AFTER THE ANGRY STANDOFF AT OKA, INDIANS SEEK A NEW DEAL FROM CANADA
Anthony Wilson-Smith,NANCY WOODOctober81990
AFTER THE ANGRY STANDOFF AT OKA, INDIANS SEEK A NEW DEAL FROM CANADA
After 78 days of anger, threats and misunderstandings, the armed standoff ended with one last burst of violence. At 6:55 p.m. last Wednesday, about 50 Mohawk Warriors, women and children emerged from the drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre in the Kanesatake community near Oka,
Que., that had been their headquarters and final redoubt during their summer-long conflict with the federal and Quebec governments. Several hundred metres away, behind a razorwire boundary, a contingent of soldiers from the Canadian Forces Royal 22nd Regiment, the renowned Van Doos, watched them approach. The evening before, Mohawk and government representatives had negotiated the terms under which the Mohawks would put down their weapons and surrender peacefully. But as the Indians began to approach the army lines, some of them suddenly veered to the right and began moving away. In the subsequent confusion, scuffles and fistfights broke out and soldiers wrestled individual Mohawks, including screaming women and children, to the ground.
Frustration: The soldiers herded the hooting, chanting Indians into a circle, surrounded them and finally put them onto waiting buses that took them into army custody. The chaos, recorded by waiting TV cameras, ended a drama that had dominated the summer’s events. What began last spring as a dispute over the town of Oka’s plan to expand an existing golf
course onto land that the Mohawks claimed developed into a nationwide crisis over Indian land claims and sovereignty. And, more than any other incident involving natives in recent Canadian history, it sharply underscored the level of frustration among Canada’s first people over the perceived unwillingness of governments in Ottawa and the provinces to deal with their grievances. Said Georges Erasmus, national chief of the Canada-wide umbrella group the Assembly of First Nations: “Our demands are ignored when we kick up a fuss—but they are also ignored if we do not.”
The summer’s searing images of violent confrontation may have ensured that those demands will now get a higher government priority. But the crisis also cost the life of one Quebec provincial policeman, Cpl. Marcel Lemay, who was shot in an abortive police attempt to storm the Mohawk barricades at Oka on July 11. And his death will deepen the distrust that already existed between Indians and non-native Quebecers (page 32). Over the summer, there was a series of ugly incidents as
the Indians faced off against police officers and white Quebecers, both at the Oka barricades and in Montreal. There, Mohawks from the Kahnawake reserve south of the city blockaded access routes to the Mercier Bridge, one of the main arteries connecting the south shore of the St. Lawrence River to the island of Montreal. That created an immense inconvenience for South Shore residents who commute to Mon-
treal, and the frustration spilled over into increasingly angry anti-Mohawk protests.
As the crisis wore on, Indians across Canada mounted demonstrations and temporarily blocked roads and railways to show their support of the Mohawks and to press their own claims. In one case, hydro transmission lines across native lands in southwestern Ontario were tom down. The anger spilled across the border, adding new fuel to native militancy in the United States (page 34). Still, as the tensions rose, the federal government initially remained silent, in spite of repeated entreaties from both Indians and non-Indians to step in and attempt to resolve the dispute. Ottawa’s position that the confrontations at Oka and on the Mercier Bridge were police matters under provincial jurisdiction provided ammunition for critics who said that the federal government is unable to deal with native issues.
Barricades: Then, on July 20, federal Minister of Indian Affairs Thomas Siddon announced that Ottawa had bought part of the disputed land at Oka and would negotiate to buy the
remainder. That land, he said, would ultimately be turned over to the Mohawks—but only after the Warriors at the barricades laid down their arms and surrendered. The armed confrontations continued, however, when negotiators failed to agree on terms for surrender. And, as tensions escalated, on Aug. 17, Ottawa acted on Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa’s request to send in the armed forces to maintain the
peace and to replace Quebec police at the barricades.
Both the Mohawks and white Quebecers initially welcomed the army’s presence. After lengthy negotiations, troops and Mohawks cooperated in dismantling the Mercier Bridge barricades on Aug. 29, reopening the busy commuter route to traffic eight days later. But the negotiations at Oka continued to stumble over Mohawk demands for political sovereignty over their lands and immunity from any charges arising out of the conflict. As the standoff wore on, disputes broke out between Mohawks and troops across the razor-wire divide. In one incident on Sept. 8, a Warrior suffered head injuries and facial cuts in a scuffle with two soldiers on a predawn reconnaissance patrol. At the Kahnawake reserve, scuffles broke out between Mohawks and troops helping police to search for arms caches in the wake of the Mercier Bridge blockade.
Confusion: After the surrender, native spokesmen claimed that the troops had doublecrossed them by creating chaos and violence during what was to have been, one Indian said, an “honorable disengagement.” Said Erasmus: “I am appalled with the way the army behaved. The level of force was completely unnecessary.” But army spokesmen said that the natives had broken an agreement by coming out of their stronghold in one group instead of
individually. Some of the Warriors, including the group’s unofficial leader, Loran Thompson, slipped away in the confusion. But 21 Mohawk men and 14 women were taken into custody at the Famham army base southeast of Montreal. Eleven of them were quickly charged with a number of offences to which they pleaded not guilty, including rioting, assaulting a police officer and possession of a weapon for dangerous purposes. Police were also looking for evidence to support a murder charge in the death of Lemay.
In the aftermath, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney praised the behavior of the forces. Declared the Prime Minister: “The rule of law has prevailed. There has been no compromise with those who sought change through armed violence.” And Bourassa said that Quebecers should be proud of the way the crisis was handled. Said the premier: “I challenge any country in the world to solve such an explosive crisis in such a peaceful way.”
As the standoff approached its end, federal officials made several conciliatory statements clearly intended to ease the way into a future of protracted and complex negotiations. Said Mulroney: “Canada’s aboriginal peoples deserve a special place in this country as our first citizens.” The Prime Minister went on to announce that Ottawa will institute a new agenda to deal with native grievances, pledging
to improve conditions on reserves and offering to streamline and accelerate the government’s land claims settlement process. The government now has a policy of negotiating no more than six land claims at a time, even though there are hundreds of them, covering more than half of Canada’s land mass. As well, Siddon repeated earlier that his department will swiftly try to resolve the Kanesatake Mohawks’ land claim at Oka. And, noting that the country now faces a need for “healing, learning to trust and restoration of goodwill,” Siddon declared, “I hope that we all have learned to have more vision, to have more wisdom.”
Adversarial: But many Indians say that, as far as they are concerned, that is a futile hope, largely because of their frequently adversarial relations with the federal government—and because of the increased bitterness caused by the long summer of conflict. Underlying their frustration with Ottawa is a long-standing distrust of the department of Indian affairs and exasperation with the department’s policies (page 31). Declared George Watts, chairman of the 14-tribe Nuu-chah-nulta council in Port Albemi, B.C., and a veteran of more than 20 years of dealing with the department: “I am worn out from fighting idiots. Every bad policy that the government has suppressed Indian people with has come out of the department of Indian affairs. Does anyone think they’re going
to hand over any power to Indian people?”
Like many Indians, Watts said that he is puzzled by a government department that has two goals that appear to be contradictory. Part of its mandate, he noted, is to support the development of oil, gas, mineral and forest resources in the North. But, Watts added, that often brings it into conflict with its other objective: to preserve the lands that Indians claim as their own. At the same time, other Indians claim that the department spends too much of its time and money fighting the very people that it is supposed to represent. Said Erasmus: “I guess the slice that hurts the worst is the funding that they spend on their bureaucracy to fight us on every issue, to fight us in our courts, to divide us and to discredit our leadership.”
Inconsistency: Critics also point out that the department has suffered from a frequent turnover of ministers. In the last six years, the portfolio has been held by four men—a shuffling that many say leads to policy confusion and inconsistency. Indian groups have widely criticized Siddon, who assumed the post in February, as ineffective. Both Indian spokes-
men and Indian Affairs officials in Quebec attacked him for his handling of the Oka dispute. In Quebec’s native affairs ministry, some officials privately nicknamed Siddon “the mollusk” because, they say, he retreats into a protective shell at the first sign of controversy.
Many Indians clearly share that opinion, and they claim that Siddon has made little attempt to understand their concerns. When the minister met with native leaders on Sept. 11, one of the Indians privately called him “the worst cabinet minister we have ever dealt with.” That opinion is shared by others. Said Patrick Nadjiwan, a 24-year-old native and law student who spent the summer working for Siddon’s department: “I have a great deal of difficulty speaking nicely about Tom Siddon.”
Department officials acknowledge the troubled history of relations between natives and the federal government. Said one official, who requested anonymity: “We are still paying for the mistakes made a century ago.” Still, senior department officials say that the Tories have introduced a steady series of measures aimed at satisfying native demands and criticisms. In the six years since the Conservatives came to
power, the amount of money that the department spends on Indian Affairs programs has risen 60 per cent to $2.4 billion from $1.5 billion.
As well, department officials note that Indians receive some benefits unavailable to other Canadians. In addition to regular health care benefits, the government also pays the cost of all medical expenses not covered by regular programs—including such items as eyeglasses and prescription drugs. As well, Indians who take postsecondary courses have all of their costs covered—including tuition, books, a living allowance and, if necessary, day care.
But Indian leaders and sympathizers say that they bitterly resent what they regard as a paternalistic attitude towards them by department officials. Declared Robert Epstein, a U.S.-born psychologist who now works in Ottawa as a consultant for native groups: “I think what people don’t realize is that Indian Affairs is a dictatorship. Indian Affairs runs an Indian’s entire life.” Ethel Blondin, for one, an Indian who is the Liberal MP for the Western Arctic, said that the federal government is “crazy to assume responsibility” for her people. Declared Blondin: “Give it to the Indians.” She and other native leaders say that, without fundamental changes in the government’s approach to natives, there will be no solutions to present problems. Added Blondin: “The government of the century will be the one that gets a handle on aboriginal issues.”
Sovereignty: Government officials say that they are well on the way to satisfying some Indian demands for more responsibility. By the end of next year, Indian Affairs officials said, more than 72 per cent of the money spent on the department’s programs will be directly administered by Indian band leaders. But, for many Indians, the primary issue is one of political sovereignty. And last week, Mulroney stated categorically that the Canadian government could never accede to those demands. “I will be very clear on this point,” he said. “Native self-government does not now, and cannot ever, mean sovereign independence.”
Many Indian leaders say that even lesser grievances will not be settled in the present mood of suspicion and anger. That is also a concern that appears to be shared by many whites who were uncomfortable bystanders during the Oka confrontation. The spectacle led some of them to take personal action. David McCamus, for one, president of Xerox Canada, sent private letters to Mulroney and Erasmus after seeing TV coverage of the armed conflict. Wrote McCamus: “We, as a people, have for too long given too low a priority to resolving long-standing and legitimate concerns of our First Nations.” Last week, as he watched TV coverage of the violence during the Mohawks’ surrender, McCamus said, “I do not know who to blame.” But he added: “We have to get off our backsides and start caring. This is not a job for the police or army—it is our job.”
ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH and NANCY WOOD in Ottawa with DAN BURKE in Montreal
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