It’s a tale as old as Canada itself: contested First Nations land rights, a lucrative land development, escalating tensions leading to excessive force and damaged relations. For those who know of the Oka Crisis of 1990, history seems to be repeating itself with the latest conflict over the development of a gas pipeline running through Wet’suwet’en territory in British Columbia. The prevailing strategy for dealing with First Nations land rights does not appear to have changed substantially in the last 30 years, leaving many wondering what it will take for the Canadian government to finally learn from its dismal record of protecting First Nations’ rights and commit to the path of reconciliation.
Oka is a small village less than an hour outside of Montreal. Its original name is Kanehsatà:ke, a name given to it by the Kanien’kehà:ka (or Mohawk) who are the traditional custodians of the land. In 1717, the Seminary of St-Sulpice mission in Montreal was told to relocate, and French King Louis XV granted them the land encompassing Kanehsatà:ke. The understanding was that the Sulpicians would hold the land in trust for its First Nations inhabitants, but they reneged on this commitment and claimed sole ownership rights. With these newfound rights the Sulpicians began clearing land and selling off plots to European settlers, marking the beginning of a new era.
Even though they were not legally recognized as the owners of the land, the Mohawk continued to build their community around Kanehsatà:ke. An 1881 government initiative to force indigenous inhabitants to leave was largely unsuccessful, and five years later the Mohawk would create the land of “the Pines” that would become the center of the Oka Crisis over a century later. This land consisted of a mountain area where 70,000 to 80,000 pine trees were planted by Mohawk with the help of non-native settlers, after sand avalanches caused by a lack of stabilizing tree roots in the ground threatened the area. Over time the Pines became the home of a Mohawk burial ground, which only added to the controversy when the town decided to build a golf course on the land without the consent of the Mohawk. While the initial golf course development was successfully completed, a critical line was crossed with the announcement of plans to expand the golf course into the cemetery.
In March of 1990, the Mohawk erected a blockade to prevent the arrival of bulldozers scheduled to break ground on the golf course expansion. The municipality was granted an injunction ordering the dismantling of the barricade, but instead of giving up, the Mohawk strengthened their barricade and warriors were seen patrolling the pines. After a second injunction was served in late June, members from the neighbouring Mohawk communities of Kahnawà:ke and Akwesasne arrived to help defend the land and set up a protest camp. By July, the mayor of Oka had decided that the impasse had gone on for long enough and called for the Sûreté du Québec, Quebec’s provincial police, to come in and enforce the injunction. An early morning raid staged with 100 police officers equipped with tear gas, concussion grenades, and assault rifles went terribly wrong when shooting broke out between the two groups, leading to the death of Corporal Marcel Lemay of the SQ. The police retreated, abandoning their cruisers and a bulldozer, and the prevailing Mohawk warriors used these to barricade the highway running through Kanehsatà:ke. The Mohawk warriors of Kahnawà:ke constructed a blockade in solidarity on the Honoré Mercier Bridge, one of the four main bridges connecting the metropolitan island of Montreal to the residential hubs of the south shore. Other First Nations communities in Canada followed suit, with people in places as far as British Columbia blockading roads and railways.
The blockading of the Honoré Mercier Bridge proved to be a tipping point for the many Canadians who until that point had merely been onlookers to the tensions brewing in Kanehsatà:ke. The disruption this action caused to thousands of peoples’ daily commutes prompted an extremely racist backlash, with the residents of neighbouring Chateauguay attacking Mohawks driving through and lighting a Mohawk effigy on fire. Supplies to the entirety of Kanehsatà:ke were quickly cut off, even though there were still many civilians and children in the community. Already with one police officer dead and now facing daily outbreaks of violence, Premier of Quebec Robert Bourassa called on the federal government to intervene and send in the Canadian Armed Forces.
On August 20th, the Canadian Armed Forces were deployed, with 4,000 soldiers stationed in the area around Kanehsatà:ke and Kahnawà:ke. The armed forces successfully negotiated the removal of the blockade on the Honoré Mercier Bridge, but were not as successful on the Kanehsatà:ke front. Authorities instructed the citizens of Oka to evacuate, and fearing for their lives many of the elders, women, and children of Kanehsatà:ke fled by car into Montreal. Along the way they were greeted by angry rock-throwing mobs, resulting in several people being injured. In the end, the two sides reached a deal whereby the blockades would be taken down in return for the permanent cancellation of the golf course expansion. With the armed forces not expecting the sudden exodus from the surrender of the final remaining protestors, the closing act of the crisis quickly descended into chaos. During the ensuing altercation, Waneek Horn Miller, a 14 year old Mohawk resident of Kanehsatà:ke, was accidentally bayoneted in the chest. Luckily she survived, but Waneek was just one of the many civilians who came to harm during this conflict.
Finally after 78 days, the crisis came to an end, leaving a provincial police officer dead and hundreds of Mohawk civilians injured. The events led to the creation of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, tasked with deepening consultation and cooperation between First Nations and governments across Canada. Now, 30 years later, how close are Canadians to actually achieving reconciliation with the First Nations who have been systematically abused for centuries? Despite the moratorium on further development in the Pines, the ownership of the Mohawk over the land has still not been recognized and is still legally held by developers and local government. This “on-going collusion of land fraud” has been formally decried and protested by First Nations activists, but so far the government has not moved to give the land back to its rightful owners. One of the Oka developers recently offered to “gift” some of the land back to the people of Kanehsatà:ke, a move that has been criticized for the tax benefits that the developer would still be extracting from land that does not belong to him. More importantly, the land would still not be directly held by the Mohawk but by the federal government, who would have the final say in its administration.
The history of the Oka Crisis and its impact is especially salient when taken into consideration with the Wet’suwet’en protests that began in late 2018. This time the conflict was centered around the construction of a natural gas pipeline planned to pass through traditional Wet’suwet’en territory in the province of British Columbia. Once again blockades were erected across Canada, beginning with roads leading to the actual site of development and expanding to encompass railway lines across Canada. The peaceful protest, similar to the blockading of the Honoré Mercier Bridge in 1990, was successful in increasing the visibility of the dispute and putting pressure on the federal government to come up with a resolution.
However, the economic disruption this entailed made the movement unpopular with many Canadians, and there has been an increase in hate speech and violent threats made against First Nations peoples. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) was dispatched to enforce a court injunction and remove a blockade in Wet’suwet’en territory, resulting in the arrest of 14 protestors. The publication of a report alleging the RCMP was instructed to use lethal force in the enforcement of the injunction, a claim that has not been verified or confirmed by the RCMP or reputable news media sources in Canada but seems to be supported by video footage of RCMP officers armed with rifles circling a blockade outpost, further aggravated the situation. The arrests and accusations of excessive force sparked significant controversy and a new wave of protests across Canada. Thankfully there have yet to be any fatal incidents recorded in this latest episode of land disputes between First Nations and the Canadian government, but there is no clear resolution in sight.
The Oka Crisis taught First Nations communities across Canada that the fastest way to make Canadians pay attention to their issues and come to the negotiating table was to disrupt their daily lives. Blockades were the perfect tool to accomplish this goal peacefully, but escalation motivated in part by a lingering racist colonial history led to violence and a breakdown in negotiations. Clearly, the Canadian government continues to fail to live up to its obligations to protect the rights of First Nations and correct historical injustices that have scarred indigenous communities for generations. “Reconciliation” becomes nothing more than window-dressing, a public relations motto that deflects from the costly issue of land ownership and reparations. Raising awareness of these injustices through the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and more recently the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls is all well and good, but what continues to be lacking are concrete actions seeking to rectify these wrongs. The government seems as eager as ever to call in armed forces instead of meeting at the negotiating table, and without a clear framework for land repatriation, reconciliation is a pipe dream destined to be enmired in pipeline development nightmares.
While the repatriation of all unceded land, which includes the major metropolis of Montreal, might not be the most feasible solution, that does not mean that partial repatriation and other compensatory measures should not be pursued. At the very least the government should ensure the return of land that has yet to be developed, like the Pines, to the Mohawk, and begin making payments towards the purchase of land that they are not willing to repatriate. This would ensure a steady flow of income for First Nations communities that can be used to provide community support services, cultural educational programs, and dependable infrastructure like electricity and potable water, essential resources which the Canadian government has been negligent in providing. Canada sadly cannot return to the past and fix its mistakes, but what the government can do is learn from history and leave a legacy future generations will be proud to uphold. The alternative is facing a major crisis every few decades and apologizing afterwards, a pattern that will take meaningful change to break.