THE FURY OF OKA
THE CRISIS AT THE BARRICADES LENDS URGENCY TO THE SEARCH FOR SOLUTIONS
They stood eyeball to eyeball in tense confrontation, the masked Mohawk Warrior and the young soldier from the celebrated Canadian regiment. Both held semiautomatic rifles. Captured by television and broadcast again and again across the country, the image was rivetting. It also caught the essence of the struggle. In the end, it was the Mohawk who turned away from the fresh-faced youth from the Royal 22nd Regiment after facing each other among the pines on the Kanesatake Indian reserve near the beleaguered town of Oka, Que. Outnumbered, outgunned, outmanoeuvred, the encircled Mohawk Warriors of Kanesatake by Sunday evening were left with little choice but to bring to an end the ordeal that has racked Quebec—and the rest of the country—for much of the summer.
What began in the spring as an innocuous, almost banal, disagreement over the town of Oka’s plan to expand a municipal golf course into disputed land escalated into a full-blown national crisis. The confrontation between armed Mohawk militants and the Canadian Armed Forces has shattered Canadians’ complacency towards native affairs, exposing in the process grim undercurrents of racial bigotry (page 26). At times, it paralysed governments at both the federal and provincial levels, reveal-
ing that old methods are no longer adequate and lending additional urgency to the search for new approaches (page 28). Even more ominously, it has threatened to embroil all of Canada in a potentially divisive confrontation with the nation’s Indians. “This is not going to be the last battle. This is not the last stand,” declared Georges Erasmus, national chief of the 593,000-member Assembly of First Nations, as the troops closed in on the Mohawks last week. “This could be the first stand.”
In the showdown at Kanesatake on the Labor Day holiday weekend, the armed Mohawk militants, who had been at the forefront of the battle for seven weeks, had dwindled to a small band of no more than 25 by the time the troops moved in. The soldiers began their advance on Sept. 1 after receiving complaints of violence on the reserve. Two Mohawks, former band councillor Francis Jacob and his
son Corey, were beaten with baseball bats because, Francis Jacob said later, they were trying to curb mounting incidents of vandalism directed at residences on or near the reserve. By the end of the day, the Warriors were trapped on the grounds of the Kanesatake alcohol and drug treatment centre, with a riverside cliff behind them and surrounded on the other three sides by some 400 troops attached to the 2nd Battalion of the Royal 22nd, the renowned Van Doos.
Herded into the enclave with slow but steady deliberation by soldiers who unflinchingly faced down threats, insults and challenges, the Mohawk Warriors prepared for a siege. They reinforced the approaches to the two-storey treatment centre with felled trees and ditches. The strongpoints that they had built earlier were dismantled swiftly by the troops. Among those was the major barrier that had been reinforced with vehicles seized from the Sûreté du Québec (SQ) when the Warriors repelled an assault by the provincial police force on July 11. Repeatedly during the showdown with the troops, armed Warriors confronted individual soldiers, often face-toface. “Are you ready to die?” one Warrior screamed at a soldier. “Before I die, I’m going to take out 50 of you, and you’re No. 1 on my list.” Struggle: Other Mohawks warned that, despite their predicament, the struggle would continue elsewhere. “There’s going to be a war, man,” shouted one Warrior. “All the natives—going to wipe you out.” Declared another: “No more negotiations. They break and break and break agreements. So this is what Indians are going to be doing from now on.”
From the outset, the confrontations at Kanesatake and around the nearby Kahnawake Mohawk reserve have been dogged by misunderstanding and miscalculation. None was more tragic than the mistake that cost SQ Cpl. Marcel Lemay his life on July 11. He died in a hail of bullets as he and 100 other members of the provincial police force’s tactical team failed in an attempt to storm a small Mohawk barricade in Kanesatake. The repercussions of that incident have since spread from the picturesque little town 30 km west of Montreal to Kahnawake in the southern suburbs of the city and far beyond. Last week's events, with a few notable exceptions, were cast in the same sad mould.
At Kahnawake, only hours before the showdown at Oka, the women signalled the beginning of the end. Four of them, clan mothers, strode purposefully from behind the barricade blocking Highway 132 near the town of SteCatherine, south of Montreal. They formed a circle and knelt, throwing long shadows in the late-afternoon sun across the highway’s two narrow lanes. For several minutes, watched by a silent knot of masked Mohawk Warriors, a squad of soldiers and a sombre crowd of local residents, they quietly smoked a pipe of peace. Then, the ceremony complete, the women rose
and walked away, while the troops and the Mohawks began dismantling the makeshift barrier. Not long after, an Armed Forces helicopter touched down at the site, and Lt.-Col. Robin Gagnon, the battalion’s commanding officer, emerged to oversee the task. Later, he observed, “Today represents, possibly, the end to this whole conflict between the Mohawk people and Quebec.”
Caution: That note of caution proved to be prophetic. Within hours, the first of several setbacks stalled progress towards a settlement of the Mohawk standoff. Last week’s events began on a bleak note. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, emerging from a weekend meeting in Gaspé with the members of his Quebec Conservative caucus, labelled the demands tabled by Mohawk negotiators during weeks of talks to resolve the crisis as “bizarre.” Added Mulroney: “We will not be intimidated by individuals who refuse to accept the laws of the country.” The next day, Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa broke off negotiations. He asked the army to move in to dismantle the five barricades on the Kahnawake reserve, which blocked access to the Mercier Bridge into Montreal, and the three barricades at Oka sealing off the Kanesatake community. Echoing the Prime Minister, he warned that his
government would not tolerate “groups of citizens who accept laws that they approve and refuse others they do not like.”
The army, which had been moving troops and equipment into position for the previous 10 days, responded swiftly. Gen. John de Chastelain, Canadian Forces chief of staff, appeared on nationwide television to declare that military action was imminent. “As the last resort of Canadian law and order,” he said, “we cannot fail.” Few of those who watched on TV as de Chastelain delivered the ultimatum doubted that the steely general was capable of acting on his implied threat to use the military’s firepower to end the standoff (page 24).
And that firepower was impressive. With the atmosphere of tension palpably mounting, de Chastelain deployed a total of 3,033 troops, 2,500 of them combat soldiers. The 3rd Battalion of the Royal 22nd tightened the circle around Kahnawake. The 2nd Battalion of the same regiment moved closer to the barricades at Kanesatake. The Royal Canadian Regiment’s 2nd Battalion supported the Van Doos at Kahnawake. The 5th Artillery Regiment did the same at Kanesatake. Dun-green equipment jammed the narrow roads in and around the two communities. Twin Huey helicopters and CF-5 reconnaissance jets crisscrossed the
CF-5s AND PSYCHOLOGY TURNED UP THE PRESSURE ON THE WARRIORS
skies. The naval training ship HMCS Acadian patrolled the St. Lawrence River. “We are now entering a new phase in this crisis,” said Lt.Gen. Kent Foster, the officer in overall command of the intimidating forces arrayed against the Mohawks. “We are now going into a military operation.”
Still, Armed Forces commanders initially launched a campaign of psychological warfare designed to weaken the morale of the Warriors and civilians on the reserves. In one early incident, two CF-5s swooped low over the reserve at Oka just as Mulroney completed a televised news conference in which he urged the Indians to lay down their arms. The following day, the tension among the entrenched Mohawks became even more pronounced as they watched a televised video, which the army had prepared, showing aerial photos of the Indian positions and detailed accounts of the weapons believed to be in Warrior hands—but revealing nothing of the army’s own intentions or deployment.
By midweek, the warnings clearly had frayed Mohawk nerves. Behind the Indian lines at Kanesatake, one 20-year-old Warrior, who identified himself as Hunter, compared his emotions to those of a convict who arrives at the gallows only to have his execution abruptly postponed. Said Hunter: “They get us all psyched up and then they cut the rope again.” But the soldiers facing the Mohawks clearly took the risk of casualties seriously. Intelli-
gence reports indicated that the Warriors in Kanesatake were well prepared to defend themselves. In addition to AK47s and other assault rifles, the military also suspected the Warriors of possessing at least one mortar, as well as one or more .50-calibre machine-guns and RPG-7s—a type of rocket-propelled grenade. “They have anti-armor weapons,” Maj. Alain Tremblay told Maclean ’s. “One shot from an RPG-7 will kill whoever is in the vehicle.”
Tremors: The risk of a bloodbath created tremors well beyond the limits of the two blockaded communities.
In New Brunswick, more than 70 Maliseet Indians set out by car and bus to drive to Quebec with the declared intention of forming a human buffer between the army and the Mohawks. In Toronto, demonstrators forced their way into the Conservative party offices to protest the decision to order the army into action. And in British Columbia, Gitksan-Wet’suwet’en Chief Don Ryan said that, if the army shot Indians, “then you’re going to see a long, protracted fighting
condition by the Indian people, and it’ll be guerrilla warfare.”
But then, the first sign of a breakthrough emerged on Aug. 29. Lt.-Col. Gagnon and Jack Le Claire, a businessman and traditional Mohawk chieftain at Kahnawake, who had been meeting quietly for more than a week at an undisclosed location, managed to reach an informal agreement to allow both sides to begin jointly dismantling the five barricades around Kahnawake. Then, the troops and Mohawks began tearing down the barriers, which have enraged residents of the dormitory suburbs scattered along the St. Lawrence’s South Shore opposite Montreal. “The decision we came to was to avoid bloodshed,” said a visibly relieved Le Claire. “We have not surrendered. It is strictly something to ease tensions, to help negotiators come to a settlement.”
The manoeuvre worked, for a time at least. A team of negotiators representing various factions of Mohawks, as well as representatives of both the Quebec and federal governments, embarked on a feverish round of talks across the river from Kahnawake inthe Hilton Hotel at Dorval airport. Meeting in a series of sessions, one of which lasted for 20 hours without a break, the teams began to shape the fundamental outlines of an agreement that offered some promise of
achieving a peaceful resolution to the tense conflict.
But twists and reversals continued to mark the crisis. Late on Aug. 30, angry Mohawk negotiators accused Quebec authorities of “sabotaging” an imminent deal by failing to allow deliveries of food and medicine through police and army lines into the blockaded communities. Bourassa abruptly withdrew provincial officials from the talks at the Dorval Hilton and ordered the army to resume taking down the barricades by force.
The discussions appeared to have foundered over the issue of possible future criminal prosecutions against Mohawks for acts committed during the crisis—and the Mohawks’ insistence that those actions were defensible in protection of native sovereignty. Declared Jerry Pelletier, a Kanesatake Mohawk taking part in the talks: “Our people are not criminals for defending their own land.”
Dangerous: Whatever the cutcome of Quebec’s Indian ~ summer, it was clear that I avents have forced the complex, troublesome issue of native affairs to the forefront of -
the national agenda. Indeed, that process began in June, when Manitoba Cree NDP MLA Elijah Harper plunged the country into political confusion with his soft-spoken use of parliamentary procedure in that province’s legislature to help scuttle the Meech Lake constitutional accord because it did not address native concerns. Quebec’s Mohawks demonstrated that native rights issues could be joined in a far more dramatic—and dangerous—fashion.
When the Mohawks on the Kahnawake reserve seized the Mercier Bridge, they did more than strangle access to Montreal.
They also provided chilling evidence of the ease with which native groups across the country are capable of applying pressure on the rest of Canadian society. And even as the barricades fell last week, natives and nonnatives alike appeared to be coming to grips with a new assessment of the Indians’ potential leverage. Many native leaders underscored the urgency that they now feel should apply to meeting their g concerns. After Mulroney | criticized Mohawk negotias tors for delaying talks, Manio toba’s Harper said: “We have § waited 100 years. Who has been patient?”
What most Indians appear to want most is a form of sovereignty over their own affairs. But that goal has implications that are as farreaching as they are unsettling. In Quebec, it has thrown a new light on Bourassa’s plans for a massive and controversial expansion of the
James Bay hydroelectric development—the linchpin of his economic strategy. As Robert Epstein, legal adviser to the James Bay Cree, pointed out, “Now, Bourassa has to seriously consider the fact that there will never be a James Bay 2 if Indians say ‘No.’ ” Indeed, the Assembly of First Nations’ Erasmus told Maclean’s that “99 per cent of the native population is peaceful. But if Quebec were to begin the second phase of James Bay tomorrow, 1,000 of us would be there the next day.”
Such emotion was also evident among nonnatives when anti-Mohawk demonstrators hurled rocks at a passing caravan of cars and trucks carrying Mohawk women, children and elderly attempting to flee the anticipated army assault on the Kahnawake reserve (page 20).
The attack was widely condemned, and the image of young, muscular men in T-shirts and shorts pelting the vehicles with huge chunks of debris may well remain etched in the national consciousness. It is certain to be bitterly remembered by the Mohawks. In a standard reaction, one unidentified Kahnawake woman told a radio phone-in program the following day that she would “never forgive the people who threw rocks at all those innocent children.” Among the Mohawks who had stood behind the barricades, the fear of retribution by the authorities was palpable. That fear appeared to be the principal reason for the Mohawk negotiators’ insistence that the SQ play no role in future policing within the two communities. Their concerns may be unjustified. But the fact that they are so widely held—and so reflective of the widening gulf between native and non-native Canadians—is perhaps the most bleak of all the legacies left in the wake of a sad and sobering summer.
BARRY CAME in Montreal with DAN BURKE and ANN McLAUGHLIN in Oka and BRUCE WALLACE in Kahnawake