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Who was to blame for the 1990 Oka Crisis in Quebec?

Updated on May 2, 2014
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The Oka Crisis was a 78-day land dispute between the city of Oka, Quebec, and the Kanesatake Mohawk natives that began in 1990. The city wanted to expand a 9-hole golf course to 18 holes, but it would have been built on top of a sacred Mohawk burial ground and grove of pine trees. With a Kanesatake blockade built in the area on March 11, the Oka government went to court for an injunction, leading to one-day standoff on July 11 that left one police officer – Corporal Marcel Lemay – dead. In support, other Mohawk tribes in Canada rallied together, leaving the Mercier Bridge in Chateauguay blockaded by the Kahnawake tribe. Because of several failed negotiations, the crisis lasted the entire summer, but it did stay peaceful for the most part. But as the standoff became more intense as the months passed by, a final negotiation finally presented itself, and the crisis was ended on Sept. 26 without any further bloodshed. But did this crisis have to continue for 78 days? Was it stubbornness on the Mohawks’ part or was it the Canadian government (local and national) not being considerate to Mohawk desires that carried the crisis for so long?

There has always been a strained relationship between the Canadian government and the country’s native people. For the Mohawks, it started at a Catholic church 270 years ago. For thousands of years before the white man arrived in Quebec, the Mohawks had governed themselves and were the East door of a five-nation group in the area. But in 1663, the French claimed the Montreal Island, and the Mohawks were moved from the area by missionaries to the coast of Lake of Two Mountains. In 1716, French King Louis XV made a promise to Mohawks, giving them nine square miles of land and giving the Catholic seminary a 1.5-by-9 mile plot of land next to it. Eventually, the French approved giving all that land to the Catholic seminary.

By 1721, the last Mohawk families left Montreal Island, understanding they would not be moved or molested again. But things changed in 1760 because the British began to rule New France, and a notice was sent to the Mohawks that unless they pledged allegiance, their village would be destroyed. Chiefs of the tribe from then on continued trying to get the land back, citing King Louis’ promise. In 1868, Mohawk chief Joseph Onasakenrat became the first chief that could read and write, and he confronted the Catholic seminary’s leaders after learning of the injustices past generations had received, telling them they wanted the land back as his tribe was betrayed. Mohawks were then threatened with imprisonment and told the government had given them land in Ontario. In response to Joseph’s refusal of their explanation, he and many Mohawks were imprisoned.1

In 1961, the golf course project in Oka was started, as the city began construction of the nine-hole course before the Mohawks’ legal lawsuit was heard. The tribe then tried to get ownership of the burial ground and grove of pines through the court system in 1977. After a nine-year delay, their claim was denied. Right before the Oka Crisis, there were two other incidents that involved natives that may have also contributed to the crisis – a May 1990 casino dispute at St. Regis-Akwesasne and a May 1988 standoff that resulted from a police raid on Kahnawake stores selling smuggled cigarettes. The dispute at Akwesasne lasted for six weeks, left two people dead and uprooted hundreds of community members, and the dispute at Kahnawake saw the blockading of the Mercier Bridge.2 Because these two disputes were in such close proximity to the Oka Crisis, they were likely still in the minds of the Kanesatake Mohawks in Oka, giving the natives further reason to be sure they got their way. At the same time, the Canadian government was likely tired of dealing with disputes brought forth by natives, meaning they wouldn’t want to back away from their stance unless they had to. These two mindsets brought forth the long, drawn-out negotiation process between the Mohawks and the Canadian government.

However, at the beginning of the crisis, it seemed that nothing would happen, as Quebec Native Affairs Minister and Quebec International Affairs Minister John Ciaccia urged Oka’s mayor, Jean Ouellette, to suspend the golf course project to avoid confrontation. “This people have seen its land disappear without any consultation or compensation, which I consider unfair and unjust. And all for a golf course. Once again, I request that you postpone the golf course project indefinitely,” Ciaccia said in a letter to the mayor.3 But instead of listening to Ciaccia’s advice, Ouellette called in police, which also went against what the Quebec Human Rights Commission believed should happen. Additionally, it was reported on July 12 that Ciaccia and the Mohawks’ main spokesperson – Ellen Gabriel – were in direct negotiation and close to an agreement about the natives’ barricade the night of Lemay’s shooting. Another set of negotiations began after the police moved in on the barricade, but they failed, which led to the firefight. The Mohawks then ceased police equipment and began the 78-day standoff.4

Had Ouellette listened to what Ciaccia said before making his own decision to call in police, the events that followed could have been changed dramatically. Even though Ouellette had an injunction from the Quebec Provincial Court that said he did not have to delay his project any longer, he still should have abided by the advice a national figure gave him. In fact, Indian Affairs Minister Tom Siddon at one point said he was in negotiation with the town and the Mohawks’ representatives into late June, but those negotiations obviously were halted after the police were called in.5 Shortly after the initial standoff on July 11, Ouellette said he did not order in police and that he didn’t believe there was dissention between the whites and the Mohawks.6

For the next week, the negotiation front was fairly quiet until Siddon made his first public comments since the standoff began. “We will not talk while there are barricades and we will not talk in circumstances where firearms are used to provoke negotiations,” he said according to a July 20 report. Another Canadian on that side of the conflict, Solicitor-General Pierre Cadieux, said the same day that, “There will be no negotiation with a gun pointed at our head.” On the other side of the fence, there were two conflicting voices, as Gabriel said police had to leave the area before the Mohawks would disarm and an aboriginal affairs critic, Ethel Blondin, said Siddon’s statement was irresponsible and would “escalate the tensions.”7 But would it really have hurt for the Mohawks to put down their firearms and come to the negotiation table? Yes, tension was high at the time and they weren’t going to trust the government because of the past, but if negotiations failed, wouldn’t have the Mohawks just gone back to their barricades and re-arm themselves? At that point in the crisis, it was unlikely that arrests would have been made after a failed negotiation. But since that didn’t happen, other measures were taken to get the conflict resolved.

The same day, government officials declined to negotiate, and a group of 100 chiefs from across Canada wrote up a proposal for the government that would possibly end the crisis. The nine parts of the resolution were that:

  • Police be withdrawn
  • Prime Minister Brian Mulroney reconvene parliament to solve the “national crisis”
  • Mulroney must personally enter negotiations
  • The Canadian and Quebec governments must provide immunity from prosecution and other possible civil proceedings for all Mohawk actions during the events
  • The United Nations appoint an international commission to “investigate the abuses and violations of the civil, political and constitutional rights of the Kanesatake and Kahnawake Mohawks”
  • The world community to condemn the Canadian government for its neglect toward natives and for countries to impose economic sanctions against the country until the conflict was solved
  • The “inherent right” of native people to seek self-determination and jurisdiction over their own lands be recognized
  • A voice of support to the Mohawks for trying to negotiate a peaceful end to the dispute
  • A promise to take “appropriate and reasonable actions” in support of the Mohawks8

One day later, the Canadian federal government said it would not accept the nine points in the natives’ resolution. Siddon cited the earlier resolution that stated the government would not negotiate until the Mohawks put down their arms.9 But NDP leader Audrey McLaughlin offered a revision instead of a rejection, giving a four-point resolution for the dispute after saying she was “appalled” that leaders didn’t at least go to Oka. Her four points were:

  • Scheduling an immediate line of negotiations, involving Siddon, the Mohawks and the Quebec government
  • Oka town council must announce a freeze on the development on the disputed land
  • Police must leave the scene
  • Mohawks must dismantle their barricades10

McLaughlin’s four-point resolution was much simpler than the Mohawks’ nine-point resolution, and it directly addressed the biggest issues at hand. However, suggesting that both the Mohawks and the police remove their barricades was not the best of ideas.

That’s because neither the Mohawks nor the Canadian government wanted to be the first to blink. For Mohawk leaders, succumbing to the government would be a sign of weakness considering the historical tension between the two groups. One Mohawk – Russell Means – said, “You allow your leaders of your country to just call people names rather than go and talk with them. You’re never going to resolve anything, and all you’re going to cause is death, misery and destruction. Destruction of communities like Oka … and all the rest of them. I just can’t say it enough, how idiotic they’re acting on the world stage.”11 Them, of course, being the Canadian government, which was also fairly hostile toward the Mohawks and other natives at the time. Additionally, the governments of Quebec and Canada showed little awareness of how their negligence had helped to create the crisis, and little inclination to solve the root problems.12 That said, the conflict was not going to be resolved if the Mohawks continued to sugarcoat their demands with issues that were unrelated to the current crisis. For example, the Mohawk demand to have the world community condemn the Canadian government for the way they had treated natives by employing economic sanctions against the country would have just caused even more problems had it been carried out. And it would be impossible for the government to agree to such a stipulation. On the other hand, the four points that McLaughlin posed were very direct to resolving the situation, showing they were committed to having the dispute resolved as long as it was under decent terms.

But in the end, neither the Mohawks’ original draft nor McLaughlin’s four points became the final agreement. The Mohawks presented a new, three-point resolution that, if agreed upon by the government, would bring them back to the negotiating table. In that resolution, the Mohawks asked that the Kanesatake and Kahnawake Mohawks be given free access to food, medicine, and other necessities; access to spiritual and legal advisers; and that negotiations be overseen by 24 observers appointed by the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights. But when the government continuously declined that agreement because of the third condition, it was clear something else would have to be done to get both sides back to the negotiating table. This time, it cannot be said it was the Mohawks who were causing the problems.

That next step was taken on Aug. 8 when Quebec Superior Court Chief Justice Alan B. Gold was named lead negotiator. “I think discussions are going to be moving a bit smoother than they have been,” Gabriel said after the decision. Gold’s appointment also shifted the responsibility in the government from the Quebec level to the national level.13 And he was just what the crisis needed, as four days after his appointment, Gold helped both sides to reach an agreement about the three conditions. With that, he helped the two sides have their first face-to-face interaction since July 15, and once negotiations began, Gold was out of the picture.

But also on Aug. 8, the solution to the situation also took a step backwards. On that day, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney told Quebec leaders that the national army was available to be deployed. On Aug. 14, the military was called in to help end the situation, which would eventually cause further strain between the Mohawks and the government. Mulroney said the army was going in with a view of stabilizing the situation and ensuring a peaceful resolution. However, it became increasingly hard for the Mohawks to have food delivered to their camp and for journalists to paint an accurate picture of the events because razor wire was placed around the area by the military. More and more razor wire was placed in the area as time went along and the tear gas and flares that eventually were fired toward the Mohawks induced fear into some members of the tribe. On Aug. 20, a group of 75 Mohawk vehicles left the area, as natives were fleeing because they feared the army was going to unleash an assault on Kahnawake. Yet, the military was supposed to be in Oka to help get to a peaceful end?

The government also made another questionable decision just weeks before the crisis was resolved after Ciaccia proposed a resolution and reached an agreement with Mohawk lead negotiators. In the agreement, the 20 Mohawk warriors at the treatment centre would turn over to army custody while an attorney would investigate any crimes that may have been committed during the crisis. However, the Quebec government declined to acknowledge the agreement because Ciaccia was not acting on the government’s behalf when he reached the agreement.14 The Canadian government had said it planned to be patient during the dispute and because the other blockades had been reopened, they had reason to do so. But there was no reason for them not to at least consider Ciaccia’s agreement, as the army didn’t even let the proposal get inside Mohawk lines at the pines.

But on Sept. 26, the crisis came to end as the Mohawks in the treatment center left the area, doing the best they could to escape arrest. But while they left the center, many Mohawks refused to call their act a surrender, rather calling it an exit. As the chaos of their escape erupted, many Mohawks were seen on video expressing their displeasure about how the Canadian government treated them. One of them – Chicky – was angry about the issue. “When is it going to end? When are we going to have our [expletive] rights? When are we going to be treated like humans? When is it going to end? When Bourassa has all our head stones lined up?” she said in the streets.15 Another – Brian Mike Myers – gave a more philosophical view of the crisis. “For the moment, we have to endure persecution. We have to endure our people being mistreated in courts, jails, being beaten [and] being bayoneted, for now. But in the long course of history, the face of Canada will be politically, socially, economically and spiritually changed back in favor of our people. And who knows how our great-grandchildren are going to rewrite that and that’s totally up to them. We will at least be able to leave this earth knowing that while we were here we did all that we could to set in motion for them a better future,” he said.16

Determining if Myers was right about future generations having a better future because of this incident won’t be known for many years. But by fighting to the bitter end for what they believed in did keep the sacred pines intact as they were. However, police and the Canadian government should have known better than to engage the Mohawks for so long. Yes, it is their job to make sure highways in the country are open and useable, but consistent critical errors by them caused the roads to stay closed for so long. Had Ouellette not sent in police in June to disband the peaceful demonstration in the pines, the entire crisis may not have happened. And it certainly wouldn’t have been as violent and drawn-out as it was.

What it comes down to though, is that the Oka Crisis was a black eye in the history of Canada’s relationship with aboriginal people, because not only was there violence in Oka, there was also violence in Chateauguay after the Kahnawake tribe banded together in support of the Kansatake tribe. This shows the relationships are strained across the country, even though Quebecers liked to congratulate themselves on their supposedly better record of relations with Aboriginal peoples than the rest of the country had.17 But it also leaves the aboriginal people confused, because the bitterness and mistrust generated by the Oka Crisis and its aftermath highlight the province’s difficulty in defining the place of aboriginal people within Quebec society.18

Of all the negotiation breakdowns during the Oka Crisis, almost all could be blamed on government actions. The government caused the crisis by invading with police, declined to negotiate when the Mohawks’ barrier was still intact, even though they knew the Kanesatake tribe wasn’t going to budge, declined to agree to the new three-point agreement for the longest time, declined to acknowledge an agreement Ciaccia proposed just because he wasn’t acting on the government’s behalf when he reached the agreement, and induced fear by bringing in the military. The only part of the negotiation process that could be blamed on the Mohawks was their nine-point resolution, which included parameters that had nothing to do with the Oka Crisis. Additionally, the government also presented a reasonable four-point agreement that the Kanesatake’s didn’t agree to. Throughout Canadian history, any time the government did not open negotiations immediately and effectively with natives during a dispute, violence ensued. This is because natives of the Iroquois Confederacy are governed by the Great Law of Peace, meaning they point to the document when the Canadian government infringes on their rights. And when the government continues to try to force the issue, disputes such as the one at Oka become full-blown crises.


Bibliography

Armstrong, Jane. “Mohawks relieved judge to mediate.” The Toronto Star, Aug. 9, 1990.

Contenta, Sandro. “Quebec rejects Oka peace plan struck by own minister.” The Toronto Star, Sept. 22, 1990.

Dickinson, John and Brian Young. A Short History of Quebec. Third Ed. Quebec City: McGill Queen’s University Press, 2003.

Doyle, Patrick. “Natives issue 9 demanss to end conflict.” The Toronto Star, July 20, 1990.

Harper, Tim. “Ottawa rejects Indian chiefs’ key demands to end ‘crisis.’” The Toronto Star, July 21, 1990.

Harper, Tim. “Ottawa won’t negotiate ‘with a gun at our head.’” The Toronto Star, July 20, 1990.

Miller, J.R. Skyscrapers Hide the Heavens: A History of Indian-White Relations in Canada. Third Ed. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000.

Obomsawin, Alanis. Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance. Directed by Obomsawin. Canada: National Film Board of Canada, 1993.

Picard, Andre. “Confrontation continues after corporal killed in raid on Quebec reserve.” The Globe and Mail, July 12, 1990.

York, Geoffrey. People of the Pines: The People and the Legacy of Oka. 1st Ed. Toronto, Little Brown Press, 1992.

[1] Obomsawin, Alanis. Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance. Directed by Obomsawin. Canada: National Film Board of Canada, 1993.

[2] Picard, Andre. “Confrontation continues after corporal killed in raid on Quebec reserve.” The Globe and Mail, July 12, 1990

[3] Obomsawin

[4] Picard

[5] Harper, Tim. “Ottawa won’t negotiate ‘with a gun at our head.’” The Toronto Star, July 20, 1990.

[6] Obomsawin

[7] Harper

[8] Doyle, Patrick. “Natives issue 9 demands to end conflict.” The Toronto Star, July 20, 1990.

[9] Harper, Tim. “Ottawa rejects Indian chiefs’ key demands to end ‘crisis.’” The Toronto Star, July 21, 1990.

[10] Ibid

[11] Obomsawin

[12] Miller, J.R. Skyscrapers Hide the Heavens: A History of Indian-White Relations in Canada. Third Ed. Toronto : University of Toronto Press, 2000. Pgs. 382-83.

[13] Armstrong, Jane. “Mohawks relieved judge to mediate.” The Toronto Star, Aug. 9, 1990.

[14] Contenta, Sandro. “Quebec rejects Oka peace plan struck by own minister.” The Toronto Star, Sept. 22, 1990.

[15] Obomsawin

[16] Obomsawin

[17] Miller, 384

[18] Dickinson, John and Brian Young. A Short History of Quebec. Third Ed. Quebec Cuty: McGill Queen’s University Press, 2003. Pg. 371

Which side do you feel was more responsible for the escalation of the Oka Crisis?

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