There are some events in your life that remain emblazoned in your memory. An event is so horrific or so unreal that you wonder how it could have actually happened. For many people around the world, watching tanks roll into Oka, Quebec to fight the Kanehsatake Mohawks and their supporters over the expansion of a golf course is one of those memories.
It is one of the many big black marks that hang over Canada that the world observed with shock and disbelief. It showed that Canada had no respect for human rights which of course runs contrary to their trumpeting their so-called leadership in human rights. It showed to the world that Canada had no clue on how to work with First Nations people, had no respect for a burial/sacred sites and had to bring on the power of the army to deal with a small community of First Nations people.
The Kanehsatake Mohawks valued the lands that were proposed to be an extension of a golf course and had been in negotiations with the Canadian government to get the lands so they could protect what was precious to them. The town of Oka wanted to expand the golf course development over those same lands. Those lands had a burial site that Oka wanted to pave over as a parking lot and cut down the beautiful pine forest that was used as a sacred area. These clashing values were at the heart of a dispute that rocketed to major proportions.
The situation was mishandled from the beginning. Escalating a peaceful roadblock into an exchange of gunfire and use of violence against women and children was not the solution to such a problem.
In the summer of 1990 during the Oka crisis, I was in Geneva, Switzerland for a month attending the Working Group of Indigenous Peoples, and then the Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities as it was then called. There was a small delegation of Mohawks reporting on the situation to the Working Group. Kenneth Deer and his wife Glenda were two people that were front and centre in raising the profile of these issues at the Palais de Nations. There were also several of us that were helping out in any way we could.
Once the tanks rolled into Oka, the ability to bring attention to the situation at the United Nations heightened. Kenneth Deer met daily with the Chair of the Sub-Commission, Danilo Turk. He would tell the Chair everything he knew about the situation at his home and the many human rights violations. These incidents would include excessive force, stopping food and water delivery into the communities, and denying medical services either by stopping ambulances or Red Cross trucks. Canada would then have to go into speak to the Chair and explain what was going on in Canada. It kept Canada on the hot seat on a daily basis at least till the Sub-Commission ended at the end of August 1990 but the occupation continued until September 26th.
Kenneth and Glenda Deer would put together a daily newsletter that featured pictures and stories of what was going on with the Mohawk communities. We would hand out the newsletters daily. We found that after the first couple of days that people would come to us to get the newsletter because they were so interested in events back in Canada. Countries from all over the world were astounded at the pictures and reports of what was happening in Oka. There was glee in their voices as they could now tell Canada they were violating human rights instead of the other way around.
I think the most shocking moment for people at the United Nations was watching the news one night and seeing Glenda Deer who had gone home to Kahnawake getting tear gas thrown at her while a group of women were defending a bridge. This was someone they knew being treated like that. Suddenly, the world was smaller and Mohawk issues came alive for them.
It was a very intense lobbying time at the United Nations as we discredited Canada’s human rights record and it was well deserved. We all feared for the safety of the Mohawk people and what could happen if the army attacked.
I returned home to Edmonton and participated in one of the many protests against the government of Canada’s actions with the army in Kanehsatake. We tried to get the press to focus on the pressure being put on Canada at the United Nations. It was of no interest to them and it was never covered in any Canadian media. The fact that there was international oversight may have meant that Canada did not act any further than they did.
It is a rather unbelievable event that happened in Oka to the Kanehsatake Mohawks in the summer of 1990 as the Canadian government used the full force of the army on a very small group of people. Yet on the other hand it is very believable as it was just a physical manifestation of the way the Canadian government has always treated First Nations people. With force and lack of political unwillingness to sit down and work out our issues peacefully in a way that will benefit both Nations. Today they continue to use force to impose developments that First Nations do not want, and on imposing legislation without First Nations consent or involvement, and they use force to try and remove us from the land where our strength comes from.
The issue of not disturbing First Nations burial sites has not been resolved. The Marpole Midden, Grace Islet, Poet’s Cove, and many other burial sites have caused untold grief for First Nations, have delayed development and caused continued conflict. The Federal and Provincial governments have not done anything to protect First Nations burial sites and this was at the heart of the Oka crisis. The governments have not learned anything from Oka.
Clearly, the potential for another Oka exists as First Nations issues remain unaddressed with no effective forums to work them out. The treaty process in BC has been going on for over 20 years with few treaties. The federal and provincial governments have not begun to implement the Tsilhqot’in decision. There are court cases and people on the land. Tension and Conflict continues.
That summer in Geneva was one I will never forget, working in solidarity with the Mohawks at the international level was an experience that showed to me the true intent of Canada towards indigenous peoples. Things have changed a bit, but that same show of force still happens in other ways today. On the 25th anniversary of the start of the war in Oka, warriors of our nations who are the defenders of our lands are still on high alert. Our weapons include smart phones, drums, eagle feathers, our language, and our deep commitment to defend the land and we are always prepared to protect Mother Earth, our rights and what we value.
Oka you say? Another thing the Canadian government cannot live down and cannot defend its human rights record until they work out the issues of land, sacred/burial sites and living conditions with First Nations. Shamefully, the hot summer of Kanehsatake did happen and Oka will never be forgotten.