Almost 20 years ago, the serene hiking paths of Oka, just northwest of Montreal, were interrupted by a 78-day armed standoff between Mohawk warriors and a tag team of police and soldiers. The crisis was triggered when the town of Oka gave the green light to developers to expand a golf course onto pineland and burial grounds the Mohawk community of Kanesatake had been trying to reclaim for years. Clifton Nicholas was 17 when the Oka Crisis galvanized his community and marked a turning point in native struggles for self-determination in Canada.
“It injected some much needed courage to stand up and fight,” says Nicholas. “I was scared and proud the whole summer. Proud that my people were united standing up for a common cause but frightened that the police might come in and kill somebody.”
The crisis began with a protest on the site of the golf course then when the City refused to negotiate, the protesters erected a barricade in the street. On July 11, the Sureté du Québec (SQ) surrounded the Mohawk ranks and a firefight ensued that left one police officer dead. The SQ fired tear gas but were forced to retreat as the wind blew the gas back over their line. Nicholas says the hours following the gun battle were the most ominous.
“In my mind, particularly after it came to light that a police officer had been killed, I was like, ‘Oh Man, now there going to come up here and slaughter us.’ There was so much fear after that point. At no time was there more than forty men that were armed, really.”
Once news of the standoff took wind, supporters attempted to join the protesters. “There were Natives from everywhere,” Nicholas recollects. “We even had a Buddhist monk from Japan who came and held a vigil in the park. Don’t ask me how the hell he got over those barricades—he just kind of waltzed right in.”
Native communities across the country staged solidarity actions, the most famous of which was the blockading of the Mercier Bridge by the Mohawk of Kahnawake. Suddenly the standoff was having an impact on non-Native life, as South Short commuters saw their drive into the city jump from 20 minutes to three hours. Anti-Native protests and riots, often with an openly racist character, erupted in Châteauguay and Lasalle. At the same time, Nicholas points out, demos in Montreal and other Canadian cities showed support for the community.
“A lot of non-Natives were scared to see that happen in their back yard. Many non-Native people became more sensitive to what was happening, although there were non-Natives who became more galvanized in that anti-Native sentiment.”
Things escalated in August when 2500 troops were brought in to surround the Mohawk encampment. Finally in September the warriors laid down their weapons. The golf course expansion was cancelled, but ownership of the land remains unsettled. Nicholas says relations with the government haven’t improved since then.
“There’s been an ongoing need for the federal government to punish Kanesatake for what happened because we embarrassed them on a global scale. When you have the European parliament coming down and sending observers: that was quite an embarrassment for them.”
Twenty years later, Kanesatake remains a divided community, plagued with problems of addiction and political division. But Nicholas thinks Oka played a constructive role in the community.
“There’s a lot of negative things happening as far as drug use and alcoholism is concerned,” he says. “But one positive thing is that people have something in common as far as that struggle is concerned. There’s a lot of pride and it helps people resist things that are happening to our community as far as lands and rights are concerned.”
Clifton Nicholas speaks as part of 20 Years Since Oka: Kanienkehaka Communities in Resistance this Wednesday May 12 at 7 p.m. at the de Sève Cinema (1400 Maisonneuve West). For details see nooneisillegal-montreal.blogspot.com.
Montreal Mirror 6 May 2010 (this is the unedited text)