COVER

THE BATTLE OF OKA

ONE OFFICER DIED AS QUEBEC POLICE CONFRONTED WELLARMED MOHAWK WARRIORS

GREG W. TAYLOR July 23 1990
COVER

THE BATTLE OF OKA

ONE OFFICER DIED AS QUEBEC POLICE CONFRONTED WELLARMED MOHAWK WARRIORS

GREG W. TAYLOR July 23 1990

THE BATTLE OF OKA

COVER

ONE OFFICER DIED AS QUEBEC POLICE CONFRONTED WELLARMED MOHAWK WARRIORS

It started with a dispute over a golf course. But it erupted into a gun battle that left one Quebec provincial police officer dead and laid bare decades of bitterness and distrust. For four months, Mohawk Indians living near Oka, Que., 30 km west of Montreal, had blocked a local road in protest against the town’s plans to expand a nine-hole golf course onto land that the Indians claim is theirs. In the early hours of July 11, officers of the Sûreté du Québec (SQ), the provincial police force, gave the Mohawks three hours to dismantle their roadblock and withdraw. When the deadline passed, a heavily armed tactical team of about 100 policemen stormed up a short hill in an attempt to force the Mohawks back. It proved to be a tragic miscalculation. Instead of retreating—as the police clearly expected them to do—the equally well-armed Mohawks fought back with tenacity. Twice, they forced the police to break off their attack. And when the tactical team finally gave up its assault after three hours, Cpl. Marcel Lemay, 31, had died of a gunshot wound.

Death: The armed standoff that ensued was still in place as the week ended, with both sides manning their makeshift barricades 350 m apart along Quebec Highway 344 on the north shore of the Ottawa River. Inside their lines, the Mohawks—linked by portable two-way radios—had laid barbed wire and were quick to surround any intruders (page 19). For their part, the Mohawks were insisting that they were not to be held responsible for Lemay’s death—and that the town of Oka must shelve its plan to add another nine holes to its golf course in a picturesque sweep of wooded land

near an Indian burial ground. After three days of negotiations, Quebec Minister of Native Affairs John Ciaccia said that he had sympathy for the Mohawks’ claim to the land, but he refused to give any assurances that no Indians would face prosecution for the officer’s death.

Meanwhile, federal Indian Affairs Minister Thomas Siddon—visiting his B.C. riding last week—rebuffed requests from the Mohawks that he step in. But late on Saturday, Ciaccia said that he had received federal proposals that might help resolve the dispute. In Calgary, Deputy Prime Minister Donald Mazankowski said that the federal government would establish a task force into the Oka dispute if both sides removed their barriers and laid down _

their arms. But as the siege wore on, Oka (population 1,800) increasingly resembled a town under occupation, as provincial police officers freely frisked passersby and turned back delivery trucks and cars carrying journalists or other nonresidents.

Beating: Across the country, native communities found a variety of ways to express support for the Kanesatake Mohawks at Oka. In a dramatic instance nearby, Mohawks from the Kahnawake reserve south of Montreal erected their own blockade across the Mercier Bridge—a vital commuting link between the city and south-shore communities—that passes over land belonging to the reserve. By Friday, the third day of that blockade, police had to move in to break up fights as angry local residents milled about the edges of the reserve. One clash between a group of angry non-natives

and people they took for Indians left two men badly beaten, and in another incident a white mob chased a teenage Mohawk girl through a shopping mall until police intervened, “ft we had caught her, she would have had a good beating,” said Christian Larose, one of the youths who chased the girl.

Warlike: The police attack put an acute new strain on already tense relations between the Quebec government and that province’s native residents. For his part, Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa endorsed the SQ operation as a routine act of law enforcement. But his stance infuriated native leaders, several of whom accused the Quebec premier of approving the

raid as an act of retribution against natives for their role in the defeat of the Meech Lake accord. In one acid comment, Ovide Mercredi, vicechief of the Assembly of First Nations, said that Quebec had indeed become the “distinct society” it aspired to be under the terms of the lapsed accord. “It is distinct in its use of force against aboriginal people,” he said.

It was clear that the confrontation at Oka reflected a growing militancy among young Indians in many parts of Canada. One armed Mohawk who manned the Oka barricades told Maclean ’s that politicians have persistently ignored the Indians when they advanced their claims “politely” in the past. “But when we have AK-47s,” added Herby Nicholls, “you see, they listen. It is the only way.” That philosophy has gained ground particularly among Canada’s 26,665 Mohawks, finding fertile roots in that Indian nation’s resurgent Longhouse religion and warlike history (page 20). But, as natives in other regions have seen their own campaigns to gain control of territory frustrated and their claim to constitutional standing dropped from the list of national political priorities, there were predictions that the mood of violence gripping the normally serene and picturesque town of Oka could soon spread to dozens of other disputes (page 22).

At Oka, Mohawk claims to a 260-squaremile tract of land on which the disputed golf course sits have their roots in the early 18th century. A group of Mohawks originally from what is now upper New York state, having defeated French colonial forces with the help of arms supplied by the British, chose the region of wooded hills overlooking the Ottawa River as the site of a new settlement. But there was never a treaty to clearly confirm their title to the land.

Blockade: In 1961, Oka’s town council disregarded the Mohawks’ claim when it authorized construction of a nine-hole golf course on part of the disputed land. But, apart from occasional acts of vandalism against the golf course, most of the area’s Mohawks grudgingly accepted its presence until recently. That tolerance abruptly evaporated in early March, when the council, led by Mayor Jean Ouellette,

FISTFIGHTS, RACIAL TAUNTS ERUPT AT A MOHAWK BRIDGE BLOCKADE

an avid golfer, voted to allow a developer to add nine more holes to the golf course and to build a subdivision nearby to increase the community’s tax revenues. Despite the developer’s plan to leave trees surrounding the adjoining Mohawk burial ground untouched, the approval infuriated many of the natives.

On March 11, a group of Mohawks erected a barricade across the main road leading to the golf course. Oka’s municipal council responded by obtaining an injunction from the Superior Court of Quebec that ordered the Indians to remove their blockade by June 30. Ignoring the court order, the Mohawks demanded that the problem be resolved in direct discussions with the federal government—‘ ‘nation-to-nation”— in the words of band spokeswoman Ellen Gabriel, a 29year-old artist.

Tear gas: Meanwhile, several dozen of the self-styled Mohawk Warriors joined the Oka Mohawks to man the blockade—most arriving in small groups from the tribe’s reserves at Kahnawake and Akwesasne. The well-armed Warriors began preparing defensive positions around the hilltop roadblock. But despite those preparations, the standoff remained peaceful.

It suddenly turned violent when the provincial police, at Ouellette’s request, moved in at 5:30 a.m. on July 11 to enforce the Superior Court’s injunction. In two separate assaults on the Mohawk position, supported by tear gas grenades and a heavy front-end loader with which they intended to demolish the Indians’

roadblock, the police failed to rout the armed defenders. Indeed, the police assault team had to abandon several of its vehicles—including the loader—when heavy automatic weapons fire and a wind blowing back police tear gas forced the officers to fall back to a position about 200 m downhill from the natives’ barrier.

The Mohawks quickly turned the situation to their own advantage: several of them commandeered the heavy loader and used it to overturn police vehicles and add them to their makeshift barricade. Clearly jubilant, one masked and defiant Warrior climbed atop the mass of twisted cars and waved a rifle at the routed police.

But it was an uneasy calm that settled over Oka as the gunsmoke and tear gas dissipated. Mayor Ouellette, for one, went into hiding, saying through his lawyer that the action was in response to death threats. The police, for their

part, promptly—and massively—reinforced their presence in Oka, calling in about 900 additional officers who moved quickly to seal off the entire area. It was a tactic that soon brought the force into fresh confrontations— with local townspeople and with dozens of journalists. By Thursday, police manning the numerous checkpoints that dotted every road leading towards Oka were turning back most cars trying to enter the town, even preventing some residents from bringing home groceries because of their suspicions that the food might reach the Mohawks on the barricade. Several journalists, meanwhile, complained that police had seized and sometimes destroyed both equipment and film. Observed one resident: “Oka has become a police state.”

Glare: Meanwhile, it remained unclear which side had fired the bullet that killed Lemay. Despite an autopsy, forensic specialists were unable to say with cer-

0 tainty whether the single fatal shot to the officer’s torso

8 had come from a Mohawk

1 weapon or—as some of the ° Indians insisted—from his

own gun.

As the opposing lines of masked and armed Mohawks on the one side, and flak-jacketed Quebec police officers on the other, continued to glare at each other, it was clear that a resolution of the standoff would be difficult. Even more difficult to dispel, however, was the impression that relations between Canada’s long-disadvantaged first inhabitants and non-native society had reached a new, and ominous, turning point.

GREG W. TAYLOR

ANN McLAUGHLIN

BRUCE WALLACE