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February 27
Oka crisis

The Oka Crisis was a land dispute between the Mohawk nation and the town of Oka, Quebec which began on March 11, 1990, and lasted until September 26, 1990. It resulted in three deaths, and would be the first of a number of well-publicized violent conflicts between Indigenous people and the Canadian government in the late 20th century.

The crisis developed from a dispute between the town of Oka and the Mohawk community of Kanesatake. For 260 years, the Mohawk nation had been pursuing a land claim which included a burial ground and a sacred grove of pine trees near Kanesatake, which is one of the oldest hand-planted stands in North America, created by the Mohawks' ancestors. This brought them into conflict with the town of Oka, which was developing plans to expand a golf course onto the disputed land.

In 1717, the governor of New France granted the lands encompassing the cemetery and the pines to a Catholic seminary permission to hold the land in trust for the Mohawk nation. The Church expanded this agreement to grant themselves sole ownership of the land, and proceeded to sell off the Mohawk peoples' land and timber. In 1868, one year after Confederation, the chief of the Oka Mohawk people, Joseph Onasakenrat, wrote a letter to the Church condemning them for illegally holding their land and demanding its return. The petition was ignored. In 1869, Onasakenrat returned with a small armed force of Mohawks and gave the missionaries eight days to return the land. The missionaries called in the police, who imprisoned the Mohawks. In 1936, the seminary sold the remaining territory and vacated the area. These sales were also protested vociferously by the Mohawks, but the protests produced no results.[1]

In 1961, a nine-hole golf course, le Club de golf d'Oka, was built on land claimed by the Mohawk People, who launched a legal protest against construction. Yet, by the time the case was heard, much of the land had already been cleared and construction had begun on a parking lot and golf greens adjacent to the Mohawk cemetery.

In 1977, the band filed an official land claim with the federal Office of Native Claims regarding the land. The claim was accepted for filing, and funds were provided for additional research of the claim. Nine years later, the claim was finally rejected for failing to meet key criteria.

Immediate causes

The mayor of Oka, Jean Ouellette, announced in 1989 that the remainder of the pines would be cleared to expand the members-only golf club's course to eighteen holes. Sixty luxury condominiums were also planned to be built in a section of the pines. The town of Oka stood to make money from the expansion and Mayor Ouellette was a member of the private club that stood to benefit most. However, none of these plans were made in consultation with the Mohawks.

As a protest against a court decision which allowed the golf course construction to proceed, some members of the Mohawk community erected a barricade blocking access to the area in question. Mayor Ouellette demanded compliance with the court order, but the protestors refused. Quebec's Minister for Native Affairs John Ciaccia wrote a letter of support for the natives, stating that "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, the mayor asked the Sûreté du Québec to intervene on, citing Mohawk criminal activity around the barricade. The Mohawk people, in accordance with the Constitution of the Iroquois Confederacy, asked the women, the caretakers of the land and "progenitors of the nation", whether or not the arsenal they had amassed should remain. The women decreed that the weapons should be used only if the Sûreté du Québec opened fire first.

A police SWAT team swiftly attacked the barricade deploying tear gas canisters and flash bang grenades in an attempt to create confusion in the Mohawk ranks. It is unclear whether the police or Mohawks opened fire with gunshots first, but after a fifteen-minute bullet exchange, the police fell back, abandoning six cruisers and a bulldozer. The police's own tear gas blew back at them. During the gun battle, 31-year-old Corporal Marcel Lemay of the Sûreté du Québec was shot in the mouth and died a short while later. After the funeral a few days later, the SQ and the Mohawks lowered their flags to half-mast. The Mohawks sent condolences but refused to accept responsibility for the death, blaming Mayor Ouellette for ordering the armed assault on the blockade.


The situation escalated as the local Mohawks were joined by natives from across Canada and the United States. The natives refused to dismantle their barricade and the Sûreté du Québec established their own blockades to restrict access to Oka and Kanesatake. Other Mohawks at Kahnawake, in solidarity with the Kanesatake Mohawks, blockaded the Mercier Bridge between the Island of Montreal and the South Shore suburbs at the point where it passed through their territory. At the peak of the crisis, the Mercier Bridge and highways 132, 138 and 207 were all blocked. Enormous traffic jams and frayed tempers resulted as the crisis dragged on.

The Canadian federal government agreed to spend 5.3 million dollars to purchase the section of the pines where the expansion was to take place, to prevent any further development. This exchange left the Mohawks outraged as the problems that led to the situation had not been addressed - ownership of the land had simply moved from one level of government to another.

Racial hatred occasionally broke through the surface of the crisis as traffic frustration at the blockades grew into anger. The flames were fanned by radio host Gilles Proulx who repeatedly reminded his listeners that the Mohawks "couldn't even speak French" and the federal Member of Parliament for Chateauguay said that all the natives in Quebec should be shipped off to Labrador "if they wanted their own country so much".


When it was apparent that the Sûreté du Québec had lost control of the situation, the RCMP was brought in but were soon overwhelmed by the Mohawks and mobs created by the blocked traffic. Ten constables were hospitalized and on 14 August Quebec premier Robert Bourassa requisitioned the assistance of the Canadian Forces in "aid to the civil power" by invoking the Emergencies Act.

Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was reluctant, but had no choice as it was Bourassa's right under the Act to employ the military when required to maintain law and order, the same as Bourassa had done two decades earlier with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in the October Crisis in 1970. The Chief of the Defence Staff, General John de Chastelain accordingly placed Quebec-based troops in support of the provincial authorities. Some 2,500 regular and reserve troops from the 34th and 35th Canadian Brigade Groups and the 5th Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group were put on notice and, on the morning of 20 August, 33 troops of the Quebec-based Royal 22e Regiment, the 'Van Doos', led by Major Alain Tremblay took three barricades and arrived at the final blockade leading to the disputed area. The Sûreté du Québec had established a no man's land of one and a half kilometres between themselves and the barricade at the Pines, but the army pushed this to within five metres. Additional troops and mechanized equipment mobilized at staging areas around Montreal while CF-116 Freedom Fighter reconnaissance aircraft staged air photo missions over Mohawk territory to gather intelligence. Despite high tensions between military and native forces, no shots were exchanged, though there were tense eye-to-eye stare offs between native warriors and troops. The image on the right corresponds to an instance, captured by a large number of the media, in which a native warrior approached a Van Doo soldier, stared, and returned to the native side. When asked why, he stated, "I wanted to see their faces before I kill em". This video can be found here [3].



On August 29, at the Mercier Bridge blockade, the Mohawks negotiated an end to their protest with Lieutenant Colonel Robin Gagnon, 'Van Doo' commander responsible for monitoring the blockades along the south shore of the St. Lawrence River west of Montreal. This resulted in the siege of the Kahnawake reserve being resolved. The Mohawks at Oka felt betrayed at the loss of their most effective bargaining chip, for once traffic was flowing again on the Mercier Bridge, the Quebec government rejected all further negotiations.

On September 25, the final engagement of the crisis took place when a Mohawk warrior walked around the perimeter with a long stick, setting off the flares the army had set up to warn them of any escapes from the area. The army turned a hose on the man, but the hose lacked enough pressure to disperse a crowd. The Mohawks taunted the soldiers and then started throwing water balloons at them.

By September 26, the Mohawks dismantled their guns and threw them in a fire, ceremonially burned tobacco and then walked out of the pines and back to the reservation. Many were detained by the Canadian Forces and arrested by the SQ.

The Oka Crisis lasted seventy-eight days and resulted in the death of SQ Corporal Marcel Lemay. Two other deaths have also been indirectly attributed to the crisis: Joe Armstrong, a seventy-one-year-old World War II veteran who had died of a stress-induced heart attack after a confrontation with a group of non-native protestors; and an elderly non-native man who died after being exposed to tear gas on July 11.[citation needed]

The golf-course expansion, which had originally triggered the situation, was cancelled. The Oka Crisis eventually precipitated the development of Canada's First Nations Policing Policy.





International response to the Oka Crisis was harsh. The International Federation of Human Rights has criticized the tactics of both the SQ and the Canadian Army.[citation needed] Amnesty International raised allegations of torture and abuses following the final arrest of six of the Mohawk people, and added Canada to its list of human rights violators.[citation needed]


Mayor of Oka, Jean Ouellette was reelected in a landslide victory in 1991 and said of the crisis, "If I had to do it all again, I would," citing his responsibilities as mayor.[citation needed]

A few years after the crisis, the Mohawks of Kahnawake established the Kahnawake Gaming Commission and started issuing "licences" to gambling operators who host their Internet gaming websites on their reserve. Both the Canadian and Quebec governments dispute the legality of this operation, but have not risked taking further action. The websites hosted by the Kahnawake Gaming Commission are the only gambling sites that have operated in North America without legal action being taken against them.



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