I assume you are familiar with the background and chronology of what is today known as “The Oka Crisis.” A list of suggested materials for further study is provided after this essay. In my estimation, all of them are worthy of your time. My purpose in this short piece is not to rehearse the already amply-stated; it is instead to provide you some remarks concerning the events of 1990 which I am confident you have not encountered in Canada’s media.
In August 1990 I moved from Niagara to Kingston. Four days earlier, the Canadian Army had occupied the community. I contemplated a show of support for Kanesatake — now a half-day’s drive away — but quickly came to the conclusion there was nothing I could do that wasn’t useless and indeed reckless. The main problem, it seemed to me, was that there were too many outsiders in Kanesatake and Kahnawake already.
Most Canadians misapprehend the Kanesatake conflict. The media coverage is to a degree responsible, but it should also be allowed that historical conflicts are by their nature highly complex. Consider the bloody dissolution of Yugoslavia, which was near unintelligible to most Westerners. Slobodan Milošević instigated Serbian nationalist attacks of Albanians in the 1990s by invoking the 1389 Battle of Kosovo with the Ottomans. In this one sentence there is a lot of history (some of it arguably bogus) and a lot of ethnic division at work. In similar fashion, the proposed 1990 expansion of an Oka golf course invoked a land dispute going back to the early eighteenth century, unresolved to this day. Those who see the Oka Crisis as a dispute over a golf course see a flat rendering of a three-dimensional world.
Here is what most Canadians don’t know about the Oka Crisis, and likely never will. Very few community members in Kanesatake or Kahnawake wanted the barricades. By “community members” I mean just that: the Kanien’keha:ka [Mohawk] men, women, and children who live in these two communities, and in nearby Oka. The people were caught between, on the one side, Canadian politicians such as the Mayor of Oka, Jean Ouellette, and on the other hand, the so-called “Mohawk Warriors.” Municipal and provincial politicians immediately resorted to force, deploying first the Sûreté du Québec and thereafter the army. (Federal politicians, for instance the spineless Minister of Indian Affairs, Tom Siddon, mostly just twiddled thumbs and waited for the mess to go away.) This militancy suited the Warriors just fine, since their interest is not in land settlements or Mohawk sovereignty or even in the well-being of the community itself, but in the operation of a petty third-world crime empire. The Warriors had come to Oka from across the United States and Canada to pursue a plan, and the Canadian politicians — whose collective failure at Oka has yet to receive an adequate accounting — were playing right into it.
The plan of these Warrior outsiders was to provoke Canada to armed battle at Oka, on the assumption Canada would be surprised by the fierceness of the Warriors. First a fight, then negotiations cloaked in the Haudenosaunee, the Kaswentha (Two Row Wampum — the Nation-to-Nation treaty with Canada) and the ongoing land claims. The Warriors since the 70s have been adept at co-opting both the good name and legitimacy of the Haudenosaunee, or “Iroquois Confederacy,” but have no real interest in the struggles. The goal has always been to place Mohawk territories outside of Canada’s legal jurisdiction, thereby giving the Warriors a law-free zone to do what they do best: make money from drugs, cigarettes, weapons, and gambling. To this end the people of Kanesatake were put before Canada’s army, by thugs who play the game of Haudenosaunee dress-up.
The disgusting and sad fact of the Oka Crisis is that this strategy worked. The Warriors are much stronger today as a result of what happened in Oka. Their crime empire thrives. Canada treads more lightly, a fact evident in the Caledonia occupation. Many indigenous people in Canada, as well as Canadians, regard the Warriors as a legitimate voice of the Haudenosaunee. I have often seen, to my sorrow, Warrior flags flown by Aboriginal people at gatherings. If only they knew. (Some do, and still approve, but that’s another matter.) Meanwhile none of the community’s land claims has been addressed. The mess persists, and the people tossed unwillingly into the Warriors’ filthy little 1990 gambit today suffer post-traumatic stress disorder. The Warriors are a cancer, as threatening to the aspirations of the Haudenosaunee as any Canadian soldier or Indian-hating politician.
Those who say nothing has changed are wrong. Matters have gotten worse. The Oka Crisis has further divided and wounded the Haudenosaunee. The Warriors attract our angry and hopeless youth, and submit the communities to further harms. Their hypocrisies turn the public against us. They misrepresent themselves as spokespersons of the Confederacy, which they are not, and make a mockery of our struggles and aspirations. And always — always — the needs and concerns of the people are pushed aside so the bullies can better work the camera. On a silly CBC Radio program called ReVision Quest, broadcast last night, comedian and host Darrell Dennis at least got one thing right: “it’s kind of ironic,” he said, “twenty years later, the lasting impact of the biggest armed confrontation between Aboriginals and Canada in recent history has been to push Aboriginals to buy into the Canadian system.” This too is a legacy of the bogus, corrosive, and repellent work of the Warriors.
For Further Study
Alanis Obomsawin, Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance.
Christine Welsh, Keepers of the Fire.
Geoffrey York, People of the Pines.
John Ciaccia, The Oka Crisis: A Mirror of the Soul.