The Kanesatake Resistance

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Today, I am looking at the Kanesatake Resistance which began on July 11, 1990 and lasted for 78 days until Sept. 26. Over the course of those days, one person would die and the issues relating to the use of Indigenous land would be thrust to the forefront of the Canadian news cycle. While the collective name for this is often the Oka Crisis, I am going to be calling it the Kanesatake Resistance, as it was not a crisis  but a group of people standing up to protect their land.

I am not beginning there though. Instead, I am beginning centuries before those fateful days, when the Indigenous were first beginning to deal with Europeans encroaching on their lands.

The Mohawk people had first begun to settle in the Montreal area in the early-18th century, moving north from their homeland in the Hudson River Valley. As they moved into the new lands, they began to displace the Huron people, who had been weakened through prolonged conflict with the French. Soon after the Mohawk arrived in the land, the governor of New France would decree in 1717 that the lands encompassing The Pines and Pine Hill Cemetery, considered sacred ground by the Mohawk because many ancestors were buried there, be given to the Society of the Priests of Saint Sulpice. Two decades later, the original parcel was expanded on and it was also stated that the land had to be used for the benefit of the Indigenous who lived there, which also put the Indigenous of the area under the authority of the Sulpicians.

After New France was conquered by the British in 1760, the Mohawk began to pursue recognition of their land rights with British officials. They stated they were living under unfavourable rules that threatened their livelihoods. One request was that they no longer have to be subject to the rules of the Sulpicians, but their requests were ignored and the Sulpicians began selling the land to white settlers. For the next century, they would pursue the right to the land and would fail to gain recognition of their claims. They would petition Governor General Lord Elgin in 1851 to recognize their right to the land but this was denied In 1858, the Province of Canada extended the official title of the land to the Sulpicians.

In 1868, Joseph Onasakenrat, who was the chief of the Mohawk people in the area, wrote a letter to the seminary stating that nine square mils of the land had been reserved for the Mohawk in the trust of the seminary and that the seminary had ignored and neglected that trust by giving themselves sole ownership rights to it. With nothing being resolved, Onasakenrat would launch a small attack on the seminary one year later after giving the missionaries eight days to hand the land over. The stand-off was ended when local authorities came in to remove the Mohawk from the seminary area. The land was also classified by the federal government as “interim land base” and not a reserve, which would allow it to not be covered under the Indian Act.

In 1881, the federal government attempted to end the land dispute at Oka by resettling Mohawk families in northern Ontario, moving 35 of the 120 families in the late fall of that year. The families were promised food for the winter and seeds for the spring. Instead, they were given food for two weeks and forced to live in tents the entire winter. Several Indigenous would die from disease and hunger.

In 1910, the Mohawks took their case to the Quebec Superior Court, then to the Court of the King’s Bench in 1912 and then the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, only to have their case rules in favour of the Sulpicians each time.

The seminary, continuing to ignore the Mohawk rights to the land, sold off the territory in 1936 amid protests from the local Mohawk community. Two decades later, the Mohawk had seen their land reduced from 687 square kilometres to just six and the Mohawk ownership of the area known as The Pines continued to remain unresolved. Soon after this, in 1959, the town would approve a private nine-hold golf course on part of the disputed land. The project would run along the border of The Pines and the Mohawk burial ground, that was still in use and had been used for a century. The Mohawk attempted to file a suit to stop the development but this failed. The town then constructed a parking lot and golf greens next to the cemetery.

In 1975, the Mohawk filed a land claim asserting their Aboriginal title to their ancestral lands but this was rejected since they had not held the land from time immemorial and therefore the Aboriginal title was voided.

In 1977, the Kanehsata:ke band would file an official land claim with the Office of Native Claims over the land. The claim was accepted for filing and funds were allocated for research on the claim. Unfortunately, nine years later it was rejected on the basis it failed to meet legal criteria. Three years after that rejection, the Club de golf d’Oka announced it was expanding the golf course with another nine holes. The Mohawk people were not consulted at all over this expansion, with the rationale being that the Office of Native Claims had rejected the Mohawk claim to the land three years previous in 1986. The project would be postponed for one year after the Mohawk began to protest and the Quebec Minister of the Environment expressed his concern over the project. This led to negotiations pending a court ruling on the legality of the development. In 1990, the court would rule in favour of the developers and it was announced that the remainder of the pines would be cleared out so that the golf course could be expanded and 60 condos could be built. Many did not approve of this plan, including many residents of Oka, but the mayor’s office did not listen to any of the concerns.

Work would begin in March of 1990.

After centuries of being ignored, losing their land and now about to lose sacred ground for condos and more holes on a golf course, the Mohawk erected a barricade to block access to the area. In April, a court would rule that the barricade had to be dismantled but this would be ignored. A second court order would be issued on June 29, 1990 and that too would be ignored. Jean Ouellette, the mayor of Oka, demanded that there be compliance with the order but the Mohawk defending their land refused. John Ciaccia, the Minister of Native Affairs for the province, would state in a letter his support of the Mohawk. He would say, “these people have seen their lands disappear without having been consulted or compensated, and that, in my opinion is unfair and unjust, especially over a golf course.”

On July 11, Mayor Ouellette would ask that the Quebec provincial police force be called in to deal with the Mohawk protest, stating there was criminal activity at the barricade. At the same time, the Mohawk Warrior Society had amassed at barricade but in accordance with the Constitution of the Iroquois Confederacy, asked the women of the band who were considered caretakers of the land, whether or not the arsenal they had amassed should remain at the site.

Things would escalate heavily on July 11 when the RCMP Emergency Response Team deployed tear gas canisters and concussion grenades at the barricade to force the 30 amassed Mohawk to disperse. Gunfire erupted from both sides and Corporal Marcel Lemay would be killed. An inquest would find that the bullet that struck and killed him had hit him in the left side below the armpit in an area not covered by the bulletproof vest. Prior to this, there were claims the Mohawk had deliberately shot him in the face and it is not actually known which side actually killed him with the bullet. After 15 minutes, the police fell back, leaving six cruisers and a bulldozer. The 30 armed Mohawk would soon be joined by 70 other Mohawks. That number would eventually increase to 600, with the Mohawk seizing four police cars, and a front-end loader they used to crush the cars and form a barricade across the main highway.

The Mohawk would choose Ellen Gabriel would be chosen by the Kaneshsata-ke Nation as the official spokesperson for the resistance.

With news spreading about what had happened at the blockade, and with a network of communication set up between Mohawk villages, the local Mohawks were joined by Indigenous people from across Canada and the United States. The Mohawk were still told to dismantle the blockade and they continued to refuse. The provincial police force would erect its own blockades on Highway 344 to restrict access to Oka and the Kahnawake Mohawks would erect a blockade over the Mercier Bridge in solidarity with the Oka Mohawks. This blockade sealed off a major access point between the Island of Montreal and the southern suburbs of the city. This blockade would result in violent confrontations between the Mohawk and commuters in Montreal. Eventually, the Mercier Bridge and Routes 132, 138 and 207 were all blocked, causing massive traffic disruptions in Montreal.

The blocking of these routes would result in residents of Chateauguay burning an effigy of a Mohawk warrior while chanting “savages”. One radio host increased tensions by claiming Mohawks couldn’t even speak French. In another incident, an estimated crowd of 10,000 people marched through Chateuguay demanding the blockade on the bridge be removed.

That being said, many people also sympathized with the Mohawks. Across Canada, Indigenous people organized their own protests and blockades. In British Columbia, roads and railways were blocked, brining transcontinental traffic to a standstill.

On Aug. 8, Premier Robert Bourassa would hold a press conference and announce that he was requesting federal military support. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was reluctant to have the Canadian forces involved but under the National Defence Act, the Solicitor General of Quebec had the right to get armed forces to maintain law and order.

On Aug. 14, the RCMP would take over control of the situation from the provincial police force but were prohibited from using force. Quebec-based troops were then at the blockades, supporting provincial authorities.

On Aug. 20, Operation Salon began when the Royal 22nd Regiment took over three barricades and arrived at the final barricade leading to the disputed area. The troops then reduced the No Man’s Land implemented by the provincial police from 1.5 kilometres to five metres. Troops were then deployed at staging areas around Montreal, and aircraft flew photo mission over Mohawk territory to gather intelligence. In all, 4,000 troops were deployed and the operation was so extensive that it used up the national stockpile of barbed wire. To put this deployment in perspective, during the Persian Gulf War, 2,700 Canadian troops were deployed at its peak.

Despite this escalation in the display of force by troops and the increased Mohawk presence, no shots were exchanged.

On Aug. 29, the Mohawks that had barricaded Mercier Bridge negotiated an end to their blockade, which would lead to the eventual ending of the original blockade at Oka. Once the barricade at Mercier Bridge had ended, the Quebec government refused to enter into any further negotiations relating to the original issue over the Oka golf course. Many Mohawks at Oka felt that they had lost their best bargaining chip with the blockade on Mercier Bridge ending. While that blockade had ended, it took eight days for the barricades to be dismantled.

On Sept. 18, provincial police officers and soldiers landed at Tekakwitha Island, near to where the blockade was happening and the community of Kahnawake. Hundreds of Mohawk met the troops at the bridge into the reserve and began to throw rocks. The soldiers responded with tear gas, warning shots and hitting Mohawk with rifle butts. After seven hours, the soldiers were airlifted out. By the end of the altercation, 22 soldiers were injured and 75 Mohawk were injured, including children and the elderly.

On Sept. 24, the House of Commons resumed operations after a summer break, which the Mohawk were holding out for, and Prime Minister Mulroney promised to meet some of the demands of the Mohawk.

On Sept. 25, a man walked around the perimeter of the blockade area with a stick, setting off flares that had been installed by the Canadian Forces to alert them to anyone fleeing the area. The soldiers would then turn a water hose on the man but it was unable to disperse the crowd around him. The crowd then began throwing water balloons at the soldiers.

On Sept. 26, the barricade would end when 30 men, 16 women and six children suddenly left the centre they had been staying in and arrived at army command. The army was surprised by the sudden appearance of the individuals and in the confusion one soldier stabbed Waneek Horn-Miller in the chest with a bayonet. She had been carrying her four year old sister. The incident would become front page news around the country. The barricade would be dismantled and the Mohawk would also burn some of their guns and burn tobacco in a ceremony before leaving.

Following the end of the blockade, several Indigenous Mohawk would be charged including Ronaldo Casalpro, who was beaten by officers after his arrest. Three of the officers would be suspended without pay but the case took so long the ruling came after they had already left the force. Two others were suspended but not charged. Casalpro, who also went by Ronald Cross during the blockade, would spend six years in prison for assault and weapon charges before dying of a heart attack in 1999. Tracy Cross, the brother of Ronaldo, would be the best man at the wedding of Francine Lemay, the sister of Corporal Lemay who had died during the blockade. Francine had reached out to Cross after reading At The Woods’ Edge, a history of the region, and had reconciled with the Mohawk community.

Another four Mohawk warriors would be charged with crimes including assault and theft, but none would serve time in jail.

Waneek Horn-Miller, the woman stabbed by a soldier at the end of the Resistance would become co-captain of Canada’s first Olympic women’s water polo team and win a gold medal at the 1999 Pan American Games. Today, she is an activist for Indigenous rights and a prominent role model and mentor to Indigenous children. In 2015, the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity named her one of the country’s most influential women in sport. After the Resistance, she would carry the flame in the 1991 Sacred Run Canada, and then again in the Sacred Run North American in 1992. In 2017, she became the director of community engagement for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

Then there is that incredibly famous photo of two men facing each other, one a soldier and one an Indigenous warrior. Called Face to Face, it features Canadian Private Patrick Cloutier and Anishinaabe warrior Brad Larocque staring at each other on Sept. 1, 1990. It has become one of the most famous pictures in Canadian history, with some saying it is one of the top five Canadian photos ever taken. Larocque had been studying at the University of Saskatchewan but went to the blockade in the summer to support the Mohawk people. His nickname was Freddy Krueger but the reporters at the blockade said he was a very soft-spoken man. After the conflict, he would remain in Montreal for some time before moving back to Saskatchewan. Patrick Cloutier was a 19-year-old private in the Canadian Forces at the time and after the photo was published many who opposed the blockade called him a national hero, with the Globe and Mail going so far as to say he was similar to the man who stared down a Red Army tank in Tiananmen Square. After the photo was taken, Cloutier was promoted to master corporal. His life would hit some rough patches the photo unfortunately. In 1992 he was demoted to private and had to serve 45 days in an Edmonton prison for cocaine use. He would serve in the Canadian military during the war in Bosnia and would see many of his fellow soldiers commit suicide upon his return. He would be discharged in 1993 after being found guilty of impaired driving and causing bodily harm. In 1995, he would appear in a softcore porno film that parodied the events that happened at Oka. Today, he works for the Canadian Coast Guard. Years after the resistance, he would state that he never supported the building of the golf course, saying “I was for the Indians. I spent a lot of time in Nunavut and with First Nations, they’re my favourite people.” The military used the image of the two men staring at each other as a recruitment tool, and Indigenous activists use it as a photograph to symbolize strength and resistance.

As for the golf course expansion, it never happened. The land was purchased by the federal government for $5.3 million. In 2001, the Kanesatake Interim Land Base Governance Act would confirm the land in question was to be reserved for the Mohawk of the area. It did not designate the land as a reserve though and there has been no transfer of the land to the Mohawk people.

One elder, Walter David, would say in 2020 that the Mohawk have continued to lose land to developers in the area, who cut down trees and start housing projects on disputed territory. A local developer did offer to donate 60 hectares of land to the Kanesatake as an ecological gift and was prepared to sell an additional 150 hectares that he owned in Oka to the federal government to transfer to the Mohawk community. The issue would spark new tensions with Oka’s mayor, Pascal Quevillion, stating that such a land transfer would encircle Oka by the Kanesatake, which would lead to declining property values, illegal garbage dumping and an expansion of cannabis and cigarette merchants. The mayor would later apologize for the comments.

A national First Nations Policing Policy would be developed to prevent future incidents and help to bring Indigenous issues to the forefront in Canada. Mayor Ouellette would be re-elected as mayor of Oka in 1991 by acclamation and he would say that his responsibilities as mayor required him to act as he had. On Aug. 26, 1991, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples was established by Prime Minister Mulroney with the goal of investigating questions about Indian Status and other issues that the resistance brought to the forefront. In 1996, the report would be released and it would state that a complete restructuring of the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples needed to be conducted in Canada. It proposed a new Royal Proclamation that would require the government to commit to a new set of ethical principles respecting the relationship between the Indigenous and the state. This new relationship would have to acknowledge and respect Indigenous cultures, values and the historic origins of Indigenous nationhood and inherit right to Indigenous self-determination. Unfortunately, most of the recommendations would not be implemented by the federal government.

While the recommendations would mostly not be implemented, the resistance did bring about change in many ways. It would contribute to a new agreement between the Indigenous people and governments. It would also result in the federal and provincial governments developing greater awareness of the rights of Indigenous land and the need to consult Indigenous when it came to development. The Kanesatake Resistance would also inspire Indigenous across Canada to take action in their own ways, including making demands for an inquiry into the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada, the Idle No More and serving as a general awakening to Indigenous movements not only in Canada but across the world.

Information comes from Canadian Encyclopedia, CBC, Wikipedia,  Global News, Valour Canada,

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