Oka Crisis: Background
There was a long history behind the crisis at Oka; since the 18th century the Mohawk had been pressing the government to recognize their right to land in the area, but their requests had been largely ignored. In 1961, a nine-hole golf course was built on land that had been claimed by the Mohawk of the Kanesatake reserve as their Commons (known as the Pines); despite protests that the land included a burial ground, the Mohawk claim was rejected, and the golf course was built. In 1989, the mayor of Oka, Jean Ouellette, announced that the golf course would be expanded to 18 holes. He also authorized the construction of 60 luxury condominiums in the Pines. Despite protests by the Mohawk of Kanesatake, and concerns expressed by the Québec Minister of the Environment and Minister of Native Affairs, construction was scheduled to begin.
Blockade and Police Raid
In order to halt further development of the Pines, a group of militants from the Kanesatake reserve, known as the Mohawk Warriors, constructed a barricade, blocking access to the area. Mohawks from two other reserves — Kahnawake and Akwesasne — joined the protest, helping man the barricades. After two injunctions to remove the roadblock were ignored, the mayor of Oka asked the provincial police force, the Sûreté du Québec (SQ), to intervene. On the morning of 11 July 1990, the SQ attacked the barricade, using tear gas and concussion grenades to create confusion (although the gas blew back towards the police). During the brief gunfight that followed, SQ Corporal Marcel Lemay was killed and the SQ retreated. It was unclear who fired the first shot or who killed Lemay.
Escalation of the Oka Crisis
Resistance continued, with Indigenous supporters from across the country joining the Mohawk Warriors at the barricades. The SQ constructed their own blockades on roads leading to Oka and the Kanesatake reserve. Mohawk from the nearby Kahnawake reserve blockaded the Mercier Bridge in support, effectively cutting off access between Montreal’s southern suburbs and the Island of Montreal. The resulting chaos angered local residents, and relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in the area worsened. The SQ had to deal not only with the barricades, but also with frustrated and hostile civilians who often blamed them for the situation. At the same time, the demands of the protesters expanded to eventually include full sovereignty.
As it became increasingly clear that the SQ could not resolve the crisis, the RCMP was brought in to assist them in mid-August. At the same time, Québec Premier Robert Bourassa requested the help of the Canadian armed forces and 2,500 regular and reserve troops were put on standby. On 20 August, about 800 members of the Royal 22e Regiment (the “Van Doos”) took over from the SQ at the Kahnawake and Kanesatake barricades, assuming a position only metres from the warriors.
The Oka Crisis Ends
Facing increasing numbers of soldiers at the Pines and elsewhere in the Montreal area, as well as reconnaissance aircraft above, the protesters were under heavy pressure. By 29 August, negotiations had put an end to the blockade of the Mercier Bridge.
However, Mohawk resistance continued, with a number of Warriors as well as some women and children taking refuge in a residential treatment centre for drugs and alcohol in Kanesatake. The protest ended on 26 September 1990. That day, CBC journalist Neil Macdonald reported from the scene that 28 Warriors, 16 women and six children suddenly left the centre, surprising the army command, which had expected an orderly surrender. Several Warriors were detained by the military, and a number were later charged by the SQ. Five were convicted of crimes including assault and theft, although only one served time in jail.
During the confusion, 14-year-old Waneek Horn-Miller was stabbed in the chest by a soldier’s bayonet. She had been carrying her four-year-old sister, Kaniehtiio, to safety after weeks behind the barriers while their mother, Kahn-Tineta Horn, served as a negotiator. The incident became front-page news with the photograph of Waneek published in newspapers across the country.
Public Response to the Oka Crisis
There was substantial media coverage of the Oka Crisis across the nation, and public opinion varied widely. Many Quebeckers, especially those living in the immediate area, were angered by the blockades. In one incident, local residents stoned about 75 cars — containing mostly women, children, and the elderly — as they tried to leave the Kahnawake reserve (see Alanis Obomsawin's film Rocks at Whiskey Trench).
However, others sympathized with the protesters, including John Ciaccia, the Québec Minister of Native Affairs at the time. Protests were held across the country in support of the Mohawk, with blockades in British Columbia and northern Ontario.
During the crisis, the federal government agreed to purchase the Pines in order to prevent further development. The golf course expansion and condominium construction were cancelled. After the crisis had ended, the government purchased a number of additional plots of land for Kanesatake. In 2001, the Kanesatake Interim Land Base Governance Act confirmed that the land was to be reserved for the Kanesatake Mohawk. However, it did not establish the land as a reserve, and there has been no organized transfer of the land.
Investigations held after the crisis revealed several problems in the SQ’s handling of the situation, including command failures and prejudice among SQ members. It has never been discovered who fired the shot that killed Corporal Marcel Lemay.
The Oka Crisis played an important role in the establishment of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. This in turn contributed to new agreements between governments and Indigenous peoples, including the Paix des Braves (Peace of the Braves) between the Grand Council of the Crees and the Quebec government. Since Oka, federal and provincial governments have developed greater awareness of the territorial rights of First Nations and the need to consult Indigenous peoples when considering development projects. Overall, the crisis made more Canadians aware of Indigenous rights and land claims; it also illustrated the potential for future conflict if such claims were not resolved in a timely, transparent and just manner.
The Oka Crisis, also known as the Mohawk Resistance, inspired Indigenous peoples across Canada to take action. For example, Oka has been linked to the Idle No More movement, as well as demands for an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada. Some experts suggest that the Oka Crisis had an impact outside Canada as well. According to University of Ottawa professor Marcelo Saavedra-Vargas, Oka was an “awakening” that has inspired indigenous movements elsewhere, including Bolivia.