OTTAWA BUYS SOME OF THE DISPUTED LAND, BUT THE MOHAWK STANDOFF AT OKA CONTINUES
GREG W. TAYLORAugust61990
OTTAWA BUYS SOME OF THE DISPUTED LAND, BUT THE MOHAWK STANDOFF AT OKA CONTINUES
The tense standoff had continued throughout the week: armed Mohawks facing Quebec police at the barricades at Oka and Montreal’s Mercier Bridge. Behind the Mohawk lines, rumors circulated that authorities were preparing for another attack on their positions. And as the pressure escalated, Mohawk leaders warned that any raid would meet far more violence than the July 11 provincial police assault on the Oka barricades in which one officer died. Then, on Friday, federal Indian Affairs Minister Thomas Siddon intervened with an announcement designed to lessen tensions. Siddon said that Ottawa had concluded a deal with a French property developer to purchase a portion of the disputed land in Oka that the Mohawks claim as their own—and hoped to soon conclude another arrangement to purchase the rest of the land at issue. For their part, Mohawk leaders said that Siddon’s offer was not enough to end the impasse, although some of them added that Ottawa’s initiative could at least open the door to negotiations to resolve the crisis. Said Mavis Etienne, a Mohawk spokeswoman at Oka: “It’s a drop in the
bucket—but it looks like they’re moving a bit.” Cool: Still, at week’s end the barricades remained standing—a testament to the resolve of the Mohawks to achieve their goals in Oka. With hundreds of police still surrounding the area, the strain of the standoff and longstanding rivalries within the Indian community had created slight cracks in the natives’ apparent solidarity. But Indians across Canada
mounted dozens of demonstrations and brief blockades in support of the Mohawks, human rights organizations came to their support, and government officials were subjected to intense criticism for allowing the impasse to continue. And in spite of the strain caused by the twoweek-long police blockade of their positions, the Mohawks behind the barriers vowed to stand firm (page 24). “We won’t put our guns down,” said one Mohawk fighter. “We have to go all the way. Natives from everywhere are watching and counting on us.”
Indeed, the Mohawks also gave a cool reception to a proposition late last week from Quebec Native Affairs Minister John Ciaccia. Offering what he called “a proposal that is total,” Ciaccia said that the provincial police would reduce their presence to eight officers at all Mohawk barricades if the Mohawks turned over their weapons. That operation would take place under the supervision of a special committee that would include Mohawk members. But Ciaccia would not accept Mohawk demands that those natives involved in defending the barricades be granted an amnesty from any prosecution. Mohawk leaders said flatly that, without an amnesty, there could be no agreement.
The simmering dispute at Oka escalated on March 11, when heavily armed Mohawks cut off an access road to a nine-hole municipal golf course on the west side of Oka, 30 km west of Montreal. Their barricade was aimed at stopping the town’s plan to allow the expansion of the course onto 55 acres of land claimed by local Mohawks who live in and around Oka, in a community known as Kanesatake. But municipal officials obtained a court injunction to have the barricade removed, and, at dawn on July 11, about 100 members of the Sûreté du Québec (SQ) tactical force used assault rifles, concussion grenades and tear gas in an attempt to storm the barricades. But the Indians were well prepared, their ranks bolstered by members of the militant Mohawk Warrior societies from other reserves (page 22).
They drove the police back, and the two sides erected facing sets of barricades.
Weapon: During the frantic three-hour battle, SQ Cpl. Marcel Lemay, 31, was shot to death. Native leaders insisted that the officer had been hit by the SQ’s own fire, but Quebec authorities announced that a coroner had found that the bullet was not a type used by police.
Meanwhile, within hours of the SQ raid, a second group of Mohawks, from the Kahnawake reserve directly south of Montreal, blockaded the Mercier Bridge, the main access to Montreal for residents of several suburban communities on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River, including Châteauguay. Po-
lice responded by sending in 900 more officers to seal off the Mohawks at Oka, and a substantial force to block off roads into Kahnawake.
For residents of Oka, a town of 1,800 that is largely dependent on tourism, the prolonged police blockade has brought economic devastation (page 21). And for those behind the lines at both Oka and Kahnawake, the hardship was compounded as police refused to allow deliveries of food and medical supplies. Even some shipments by the Canadian Red Cross were turned back. But, late last week, the Quebec government responded to widespread complaints that police were using food as a weapon. Ciaccia said that, while people passing the barricades would still be searched, “there will be no restrictions in terms of the delivery of food” or medical supplies. Answering native charges that the government had planned to starve the Indians into submission, Ciaccia insisted, “It has never been the policy of this government to do that.”
Abuses: But the police blockade had clearly left a different impression. Human rights activists accused Quebec authorities of violating the basic human rights of the people living behind the barricades. Noted Quebec’s ombudsman, Daniel Jacoby: “How can we have reached this point, in a society that is supposedly democratic?” Edward Broadbent, former leader of the New Democrats and now president of the Montreal-based Canadian Centre for Human Rights, said that he was “appalled and offended” that police would stop supplies from
reaching residents who had been under siege for two weeks. He added that the situation would make it more awkward for Canada to raise human rights issues abroad. Said Broadbent: “These countries will be saying to me: ‘What about aboriginal rights in Canada?’ ”
In fact, there were signs last week that the treatment of the Indians could provide public relations ammunition to countries that Canada has criticized for human rights abuses. In South Africa, for one, an official at the foreign affairs department noted apparent parallels between Canada’s and South Africa’s “problems with their native peoples.” Meanwhile, a Mohawk deputation made another attempt to attract international attention by asking the New York City-based United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations for an investigation of alleged human rights abuses in Oka.
Federal government officials also had to deal with intense domestic criticism over their failure to resolve the crisis. Indeed, prior to his Friday announcement of the land purchase, Siddon had been roundly castigated for his continued insistence that the problem was a provincial matter. At the same time, controversial statements by Harry Swain, Siddon’s deputy minister, increased the pressure on Ottawa. Early in the week, Swain and other senior members of the department held a media briefing on a not-for-attribution basis. But some of Swain’s remarks were so contentious that news organizations attributed them to him by name—adding fresh fuel to an already inflamed situation and further angering native groups across the country. Among his assertions: the Warriors manning the Oka barricades were part of a “criminal organization” that had “hijacked” the land dispute at Oka and turned it into an “armed insurrection.” Royal: Native leaders reacted angrily, demanding that Siddon fire his top bureaucrat. Ovide Mercredi, a regional chief of the national Assembly of First Nations from Manitoba, accused Ottawa of aggravating the situation. Declared Mercredi: “I take the deputy minister’s comments as an effort to turn Canadian public opinion against the Indian people. It is in everybody’s interest that we don’t get involved in playing games as to whether or not a person has clean hands.”
And in his first public comments since the dispute began, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney at the end of the week rejected widespread calls for a royal commission z into aboriginal issues. But he ac£ knowledged that Ottawa must en| sure better treatment for aborigiz nais. Said Mulroney: “I believe our § native people over decades and i centuries have not been well treat“ ed by Canada and by Canadians.”
For his part, Siddon initially attempted to distance himself from his deputy’s remarks. Said the minister: “No, I have no evidence to support that.” He added, “Certainly, there have been many rumors, but I do not subscribe to rumors myself.” Later, though, he changed his position substantially. Emerging from a cabinet meeting the next day, he said that, while he may not have chosen the exact words used by Swain, “ facts are facts.”
‘A DANGEROUS GROUP OF PEOPLE WITH TREMENDOUS
Gun: Meanwhile, other politicians and officials levelled similar accusations at the Warriors. Jacques Parizeau, leader of Quebec’s opposition Parti Québécois, described the Indians blocking the Mercier Bridge as “terrorists.” Speaking to reporters, Parizeau said that the provincial police should have attacked the Mohawk barricades as soon as they went up. He urged Premier Robert Bourassa to try to negotiate a peaceful settlement, but added that if no solution could be found, the police should use whatever force necessary “in the fight against terrorism.”
New York state’s top police official expressed similar sentiments. State police have had several violent encounters with Mohawks on the U.S. portion of the Akwesasne reserve straddling the border near Cornwall, Ont., and are still occupying part of that reserve in the
wake of gun battles over gambling casinos in which two men died on May 1. Thomas Constantine, superintendent of the state police, told a state legislature committee hearing last week in Fort Covington,
N.Y., that the Warriors are “a dangerous group of people with tremendous firepower.”
He added that they should never be allowed to “gain control of major highways, bridges and access points” as they had in Quebec. Constantine later told Maclean ’s that, because the Warriors at the two Quebec flash points were almost certainly “extremely well-armed,” Canadian police faced a terrible dilemma: “Do you get numbers of your troops killed or do you launch
a pre-emptive, military strike -
and kill a number of people?”
Even within the Mohawk community, the Warriors faced criticism last week as a spokeswoman for traditional chiefs from Akwesasne, Barbara Barnes, called them “a gang of criminals.” But Warrior leaders told Maclean’s that
the criticism was unfounded. Francis Boots, for one, spokesman for the Akwesasne Warriors, said he was particularly offended by Swain’s remarks. “Those are totally racist remarks based on gossip and rumors,” he said. “The overall picture is that the government really messed up and they are trying to blame their inadequacies on someone.” And Billy Two Rivers, a Mohawk spokesman from Kahnawake, said that labelling the Warriors as criminals, and promoting the impression that the Mohawk community is divided, was police and government propaganda. “The Mohawks of Kanesatake and Kahnawake stand together shoulder to shoulder,” he said. “We are all warriors, every man, woman and child.”
Comfort: That sense of solidarity seemed to extend far beyond the Mohawk Nation, as Indians across the country held sympathy demonstrations. In northern Manitoba, Indian bands set up blockades on major highways that run through Indian land, stopping traffic to hand out information. On the Ottawa River’s Victoria Island, in the shadow of the Parliament Buildings, about 100 Quebec Algonquin Indians erected a tent community— then made an unsuccessful attempt to occupy department of Indian affairs offices in Hull.
Among many protests in British Columbia, members of the Lillooet tribe in Seton Portage, 175 km northeast of Vancouver, blocked the BC Rail line in an attempt to force the provincial government to accept their own claim to land. That action ended on Friday, when Premier William Vander Zalm persuaded the natives to end their blockade.
Meanwhile, in spite of Ottawa’s attempt to break the Oka impasse at week’s end, many experts remained critical of the entire landclaims process in Canada. Said Frank Cassidy, a land-claims expert at the University of Victoria: “The current land-claims settlement process is too slow and too cumbersome, and to have a claim in your mind and see years and years ahead breeds enormous frustration.” For his part, Siddon offered the Kanesatake Mohawks a special review of their claims. But he also said that such a review should not be viewed as a precedent, because the Mohawks’ case was unique—a development that clearly offered little comfort to other native groups in Canada. Cassidy said that, for now, many natives may not resort to violence in pursuit of their claims. But, he warned, if governments do not find “better, faster ways to settle land claims and acknowledge aboriginal rights, then the tendency will be towards more direct action.” And that, indeed, was a chilling prospect.
GREG W. TAYLOR with DAN BURKE and ANN McLAUGHLIN in Montreal and BRUCE WALLACE in Ottawa
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