an imminent military crackdown (Rocks at Whiskey Trench is a movie by Alanis Obomsawin about this violent episode).

The actions of government unleashed a summer of discontent and solidarity with Indigenous rights unlike anything ever seen in the country.

It’s why Gabriel has always disliked the name “Oka Crisis.” It wasn’t the white town, after all, that was in the crosshairs of the Canadian state. The siege was of Kanehsatake.

Nearly three decades later, the community is still marching, this time against a new non-native housing development that could eat into the same forest. Rain begins to fall. We pass by signs that Mohawk have stapled to hydro posts. Saviez vous c’est un terre contestée? Do you know this is contested land? “It’s no exaggeration to say we’ve been repeating this for 300 years,” Gabriel tells me, as I walk alongside her.

Gabriel long ago traded in her camouflage for floral shirts, but her fierceness is undiminished. She tells me how the British Crown granted their land in 1717 to Sulpician French Catholic priests. Through the 1800s, the Sulpician had the Mohawk arrested for cutting wood without their permission. When Mohawk left for hunting or work trips, they took advantage and sold off their property to French-Canadian settlers. “Their job was to make our lives unliveable,” she says.

Chief Joseph Gabriel—her great-great-uncle—rebuilt the traditional seat of Mohawk religion and governance, the Longhouse. In 1911, he helped block a railway from coming through their lands; its unfinished tracks, overgrown with wild grass, can still be found at the edge of the community. The government branded him a “ringleader of Mohawk rebelliousness.” Hunted by police, he was forced underground.

Re-emerging a decade and a half later, he was arrested for hiding his children from residential schools. After a sympathetic lawyer demanded compensation for him from the government, the Federal Minister of Indian Affairs agreed. But it was the head of the bureaucracy—Deputy Minister Duncan Campbell Scott—who had the final say. He rejected the idea, writing: “The Indians of Oka have always been treated most generously by the Department, and you are quite at liberty to take any action in the courts that you may consider necessary on Gabriel's behalf.”

The Sulpician priests eventually sold most of what remained of unceded Mohawk land to the town of Oka. Years later, the relentless creep of encroachment exploded into a standoff over a golf course. (Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance is another must-see film of Obomsawin’s that you can watch online.)

When the Mohawk and their allies buried their weapons, and Ellen Gabriel and others walked out from behind the barricades, Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney tasked a Royal Commission to “make recommendations promoting reconciliation between aboriginal peoples and Canadian society as a whole”—the first time the term “reconciliation” was invoked in Canada.

Among the central arguments of the Royal Commission’s eventual five-volume report, backed up by reams of evidence, was that the poverty, dependency, and social ills experienced by Indigenous peoples had a root cause: the continuing dispossession of their lands. Providing an adequate land and resource base wasn’t an optional measure that would complement self-government, economic self-sufficiency, and healthy communities. It was their precondition. This was a lesson Canada’s elite have been loathe to accept: land restitution, the key to everything.

The responsibility for responding to the Royal Commission fell to the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien. But by 1998, the images of tanks rolling down Quebec streets toward a small, out-gunned First Nation were receding in memory. Some joked bitterly that the plan the Liberal government released, Gathering Strength, would have been better titled “Gathering Dust.” No action would be taken on the vast majority of its 400 recommendations.

Yet it was in this plan that the seeds were planted for the Reconciliation Industry, the spectacle of symbolic politics that the Justin Trudeau Liberals would later bring to full fruition. At the time, some federal funding was allocated for an Aboriginal Healing Foundation, which focussed on repairing harm suffered by residential school survivors. This would be a pillar of the new reconciliation politics: stress the injury done to individuals, instead of the harm done to nations. It is nations, not individuals, who hold rights to territory and government, and who may be owed restitution.

And even though the Royal Commission had criticized the current policies of the government, Gathering Strength only awkwardly acknowledged mistakes made in the past: it wrote of Canadian society being “burdened by past actions” or “historic injustices,” and dealing with the “negative impacts that certain historical decisions continue to have.” This convenient neglect of the present would become another pillar of the reconciliation sleight-of-hand. “If there is no colonial present,” Indigenous Dene scholar Glen Coulthard writes in his book Red Skins, White Masks, “but only a colonial past that continues to have adverse effects on Indigenous peoples and communities, then the federal government need not undertake the actions required to transform the current institutional and social relationships.” There may have been a crime, but the criminal had vanished.

As the march in August 2017 arrives at the site of the new residential development, the Domaine des Collines d'Oka, we can see the Pines in the near distance. Gabriel remembers riding horses here when she was a child, and picking plant medicines in the forest.

Three-quarters of 400 new multi-level detached homes, attracting new residents to Oka, are already constructed. Others are still holes in the ground. The developer has claimed no trees will be touched, but there are signs of clear-cutting at the edge of the forest. And Gabriel recently found properties advertised on a real estate website. “A big lot with mature trees,” the listing promised. There were photos of the Pines in the background.

A month before the march, Gabriel is captured on camera by a reporter from Indigenous broadcaster ATPN confronting Oka’s mayor at the housing site. “You know you are committing fraud by selling land that is contested,” she tells him, surrounded by a group of Mohawk women. The Mayor shrugs, saying it is out of his hands. She switches between speaking English and French, but his position doesn’t budge, as if to show the folly of Indigenous attempts at accommodation.

The developer builds the homes. The municipality issues the permits. The federal government looks the other way.

“The government’s dealings are at the root of the problem but they seem to have little will to even deal with its symptoms,” Gabriel tells me. The federal government negotiates only with the band council, refusing to deal with the Longhouse that Gabriel and many community members belong to. Communication with Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett has netted her only canned statements about “seeking to facilitate solutions.”

When Gabriel ran into Bennett at a university conference in 2017 in Montreal, she reminded her they wanted the government to step in and impose a moratorium on housing development. At the end of a long argument, Bennett gave her a line familiar to the Kanhesatake Mohawk: “If you don’t like it, you can take it to the courts.”

In 2019, the campaign led by Gabriel finally has an impact. The housing developer, feeling the pressure of the protests, contacts her to to say there will no further developments on the site, for now. Nothing will change about the houses already built, but it is a respite, a small victory.

All tentative victories for the Mohawk have come about this way. Working with local farmers, they’ve blocked a company from mining for niobium on their land for more than a decade. Three summers ago, Gabriel greeted scores of young Quebecois activists who walked hundreds of kilometres in a “March for Mother Earth” along the proposed route of the Energy East tar sands pipeline, ending their walk in Kanehsatake. That pipeline has also been defeated.

Gabriel is heartened by this new activism that, more than ever, embraces Indigenous perspectives. But she is impatient. “Three decades ago, we were talking about the same things,” she says. “There is greater awareness today, and politicians have started talking differently, but the laws are still the same. We are still being criminalized. Still being killed. You are telling me this is reconciliation? What community should more be an example of reconciliation than Kanehsatake?”

When she is not traveling the country doing public speaking, Gabriel works at the cultural centre in the community. If she can find the time, she paints—vivid portraits of her Mohawk ancestors and glowing landscapes where the Pines are ever-present. “What makes art such a powerful tool is that it seems like everything can be absolutely transformed,” she says. “Reality is harder.”

By the time the speeches start at the housing development demonstration in August, the few media cameras have left. “We’re not asking for the keys to the houses, but we want you to know this is disputed territory,” Gabriel tells the crowd. “The Mohawk have never had problems living with their neighbours—but we do not take to laying down in front of them.” Gabriel’s voice, even projected by a megaphone, is faint. I cup my ears to hear. She’s not hoarse from shouting. She just sounds tired.