The emergency siren at the Kahnawake Indian reserve south of Montreal began to wail shortly before 3 p.m. At almost the same moment, the first Canadian army Chinook helicopter descended out of a slate-grey sky to land on Tekakwitha Island, a narrow, kilometre-long sliver of brush-covered rock in the St. Lawrence River that is connected to the rest of the reserve by a bridge. Alerted by
the siren, a crowd of Mohawks gathered quickly, growing sullen as troops of the Royal Canadian Regiment, from Camp Gagetown, N.B., unfurled razor wire and riot-equipped policemen of the Sûreté du Québec (SQ) swept the island for weapons. Soon, angry residents began hurling insults—followed by rocks. When the soldiers responded by firing tear gas into the crowd, the Mohawks—now several hundred strong— surged across the short steel-and-concrete span and tore apart the barricades.
Fuelled by a resentment that has simmered throughout a summer of confrontations between Mohawks and various agents of the Quebec and federal governments, the Indians punched, kicked and cursed the soldiers. The troops fought back with fists and rifle butts. One trooper was dragged to the ground and
beaten with his own helmet. Another was almost strangled by the strap of his binoculars. It was only after the soldiers fired bursts of bullets into the air that the Mohawks retreated. “The strong resistance surprised us,” acknowledged a clearly stunned Lt.-Col. Greg Mitchell, the unit’s commanding officer. “It was amazing the way they reacted.”
It was the most violent incident since the
native crisis first erupted last July. Nineteen soldiers and 75 Mohawks required hospital care, most of them suffering the effects of teargas inhalation. But four troopers and two Indians were also treated for a variety of head wounds and broken bones. Beyond the personal injuries, the joint action by the 244 troops and 78 provincial police officers marked a further deterioration in a standoff that has racked Quebec and the country for nearly three months. In one of the more ominous developments, military officials disclosed last week that plans were under way to replace troops with units of the SQ, the provincial police force that is widely distrusted by the Indians. The SQ said that policing duties would be carried out by a joint provincial-native force, a move designed to ease tensions. But some Warriors said that
any native who joined the force would be a traitor.
At the same time, army spokesmen refused to rule out further actions similar to the one that sparked the riot in Kahnawake last week. Partly as a result, the two dozen armed Mohawk Warriors still holed up in an alcohol and drug treatment centre at the Kanesatake community at Oka, 30 km west of Montreal, broke off talks aimed at ending the standoff.
The announcement that provincial police might take over from the army was released late Thursday evening by Lt.-Gen. Kent Foster. But Foster refused to specify when the army withdrawal might start, suggesting it could be “next week, next month, or next year.” Other officers, however, said that Foster had ordered his second-in-command, Brig.-Gen. Armand Roy, to have a pullout plan ready by the end of the week.
The military also stepped up the pressure by declaring an end to all discussions with the Kanesatake Mohawks, except those dealing with the Indians’ surrender. Roy, in a short letter written to Mohawk negotiator Bob Antone, announced that further discussions with the Warriors “will be limited to our military offer for disengagement.”
Native leaders promptly denounced the actions at Kahnawake and Kanesatake. Declared Georges Erasmus, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations: “All I can think is we really have cruel and sadistic leaders in charge of this country right now.” But politicians in both Ottawa and Quebec City supported the military. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney lauded the army, claiming that the troops “had behaved extremely well under trying circumstances.” And in Quebec City, Public Security Minister Sam Elkas, speaking for vacationing Premier Robert Bourassa, declared, The army g and the Sûreté have a mandate to get I illegal weapons, and we have the proof g that there are weapons in there.” Indeed, the Kahnawake raid did uncover an arms cache. But only three of the weapons found in various hiding places fell into the prohibited category: two AK47 automatic assault rifles and a sawed-off shotgun. The rest were hunting rifles, revolvers and semi-automatic pistols, all of which require gun permits but none of which are illegal. Also swept up in the search were camouflage uniforms, an army practice grenade, walkie-talkies, alcohol, cigarettes and lottery tickets. Undramatic as those seizures were, Mitchell said that the raid was unlikely to be the last, adding, “The next time, my men will be equipped with Plexiglas shields and face masks.” That may help to protect the troops. But it seems unlikely to bring the hostile standoff between the Quebec and federal governments and the Mohawks any closer to an end.
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