Remembering Oka: Canadian forces vs. Mohawks over a golf course and a burial ground
Twenty-nine years ago on July 11, 1990, Canadian officials in Oka, Quebec, authorized the expansion of a private golf course which would have been built on top of a Mohawk burial ground. The Mohawk people of Kahnawake immediately opposed the effort and barricaded bridges leading in and out of the territory.
The initial barricades of bridges in the are by the Mohawk people initiated a militarized response by the Canadian government. The efforts of both the Mohawk Nations and the Canadian government’s forces resulted in a 78-day standoff that resulted in two fatalities and international news coverage.
Thousands of Native people from across the United States and Canada watcher that coverage and traveled to Oka. Many were turned away from entering the community of Kahnawake. Similar standoffs and close communications took place in the nearby Mohawk communities of Kanehsatake and Akwesasne.
Canadian actress Kaniehtiio Horn posts to Twitter
Tensions rose between the Oka city Mayor Jean Ouelette and the Mohawk people, who fought the court ordered approval of clearing of trees to make way for the golf course. Quebec’s Minister of Native Affairs John Ciaccia wrote a letter of support for the Mohawk people stating, "these people have seen their lands disappear without having been consulted or compensated, and that, in my opinion, is unfair and unjust, especially over a golf course."
The Oka conflict escalated when Mayor Ouelette ordered the Province of Quebec’s militarized forces, the Sûreté du Québec, or SQ Forces, to intervene. Provincial forces fired tear gas and concussion grenades. A firefight ensued until the provincial force withdrew, abandoning police cruise vehicles and a bulldozer. The Mohawks used this time to build stronger barricades. During the firefight, a 31-year-old corporal, Marcel Lemay, was killed. To this day there are competing stories about who shot the officer.
Non-Native residents were annoyed by the traffic congestion and blocked bridges. Some responded by burning effigies of Mohawk warriors while chanting ‘sauvauge” (savage) and when residents of Kahnawake fled the area in their vehicles they were pummelled by rocks from angry residents. One Mohawk man was hit in the chest with a large boulder thrown into a vehicle and suffered a heart attack.
Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance
Mohawk people later revolted the presence of the provincial force and fought back, injuring ten constables.
On August 14, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police joined the standoff and General John de Chastelain deployed several thousand Canadian mechanized troops in support of the effort.
Eventually, the Mohawks made an agreement to open the barricaded Mercier Bridge and burned tobacco and their guns.
Many times during the standoff, tensions rose to a near-deadly result, Mohawk warriors yelled at the incoming Canadian forces but were calmed by spiritual leaders and women. Other times, Canadian forces stormed the longhouses and tore the shirt off of a young Mohawk woman. Soldiers denied food shipments into Kahnawake on several occasions and had reportedly bayonetted several items on their way to being delivered to the community.
Many Mohawk people were charged with crimes ranging from misdemeanors to felony charges. One Mohawk man, in particular, Ronald “Lasagna” Cross was severely beaten by provincial officers who were suspended but never charged. Cross served a six-year sentence on assault and weapons charges.
The golf course that had been approved was never built and the Oka crisis today remains as one of the most notable conflicts between Canadian Armed Forces and Native people.
Many documentaries and books have been written about the Oka crisis to include one of the most known Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance. Additionally, one of the most powerful images came from the conflict in which a Mohawk man stands face to face with a young provincial soldier.
Recent news - Quebec developer offering to return 60 hectares of the forest to Mohawks
According to the CBC's Jessica Deer, a Quebec developer Grégoire Gollin says that he is committed to transfer a large portion of the land that was disputed during the Oka crisis through a federal ecological gifts program.
"As a citizen, I don't have to wait for the government to do my contribution to reconciliation," he said in Deer's article.
"My concrete gesture is to initiate giving back to the Kanesatake this piece of forest I own and they value a lot in their heart because it has been planted by their ancestors."