A Canadian History Lesson: The Oka Crisis

When learning history, it's common for modern events to be left out of the lesson. However, sometimes modern events root so far back in history it's just as important to learn about. This is the case with the Oka Crisis in 1990 (also known as the Battle for the Pines or the Kanehsatake Resistance). 

The Oka Crisis isn't taught in schools much; if it is, it's grazed over and spoken as a simple standoff between a Mohawk Indigenous group and the Canadian Armed Forces over a land dispute, when in reality it is so much more. 

It dates back to the late 1700's in which the French settlers began to develop the colony of New France. The Kanehsatake Pines is a particular piece of land that once spanned over 689km squared outside of what we know as Montreal. The Mohawks and the French argued over this land; however, the result left the Mohawk peoples with the majority of their land while the French claimed a small amount in order to use the land to convert Indigenous peoples to Roman Catholicism. 

Things changed when the British defeated the French in the Seven Years War and gained the entire territory of New France, including the Kanehsatake Pines. 

Timeline of the Kanehsatake Pines: 

1851: The Mohawk peoples petition Lord Elgin (British) to recognize the rights of their land (it failed)

1867: The Constitution Act recognizes the land as Interim Land which classifies it as not a reserve, and therefore isn't protected under the Indian Act

1868: Mohawk Chief once again petitioned that the land was rightfully theirs and launched a small attack in 1869 against the seminary on their lands 

1881: The Canadian Government relocated the Mohawk peoples of Kanehsatake to Northern Ontario with the promise of food for the entire winter (they were actually only given enough food for two weeks) 

1910: Mohawk peoples took the case to the Quebec Superior Court - they ruled against 

1912: Mohawk peoples took the case to the Court of King's Bench - they ruled against 

1939: The Seminary ignored the rights of the Mohawk peoples and sold large portions of the land (this meant the once 689 square km were reduced to less than 20 square km)

1959: The Village of Oka approved a nine-hole golf course on the land, which would be located next to a Mohawk cemetery (unmarked because of tradition) 

1970: The government argued that nothing could be done for the Mohawk peoples because they had no proof that they had held the land prior to British Sovereignty in the 1760's 

1977: The Mohawk peoples of Kanehsatake filed a land claim with the Federal Office of Native Claims which was rejected nine years later

1989: Proposed expansion of the golf course to nine holes with a 60-condominium development 

1990: Work began on the expansion of the golf course in March which led to a 78-day standoff 

The conflict that was seen as a land dispute over a golf course was actually hundreds of years in the making. It began with peaceful marches through the City of Oka, joined by many non-indigenous townspeople. When nothing happened, they blocked the road that developers were using to build. This is where the standoff began. 

The Mayor of Oka called on the Quebec Provincial Police to resolve the blockade. By July, over 100 armed police arrived and raided the barricade. The officers threw tear gas and shots were fired. One police officer died; however, it is still believed to have been an incident of friendly fire. Despite this attack on the barricade by the police, the Indigenous population of Kanehsatake had still not attacked anyone. They were there to protect what little was left of their land from developers. 

Indigenous peoples across Canada protested in solidarity with the peoples of Kanehsatake. The largest protest in solidarity occurred with the Kahnawake peoples, just south of Montreal. They blocked the Mercier bridge which went through their territory, used by thousands of people every day. This led to images of the crisis everywhere with headlines being in the news constantly. However, it was still unknown to the public what it was like for the Mohawk peoples behind the barricades. The people of Kanehsatake were denied access to food, medical care, as well as any legal or spiritual advisors. 

With negotiations making no movement the Premier of Quebec, Robert Bourassa, called in the Canadian Armed Forces. Over 4000 were dispatched to Kanehsatake and Kahnawake (keep in mind, at the same time the Gulf War was occurring and the Canadian Government only sent 2,700 Canadian Soldiers max overseas - but sent more to Quebec to "deal" with the Indigenous population). 

By August, the Kahnawake peoples had negotiated a deal with the Quebec Government and left their post on the Mercier Bridge. However, as soon as the bridge reopened, the negotiations with the Mohawk peoples of Kanehsatake in regard to the golf course came to a halt. The people were surrounded by the Canadian Army and they made the decision to surrender peacefully. However, this did not stop the QPP from detaining and arresting much of the Indigenous population. At this time, the Government of Quebec assured the people of Kanehsatake that a solution would occur. Nothing happened. 

Mohawk journalist Taionrén:hote Dan David who is based in Kanehsatake wrote: "Quebec had a chance to learn from the Oka Crisis, if only it had launched its own independent inquiry in a timely fashion. It was an opportunity to find a way to heal a relationship with Indigenous peoples poisoned by prejudice and hatred. But it never did." 

Events like this are extremely important to all of Canadian history because it is more than an event. It is hundreds of years of theft. These histories are often overlooked in schools. Indigenous people's history is rich and diverse; the pain they have endured from French and British settlers in Canada is not often talked about. It's time we begin teaching our children about the history of abuse the British, French, and more modern Canadian government had placed upon the different Indigenous populations of Canada. 

Sources: Youtube

                Colorado College 

For more info check out these links or consider taking a Canadian History or Religion course as an elective at uOttawa!