AFTER A WEEK OF RENEWED NATIVE PROTEST, OTTAWA WARNS THAT TIME FOR TALKING MAY SOON BE OVER
CHRIS WOOD,BRIAN BERGMANSeptember31990
SENDING IN THE TROOPS
AFTER A WEEK OF RENEWED NATIVE PROTEST, OTTAWA WARNS THAT TIME FOR TALKING MAY SOON BE OVER
Week seven of the standoff began in a disarmingly sportsmanlike fashion. Shortly after arriving to replace beleaguered Quebec provincial police officers at a roadblock near the Kahnawake reserve south of Montreal last week, officers from the Canadian army’s Royal 22nd Regiment walked halfway to an opposing barricade manned by armed Mohawks. Like team captains meeting their opponents at centre field, they shook hands with representatives of the Indians’ militant Warriors Society. But as troops took up positions there and at Oka, 30 km west of Montreal, the two sites where armed Warriors have been locked in a tense standoff with authorities since July 11, they quickly made their presence felt. In one incident, a group of about 100 soldiers and two armored vehicles advanced about 1.5 km through what the Indians at Oka had claimed was a neutral zone. When they set up a new position, they were just a few metres from the armed and camouflaged Warriors manning one of four main barricades in that hamlet. By the next day, army surveillance helicopters were regularly swooping low over Mohawk barricades at Oka and at the Mercier Bridge, which crosses the St. Lawrence River to Montreal from the Kahnawake reserve.
With the army consolidating its positions, federal and provincial spokesmen adopted a new note of toughness as they restated their resolve to end the Mohawk occupations. Near the end of a week in which Indian bands across the country erected fresh blockades over numerous rail lines, 9 highways and logging roads, the politicians were clearly losing patience. In Quebec, Parti Québécois Leader Jacques Parizeau
again described the Warriors as “terrorists,” and demanded that the Quebec government act to re-establish the rule of law. For his part, Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa promised that he would “look to other measures” if the
standoff were not resolved soon.
In Ottawa, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney had been largely silent on the native unrest. But, last week, as he left a cabinet meeting called to discuss developments in the Persian Gulf, he said that Ottawa was ready to take more drastic action, if necessary, to end the armed sieges in Quebec. “We’ve gone the extra mile in trying to bring about a negotiated solution,” a grim-faced Mulroney told reporters. “If our efforts are rejected, then of course we would take appropriate means to ensure the respect of the law of Canada by all its citizens.”
The threatening rhetoric and military manoeuvres appeared to serve one immediate purpose. By late last week, Mohawk representatives had agreed to resume discussions with government negotiators in Oka. Still, elsewhere the crisis appeared to take on a larger and less manageable dimension as other Indian bands mounted protests of their own in several locations across the country and the federal government sought ways to contain the damage (page 19). In British Columbia and Northern Ontario, rail traffic was disrupted repeatedly when native groups set up new barricades almost as quickly as court injunctions forced them to clear earlier ones. And in Alberta, the Sarcee band said that it would force the military to move an army base off land it owns near Calgary if troops moved against the Mohawks. Said Sarcee Chief Roy Whitney: “If the army moves in on the Mohawks, we move in on them here. We will close the gates.” If the Sarcees force the army to leave its base on leased
Indian land, added Whitney, “It will cost them millions to move.”
Indeed, the wave of protest has already begun to exact a steep financial and political price. One five-day blockade of a B.C. Rail line at Seton Portage in the Fraser Valley—which ended on Aug. 21 after the RCMP enforced a court injunction and arrested 35 members of the Seton Lake, Pavilon and Fountain Indian bands and their supporters—cost the railway between $500,000 and $750,000 per day in lost revenues, according to the company. The cost of rail blockades may prove even higher for CP Rail—barricades disrupted its main transcontinental line in Northern Ontario. Said CP Rail official John Cox: “Virtually all our transcontinental traffic has been disrupted. We are at the mercy of individual bands and whatever decisions they make.”
At the same time, the Mohawks may have sown the seeds of additional—and yet more costly—disruptions in the future, by inspiring other groups to adopt their own angry brand of militancy. In one instance, a group of Peigan Indians in southern Alberta, calling themselves the Lonefighters Society, continued attempts last week to stop a $353-million irrigation dam from being built near Lethbridge. Employing a single rented bulldozer, the group was attempting to dig a channel to divert the Oldman River away from the intended dam site. And in Nova Scotia, some young Micmacs said that they were eager to form their own Warriors
Society, after receiving training on automatic assault rifles during a visit to Oka to deliver food earlier in the crisis.
In northern Quebec, meanwhile, Cree Indians have threatened sabotage unless Hydro Quebec abandons plans to expand its already massive power generating facilities east of James Bay. Cree Chief Billy Diamond, for one, said that the Indians will topple existing transmission line towers if the $62-billion dam construction is approved. In one remark directed at the provincially owned utility, Diamond declared: “Either you cancel the projects or we turn off the switch.”
Meanwhile, the pressure was clearly becoming intense on negotiators for both sides in the Oka and Kahnawake standoffs to reach an early settlement and bring down the barricades. Indeed, Bourassa has already paid a political price within his own party for his comparative restraint in dealing with the blockades: on Aug. 1, Liberal MNA René-Serge Larouche threatened to resign from the caucus to protest the premier’s cautious approach. And last week, Parizeau issued a blistering denunciation of Bourassa’s handling of the affair, calling on the government to break off negotiations with the Mohawks and “re-establish its authority” over the disputed land. Other Quebecers expressed shock after provincial Native Affairs Minister John Ciaccia and his federal counterpart Thomas Siddon sat with masked Warriors behind their barricades at a ceremony marking
the reopening of talks. Said Stephen Scott, a law professor at McGill University: “We are in the process of developing groups in our society who can go to war with anyone they want. The governments should not be dealing with these people.”
In at least one incident last week, the mounting tide of antagonism against the Warriors
was strikingly clear. A crowd of angry nonnatives on the edge of the Kahnawake reserve stopped an ambulance carrying a Mohawk woman who had suffered complications while giving birth. For 15 minutes, they delayed her trip to a Montreal hospital and two of the protesters forced their way into the back of the ambulance. Mireille Sigmen, head of communications for the ambulance service, said that the demonstrators said they wanted “to verify
there were no weapons and it was a real emergency.”
Still, even as some bystanders called on Bourassa and Mulroney to order the troops to dismantle the barricades by force, others said that they are worried about the possible consequences of any military action. As he watched troops take up positions near the Mercier
Bridge early in the week, Yves Thériault, a 36year-old father of three, said: “This is scary. I hope the army knows what it is doing.” And in Oka, as armored personnel carriers rumbled down country roads surrounding the community and grim soldiers faced down masked Warriors, the tension was palpable. “People are scared,” said Linda Simon, the co-ordinator of a food bank behind the Mohawk barricade. “We’re not in Beirut, we're not used to this.
Most of us are getting our families together.” Despite the mounting pressure to reach a peaceful settlement,however, it was clear that the negotiators for the government and the Mohawks were having difficulty finding common ground. Earlier in the week, Quebec Minister of Public Security Sam Elkas complained publicly that the Mohawks had broken their promise to discuss the removal of the barricades by insisting instead on first negotiating a range of other demands. Declared Elkas: “They told us one thing, and they are always coming back with other subjects of discussion.” Still, after the talks resumed on Friday at a Trappist monastery in Oka, Indian negotiators reported what one of them termed “substantive” progress. Said Grand Chief Joe Norton of the Kahnawake Mohawks: “We have tabled our position. We’re confident we will have an agreement somewhere down the road.”
But the Indians may find that their government counterparts—led by Quebec’s Alex Paterson and former Mulroney principal secretary Bernard Roy—are cool to at least one of their three central demands. Although Ottawa has already offered to spend $2.5 million to acquire disputed land near Oka for the Kanesa^ take Mohawks, neither the federal government
1 nor Quebec is likely to accede to another native
2 condition for ending the standoff: that police end their interference with a high-stakes bingo hall at the Kahnawake reserve south of Montreal.
In their third condition, the Indians have sought Ottawa’s recognition of the full sovereignty of all Mohawk communities in Canada. But as Canadian army troops confronted them late last week, that seemed, if anything, less likely than at any time since the crisis began.
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