CANADA

Barricades of hate

Tensions mount over the Mohawk blockades

DAN BURKE August 13 1990
CANADA

Barricades of hate

Tensions mount over the Mohawk blockades

DAN BURKE August 13 1990

Barricades of hate

CANADA

Tensions mount over the Mohawk blockades

Ever since members of the Kahnawake Indian reserve’s militant Warrior Society blockaded the Mercier Bridge linking Montreal to communities on the St. Lawrence River’s south shore last month, federal Conservative MP Ricardo Lopez has made his position on the issue clear. Lopez, who represents the south-shore bedroom community of Châteauguay, where the blockade has seriously inconvenienced hundreds of residents who commute daily into the city, has consistently called for the intervention of the Canadian armed forces to end the crisis. Last week, the Tory backbencher’s campaign gathered a sudden momentum when more than 10,000 Châteauguay-area residents briefly overwhelmed a police barricade on the fringes of the Kahnawake reserve and, like Lopez, called for the army to clear the bridge. Declared Lopez, who got a hero’s reception when he joined the demonstration: “The people are now speaking the same language as me.

I am very happy.”

Indeed, the tone and content of public debate over the Mohawk issue reached a discordant—and potentially dangerous—pitch last week. Quebec police maintained their battle stations around Kahnawake, blocking approaches to the Mohawk-held south end of the Mercier Bridge, and at the Kanesatake Mohawk community at Oka, Que., 30 km west of Montreal. Tensions were equally high in Oka, where the current crisis erupted on July 11 with a failed police assault that left one officer dead and resulted in Mohawks and police facing off behind barricades on the main road through town. At a local council meeting, several hundred townspeople vented their frustrations at the devastation that the blockade has caused to Oka’s tourism-based economy. And within the Mohawk community, gunfire broke out for the first time in three weeks as the Kanesatake council’s Grand Chief George Martin and his supporters feuded with militant Warriors, most of whom have moved into Kanesatake from other Mohawk reserves, including Kahnawake and Akwesasne, near Cornwall, Ont., to maintain the barricades.

No one was reported injured in the incident, but Martin later told reporters in Montreal that his home had been ransacked and described the Warriors as agitators. Added Martin: “This is my reserve—this is not your reserve. Get the hell out.” For its part, the Mohawk Nation Office representing the Indians at the barri-

cades responded in one statement that the problem arose because an associate of Martin’s brought liquor into the community—something frowned upon by the Warriors. The statement added: “In the excitement, shots were fired into the air. The situation was brought under control.”

As the standoff entered its fourth week, slow negotiations continued between the Mohawks and Quebec officials to remove the heavily armed Mohawk and police barricades at Oka and the bridge. But the pace of the talks was not enough for some Quebec residents. In the Châteauguay area, further demonstrations followed on the heels of the Mercier Bridge

protest as angry south-shore residents blocked access to Montreal’s Champlain Bridge in an attempt to draw attention to their plight.

Oka residents, meanwhile, met to discuss a federal government plan to deal with the disputed land at the heart of the conflict—65 acres that the Mohawks claim as their own but that the town council wants to use to expand its municipal golf course and enlarge a housing development. Ottawa’s proposal: that it pay $3.8 million to Oka—on top of another $1.4 million paid to a private French developer for another section of disputed land—then turn the area over to the Mohawks. But Oka residents vetoed that proposal, saying that no negotiations could take place until the Indians disarmed and left their barricades. Declared Oka councillor Réjean Larocque: “The people are just fed up with the attitude of the Mohawks. If you lived here, you would understand the frustrations.”

The divisions within the community became glaringly apparent after the meeting when an antique-store owner, Jean-Pierre Marcellin, who had expressed sympathy for the natives, had the front window of his store smashed. And Pierre Min ville, an Oka resident who opposed the golf course expansion, told Maclean ’s that he has asked for police protection against residents who threatened to lynch him. Said Minville: “We are going through a racism crisis here that is incredible.”

Meanwhile, both federal and provincial officials said last week that they would welcome the involvement of the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights, which is assembling a 24-member delegation to send to Canada when the Mohawks agree to dismantle their barricades. The federation’s secretary general for international relations, Jean-Claude Fouque, who has spent eight days behind the barricades, said last week that both the Mohawks and non-Mohawks had been guilty of human rights abuses. Still, he added that the involvement of international observers would

be to the Indians’ advantage. Said Fouque: “They feel they will not be rolled up and fried while international observers are watching.” But the armed standoffs are also attracting the attention of other native leaders in Canada. One Cree leader from Quebec’s James Bay area, Matthew Coon-Come, predicted that youths might be encouraged to take up arms to defend their land in the face of the Quebec government’s continuing hydroelectricity megaprojects in the region. And Georges Erasmus, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, added that other aboriginal bands may have to take militant action to resolve their land claims. Said Erasmus: “We have come to the conclusion that peaceful negotiations are not working.” The danger remained that those attitudes may become the legacy of Oka and the Mercier Bridge.

DAN BURKE in Montreal