Some 30 years on, what have we learned from the Oka Crisis?

Published July 10, 2020 1:17 p.m. ET
Updated July 11, 2020 10:30 a.m. ET

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MONTREAL -- Randy Horne is a retired steelworker who lives in Kahnawake. Some 30 years ago, he was one of the Mohawks barricaded in the Pines, the stretch of Kanesatake adjacent to the Town of Oka’s public golf course. One night that sticks in his memory is Sept. 8, 1990.

"And it was getting late at night, and I didn’t think anything was going to happen," he said. He was in a foxhole designed as a defence mechanism from the Canadian Forces. "So I get in my sleeping bag, and the next thing you know, there was about four of them and they started clubbing me." 

He said the beating he took from four soldiers who had slipped into the Pines blinded him in one eye for a time. Now 30 years on, he reflects on how Oka could have been handled differently. 

"Well they (the provincial police and army) could have talked more," he said. "You know, discussed it more instead of action. You know, what they did over at the rail blockade."

CTV News repeatedly requested comment from both the SQ and Canadian Forces. Neither party would discuss the Oka Crisis. 

This past winter, the Kahnawake Mohawks blocked off the railroad tracks running through the territory. They joined similar actions nationwide in solidarity of the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs, who were blocking the construction of a pipeline through their territory in British Columbia. After governments negotiated with the Wet'suwet'en, the situation was defused, an outcome some point to as a positive change from the days of 78-day standoffs. 

"I'd like to think that's a structural change," said Marc Miller, the federal Indigenous services minister. "I'd like to think there are parts of that where it does take individuals to stand up and say we're not going to use force against our brothers and sisters.”

"Prior to ‘90, it was quite common for the government to pay no attention with what was going on with Native communities," said Kenneth McComber, a Mohawk who lives in Kahnawake. "Nobody would resist. After ‘90, people realized that they're not going take it anymore."

But when asking what was learned from the Oka Crisis, the answer heavily depends on whom one asks. 

"There were only losers on the 11th of July," said Geoff Kelley, who served as a longtime Indigenous affairs minister at the provincial level. "No one came out of the Oka Crisis a winner."

There will likely be a commemoration of the Oka Crisis on July 11th. 

"To me personally, it's not something to celebrate,” said Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Simon. "There are parts of it, yes, that were a benefit to many First Nations. It changed the rules of the game politically speaking."

During the winter rail blockade, Mohawks did drive onto the bridge waving flags to slow traffic, but they did not block the bridge. 

Some Mohawks wonder if blockades are the answer. 

"It gets the message out there but it also hurts us," said Louis Stacey, a Mohawk of Kanesatake. "Because it’s the citizens of the province, or the citizens of Canada, who are paying the price for their government’s lack of initiative." 

Simultaneously, other Mohawks warn that many of the underlying issues that led to the Oka Crisis still exist. Land claims are still outstanding between Kanesatake and Oka, and some say that governments need to be wary of incursions on Indigenous territories. 

"I guarantee if push came to shove," said Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer, a Kahnawake Mohawk councillor. "And any other attempt was ever tried again, it wouldn’t be pretty."

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