Beyond the Oka crisis
300 years of resistance
August 20, 2021
Today, we are going back to 1990, when, for 78 days, my 19-year-old self struggled to reconcile images of the increasingly tense, violent standoff between Indigenous protestors and armed forces with the belief that Canada represented a land where peace, order, and good government prevailed.
The standoff, known variably as the Oka crisis, the Kanehsatake resistance, and the Mohawk resistance, began on July 11th when members of the Kanehsatake community (on the north shore of Montreal) and the Kahnawà:ke reserve (south of Montreal) resisted the Town of Oka’s plans to extend a golf course onto contested lands, including a Mohawk burial site.
The Town responded to the protest in force, supported by the Sûreté du Québec, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and, as tensions escalated, the army. When the barricades came down, the land in question was purchased by the federal government, and the Town’s plans to expand the golf course from nine to 18 holes were cancelled.
The people of Kanehsatake and Kahnawà:ke preserved their burial ground but gained little else. More than 30 years later, they are still fighting against encroachment on their lands.
In this month’s issue of Sift. Shift. Lift., we take the long view, looking at the 78-day standoff as part of a long chain of events beginning more than 300 years ago and within the context of the growing #landback movement.
We also consider the pivotal role the conflict played in spurring Prime Minister Brian Mulroney to establish the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1991-1996), which concluded with 440 recommendations to address colonialism, and establish nation-to-nation relationships with Indigenous peoples.
Sift through oral and written history to better understand the resistance and its legacy.
If time isn’t an issue, stream Alanis Obomsawin’s documentary series about the resistance on the National Film Board (NFB) of Canada’s website.
You can read about the series in “(Re)covering Oka: Alanis Obomsawin’s representation of the crisis at Oka” by Lindsey Campbell. (Off Screen, March 2010) There are four films in the series:
Do you have an hour-and-a-half? Listen to the Secret Life of Canada podcast (and then check out the long list of resources they list).
“Kanesatake: Let's talk about what happened long before the 'Oka Crisis’” (August 6, 2020)
Looking for a brief overview?
See contemporary news coverage in the CBC Archives:
Spotlight on Land Back: A Red Paper
“The [Yellowhead] Institute is a First Nation-led research centre based in the Faculty of Arts at Ryerson University in Toronto, Ontario. Privileging First Nation philosophy and rooted in community networks, Yellowhead is focused on policies related to land and governance.”
In October 2019, the Institute published Land back: A Yellowhead Institute red paper, “inspired by the notion of the red paper as a productive vision of Indigenous futures that critically engages with Canadian frameworks . . .” (p. 7) The paper looks specifically at issues related to land—dispossession, extraction, reclamation—underlying most conflicts between Indigenous peoples and settlers, and it challenges readers to bring about a more just future based on Indigenous consent.
Curious? In addition to the red paper, check out the:
Let art, music, and literature shift or deepen your understanding of the resistance.
Read “Oka Crisis: The legacy of the warrior flag” to learn about artist Karoniaktajeh Louis Hall’s warrior flag and how “news coverage of the crisis amplified the flag’s fame as not only an Indigenous symbol of unity but of resistance.” (CBC News, Jessica Deer, July 11, 2020)
Check out “The Siege of Kanehsatà:ke 11 July 1990”, part of the Graphic History Collective’s poster project. This evocative poster features an original painting by Mohawk spokesperson and artist Ellen Gabriel. (The poster can be downloaded for personal, educational, and activist use.)
Visit Land InSights to see more of Gabriel’s paintings, which explore her culture, heritage, and ancestors.
Looking for something for you—or the young adult in your life—to read? Try Where I belong by Tara White, a Mohawk woman from Kahnawà:ke. Described as a “moving tale of self-discovery [that] takes place during the Oka uprising in the summer of 1990,” it was published by Tradewind Books in 2015.
Prefer graphic novels? Here are two recommendations, one in English and one in French:
The 500 years of resistance comic book by Gord Hill, which “documents the fighting spirit and ongoing resistance of Indigenous peoples through 500 years of genocide, massacres, torture, rape, displacement, and assimilation: a necessary antidote to the conventional history of the Americas.” (2010)
C'est le Québec qui est né dans mon pays by Emanuelle Dufour started out as a doctoral research project that explored First Nations and Quebec realities through multiple perspectives. You can read about the project in “Concordia PhD candidate produces a graphic novel on Indigenous education in Quebec.”
Theatre and film
In Rocks at Whiskey Trench, Alanis Obomsawin documents a horrifying moment, when tensions were escalating at Oka. As women, children and elders fled Kahnawà:ke, non-Indigenous protestors pelted their convoy with rocks. Director Tracey Deer was in that convoy as a young girl, and that experience (among others) has found its way into her well-received semi-autobiographical film Beans, which is in theatres now.
Read about Deer’s lived experience and find out why she was compelled to tell Beans’ story.
Take action and support organizations committed to creating a more just future for Indigenous peoples.
Idle No More calls on all people to join in a peaceful revolution to honour Indigenous sovereignty and to protect the land & water & sky.
The vision of the Yellowhead Institute is “to become the national leader in research and education on First Nation policy and governance.” Find out how you can support Yellowhead Institute by collaborating with them or by making a donation.
The struggle is not over. As we say in Mohawk, 'skennen,' which means peace. —Ellen Gabriel
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Coming up next:
Sifting, shifting, and lifting with . . . Sarah Bowen (August 22, 2021)
The Weekly (August 25, 2021)
Did you miss an issue?
Here are the links to the last two issues (just in case):
The Weekly on the fall of Saigon and Taliban victory in Kabul (August 18, 2021)
Sifting, shifting, and lifting with . . . poet Fran Westwood (August 15, 2021)