Canada

The lessons of Oka

BRENDA BRANSWELL July 14 1997
Canada

The lessons of Oka

BRENDA BRANSWELL July 14 1997

The lessons of Oka

CANADA

LETTER FROM KANESATAKE, QUE.

Const. Donald Tenascon’s newly painted black cruiser is almost in mint condition. But the driver’s door, which sports the multicolored crest of the newly installed Kanesatake Mohawk Police, is disfigured by two ugly scratches, the work of a key-wielding vandal. Tenascon, a 31-year-old Algonquin from a reserve near Manawaki, Que., seems unperturbed about the damage—even though it appears pointedly aimed at the nine-member native police force. He says such incidents are simply part of bringing change to Kanesatake, which was granted its first-ever police unit in May. The mostly native community just west of Montreal—and 130 km northwest of Manawaki—had received only limited law enforcement from the Sûreté du Québec following the disastrous clash between natives and the provincial police during the crisis over the nearby Oka golf course in 1990. Some of that anti-police sentiment lingers on. “We had a wild weekend,” Tenascon says, recalling the first patrols in May. Some residents taunted police, while others tried to draw them into car chases. “They tested us,” is how Police Chief Barry Commando describes the force’s debut. But he maintains that most of Kanesatake’s 1,000 residents—including about 400 non-natives— welcome the new approach to law and order. “They’re very proud to have a police force,” says Commando. “It was due.”

Few observers would deny that something had to give in Kanesatake. The local Mohawks and the Sûreté du Québec share a long history of strained relations, which exploded into violence during the Oka crisis. During the 78-day standoff, furious Mohawks defended barricades they erected to protest the planned expansion of a golf course onto what they consider to be sacred land. When the Sûreté tried to dismantle the barriers, one of their officers was fatally shot, most likely by a protester. To fill the gap left by the Sûreté, which sharply reduced its patrols after the crisis, the community set up a civilian Mohawk security team to “stop hooliganism,” according to Kanesatake Grand Chief James Gabriel. But the results were mixed, and the final push for a formal police force came last year amid problems with reckless driving and domestic violence. “I think people were fed up with the lawlessness,” Gabriel said.

But there was no time to train members of the community. As a result, Tenascon and his fellow officers—all have served with other police forces—were brought in from outside the area. Local Kanesatake recruits are now in training until December, when Commando, an Algonquin from a reserve near Manawaki, hopes to add six more officers. Under an agreement reached last December with the federal and Quebec governments—which are paying $1.25 million an-

nually for the force—the new team has power to enforce the Quebec Highway Code and the Criminal Code of Canada. The officers also sport much the same equipment as regular police officers. A .40-calibre Smith and Wesson rests on Tenascon’s hip and he also carries pepper spray.

Although some Kanesatake residents grumble that the band council should have asked the community to ratify the policing agreement, many are clearly pleased with the outcome. “I can feel the easing of tension amongst our peopie, knowing that they can call when there is a problem,” says Gabriel. At a local restaurant, four women readily agreed

with that assessment as they smoked cigarettes after lunch. ‘We don’t hear any more tires squealing,” said one Mohawk woman, who requested anonymity. They also do not hear the sound of gunshots, which, although fired in the air, “used to scare us just the same,” the woman said.

As Kanesatake marks the seventh anniversary of Oka with an annual powwow starting on July 11, it is clear that problems remain, including the outstanding Mohawk land claim. Some of the wounds, though, seem to be healing. The new police force receives assistance—upon request—from the Sûreté, and Commando maintains that they share “a good working relationship.” Gabriel also lauds the native police as an important step towards more autonomy for the Mohawk community, which is not a formal reserve. “It enables us to enforce laws that we enact and to exert our authority over our territory,” he said.

For many natives across the country, there is no question that native forces are a positive alternative to more conventional policing arrangements. But in some ways, Kanesatake’s new police officers face the same problems as recent arrivals in almost any small community. On one quiet morning last week, when the only sound in the police dispatcher’s office was the hum of a fan, Tenascon acknowledged feeling slightly nervous on occasion, partly because of not knowing the locals. “But that’s what keeps you on your toes,” he added. Although he finds his new job slightly busier than in Manawaki, he attributes it to the fact that Kanesatake has never had its own police force before. “I think over the years it will quiet down, like Manawaki.” Many local residents no doubt hope that prediction proves true.

BRENDA BRANSWELL