Oka Crisis

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Oka Crisis
Oka stare down.jpg
Patrick Cloutier, a 'Van Doo' perimeter sentry, and Anishinaabe Warrior Brad Larocque, facing off became one of Canada's most widely circulated images.
DateJuly 11 – September 26, 1990

Canadian tactical victory

  • End of Mohawk blockade

Flag of Canada (Pantone).svg  Canada

Commanders and leaders
John de Chastelain Ellen Gabriel
Units involved

Canadian Armed Forces

Royal Canadian Mounted Police
Sûreté du Québec

Flag of Mohawk Warrior Society.svg Warrior Society

  • Local and non-local sympathizers

Forces Mobile Command:

  • 4,500 soldiers
  • 1,000+ vehicles [1]


  • Small number positioned at various barricades & patrols

Sûreté du Québec:

Non-local activists:

  • 2,500+ activists/warriors [2]

Local activists:

  • 75–600 armed warriors (at various times; including non-locals)
  • Dozens of unarmed local activists
Casualties and losses
Flag of Canada (Pantone).svg 30 wounded [3] [4]
Flag of Quebec.svg 1 killed
75+ wounded [1]

The Oka Crisis [5] [6] [7] (French : Crise d'Oka) was a land dispute between a group of Mohawk people and the town of Oka, Quebec, Canada, which began on July 11, 1990, and lasted 78 days until September 26, 1990 with one fatality. The dispute was the first well-publicized violent conflict between First Nations and the Canadian government in the late 20th century.


Historical background

Mohawk people first settled in the Montreal area in the early 18th century, moving north from their homeland in the Hudson River valley. [8] They displaced the Wyandot people (or Hurons) native to the area, with whom the Haudenosaunee (of which the Mohawk were a tribe) had long been in conflict, and who had been weakened through prolonged contact with French settlers. Mohawk settlement in the St Lawrence river valley was influenced to a great extent by French Jesuit missionaries who sought converts from among the Mohawk and who established Jesuit missionary villages for them at Kahnawake and Kahnesatake. [9] [10] [11]

In 1717, the governor of New France had granted the lands encompassing "the Pines" and the Pine Hill Cemetery, where local Mohawk ancestors had been buried,(and to whom it was considered sacred burial ground) [12] to the Society of the Priests of Saint Sulpice or Sulpician Fathers Seminary, a Roman Catholic order that was based out of Paris, France.[ citation needed ] The parcel of land was expanded again in 1735 through a second grant. [13] :29 In both instances the land was granted provided it would be used for the benefit of Indigenous residents. [14] :197 Following the conquest of New France in 1760, the Mohawk began advocating for the recognition of their land rights to British officials. Their requests to be released from the rule of the Sulpicians and reporting of seminary officials to white settlers were ignored. [15] The Mohawk continued pursuing their right to the land, petitioning, and failing, to obtain the recognition of Lord Elgin's recognition of their claims in 1851. Eight years later, the Province of Canada extended the official title of the disputed land to the Sulpicians. [15]

In 1868, one year after Confederation, the chief of the Oka Mohawk people, Joseph Onasakenrat, wrote a letter to the seminary claiming that its grant had included about nine square miles reserved for Mohawk use in trust of the seminary, and that the seminary had neglected this trust by granting themselves (the seminary) sole ownership rights. [16] [17] In 1869 Onasakenrat attacked the seminary with a small armed force after having given the missionaries eight days to hand over the land. Local authorities ended this stand-off with force. [18] [19] In 1936, the seminary sold the territory under protest by the local Mohawk community. At the time they still kept cattle on the common land. By 1956, the Mohawk were left to six remaining square kilometers from their original 165. [17] [19]

In 1959, the town approved the development of a private nine-hole golf course, the Club de golf d'Oka, on a portion of the disputed land. [17] The project area bordered The Pines, as well as a Mohawk burial ground in use, at that time, for nearly a century. [20] :355 The Mohawk suit filed against the development did not succeed. Construction also began on a parking lot and golf greens adjacent to the Mohawk cemetery.

In 1977, the Kanehsatà:ke band filed an official land claim with the federal Office of Native Claims regarding the land. The claim was accepted for filing and funds were provided for additional research of the claim. In 1986 the claim was rejected on the basis that it failed to meet key legal criteria. [21]

In March 1989, the Club de golf d'Oka announced plans to expand the golf course by an additional nine holes. As the Office of Native Claims had rejected the Mohawk claim on the land three years earlier, his office did not consult the Mohawk on the plans. No environmental or historic preservation review was undertaken. Protests by Mohawks and others, as well as concern from the Quebec Minister of the Environment, led to negotiations and a postponement of the project by the municipality in August pending a court ruling on the development's legality.

In 1990, the court found in favour of the developers and the mayor of Oka, Jean Ouellette, announced that the remainder of the pines would be cleared to expand the golf course to eighteen holes and to construct 60 condominiums. Not all residents of Oka approved of the plans, but opponents found the mayor's office unwilling to discuss them. [22]


As a protest against the court decision to allow the golf course expansion to proceed, some members of the Mohawk community erected a barricade blocking access to the area. A court injunction in late April ordering the dismantling of the barricade was ignored, as was a second order issued on June 29, 1990. [23] :382 Mayor Ouellette demanded compliance with the court order, but the land defenders refused. Quebec's Minister of Native Affairs John Ciaccia wrote a letter of support for the Mohawk, stating that "these people have seen their lands disappear without having been consulted or compensated, and that, in my opinion, is unfair and unjust, especially over a golf course." [24]

On July 11, the mayor asked the Sûreté du Québec (SQ), Quebec's provincial police force, to intervene with the Mohawk protest, citing alleged criminal activity at the barricade. The Mohawk people, in accordance with the Constitution of the Iroquois Confederacy, asked the women, the caretakers of the land and "progenitors of the nation", whether or not the arsenal which the Mohawk Warrior Society had amassed should remain.

The SQ deployed an RCMP Emergency Response Team (ERT) (French: Groupe tactique d'intervention), a police tactical unit, which responded to the barricade by deploying tear gas canisters and concussion grenades [25] [12] in an attempt to force the Mohawks to disperse. In response, gunfire ensued from both sides, [25] and after a 15-minute gun battle the police fell back, abandoning six cruisers and a bulldozer. Although an initial account reported that 31-year-old SQ Corporal Marcel Lemay had been shot in the face during the firefight, [26] a later inquest determined that the bullet which struck and eventually killed him struck his "left side below the armpit, an area not covered by [his] bullet-proof vest". [27]

Before the raid there were approximately 30 armed Mohawks in and around the barricade; following the gun battle this number grew to 60–70 and would later swell to 600. [1] The Mohawks seized six vehicles, including four police cars, and commandeered the front-end loader to crush the vehicles and use them to form a barricade across the main highway. [28]

Members of the Seton Lake Indian Band blockade the BC Rail line in support of Oka, while a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer looks on. Later in the day, several of the elders protesting were arrested, and a confrontation with the band community ensued as Mounties marched the squad cars holding those arrested through the reserve en route to Lillooet. Seton blockade.jpg
Members of the Seton Lake Indian Band blockade the BC Rail line in support of Oka, while a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer looks on. Later in the day, several of the elders protesting were arrested, and a confrontation with the band community ensued as Mounties marched the squad cars holding those arrested through the reserve en route to Lillooet.

The Mohawks established a network for communications between the Mohawk villages Akwesasne, Kanesatake and Kahnawake, that used hand-held radios, cellular phones, air raid sirens and fire hall bells, as well as local radio stations, and human patrols. [12] The situation escalated as the local Mohawks were joined by Natives from across the country and the United States. Despite pressure to do so, their barricade was not dismantled. [12] The Sûreté du Québec established their own blockades on highway 344 to restrict access to Oka and Kanesatake.[ citation needed ] Another group of Mohawks at the nearby location of Kahnawake, in solidarity with Kanesatake, blockaded the Mercier Bridge at the point where it passed through their territory, thereby sealing off a major access point between the Island of Montreal and Montreal's heavily populated South Shore suburbs. [29]

The blocking of the Mercier Bridge resulted in sometimes violent confrontations between the Mohawk and non-Indingenous commuters. At one point, members of the LaSalle community threw rocks at vehicles containing Mohawk elders, women and children, as they attempted to leave the Bridge following a negotiated deal between the Mohawk and police officials. [23] :383 At the peak of the crisis, the Mercier Bridge and Routes 132, 138 and 207 were all blocked, creating substantial disruption to traffic and anger grew as the crisis dragged on. A group of frustrated Châteauguay residents started building an unauthorized, unplanned roadway circumventing the Kahnawake reserve. Long after the crisis, this unfinished roadway was eventually incorporated into Quebec Autoroute 30.

Frustration over traffic congestion and diversion due to the bridge and road blocks were occasionally expressed publicly. Residents of Châteauguay burned an effigy of a Mohawk warrior while chanting "sauvages" (savages). [30] Radio host Gilles Proulx raised tensions with comments such as the Mohawks "couldn't even speak French". These remarks inflamed tempers that had been running especially high from comments preceding this crisis, including those by the federal Member of Parliament for Châteauguay, Ricardo Lopez. [31]

On August 8, Quebec premier Robert Bourassa announced at a press conference that in accord with Section 275 of the National Defence Act , he was requesting military support in "aid of the civil power". Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was reluctant to have the federal government and, in particular, the Canadian Forces, so involved. Under the act, however, the Solicitor General of Quebec, under direction from the Premier of Quebec, had the right to requisition the armed forces to maintain law and order as a provincial responsibility; this move had precedent, including two decades earlier during the October Crisis, during which Bourassa had requested and received military aid.

It was around this time that the SQ apparently lost control of the situation, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were deployed on August 14. They were prohibited from using force and were soon overwhelmed by riots caused by Mohawks and mobs created by the blocked traffic (during the course of which, ten constables were hospitalized). [3] [ better source needed ]

The Chief of the Defence Staff, General John de Chastelain, placed Quebec-based troops in support of the provincial authorities; some 2,500 regular and reserve troops from the 34 and 35 Canadian Brigade Groups and 5 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group were put on notice. On August 20, a company of the Royal 22e Régiment, led by Major Alain Tremblay, took over three barricades and arrived at the final blockade leading to the disputed area. There, they reduced the stretch of no man's land, originally implemented by the Sûreté du Québec before the barricade at the Pines, from 1.5 kilometres to 5 metres. Additional troops and mechanized equipment mobilized at staging areas around Montreal, while reconnaissance aircraft flew air photo missions over Mohawk territory to gather intelligence. Despite high tensions between the two sides, no shots were exchanged.

Resolution and aftermath

On August 29, the Mohawks at the Mercier Bridge negotiated an end to their protest blockade with Lieutenant-Colonel Robin Gagnon, the "Van Doo" commander who had been responsible for the south shore of the St. Lawrence River during the crisis. This stand-down eventually contributed to the resolution of the original siege on the Kahnawake reserve, and on September 26 the Mohawks there dismantled and burned some of their guns and returned to the reserve after ceremonially burning tobacco. [32]

Mohawks at Oka, however, felt betrayed at the loss of their most effective bargaining chip in the Mercier Bridge: once traffic began flowing again, the Quebec government rejected further negotiations pursuant to their original dispute concerning the Oka golf course expansion. [32] September 25 witnessed the final engagement of the crisis: a Mohawk warrior walked around the perimeter of the blockade area with a long stick, setting off flares that had been originally installed by the Canadian Forces to alert them to individuals fleeing the area. The soldiers turned a water hose on this man, but it lacked enough pressure to disperse the crowd surrounding him. This crowd taunted the soldiers and began throwing water balloons at them, but the incident did not escalate further. [33]

Among those charged and convicted for their participation was Ronaldo Casalpro (who used the alias Ronald "Lasagna" Cross during the conflict). Casalpro was beaten by Sûreté du Québec officers after his arrest, and while three were suspended without pay, the case took so long to process that they had already left the force. [34] Two SQ officers were suspended and investigated for allegedly beating Casalpro while in captivity, but were not subsequently charged. [34] Cross served a six-year sentence for assault and weapons charges related to his role in the crisis and died of a heart attack in November 1999. [34] Casalpro's brother, Tracy Cross, later served as the best man at the wedding of slain SQ Corporal Lemay's sister, Francine, who had reconciled with the community after reading At the Woods' Edge, a history of Kanesatake. [35]

The golf course expansion that had originally triggered the crisis was cancelled and the land under dispute was purchased from the developers by the federal government for $5.3 million. [15] The municipality initially refused to sell the land until Mohawk barricade were dismantled, but acquiesced when the government threatened to expropriate the land without compensation. [36] :75 The Oka Crisis motivated the development of a national First Nations Policing Policy to try to prevent future incidents, and brought Native issues into the forefront in Canada. [33] In 1991, Ouellette was re-elected mayor of Oka by acclamation. He later said of the crisis that his responsibilities as mayor required him to act as he did. [37]

In media

The Oka Crisis was extensively documented and inspired numerous books and films. Canadian filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin has made documentaries about the Oka Crisis, including Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance (1993) and Rocks at Whiskey Trench (2000). These and two additional documentaries on the crisis were all produced by the National Film Board of Canada: Christine Welsh directed Keepers of the Fire (1994), which documented the role of Mohawk women during the crisis, and Alec MacLeod created Acts of Defiance (1993). [38]

Montreal Gazette journalist Albert Nerenberg switched careers after smuggling a video camera behind the barricades and making his first documentary, called Okanada. While serving a college internship at the Mohawk Survival School, Ric Oliveira was the only American journalist allowed to live on the reservation during the time of the crisis. [39]

Micheal Baxendale and Craig MacLaine wrote This Land Is Our Land: The Mohawk Revolt at Oka. Geoffrey York and Loreen Pindera's wrote People of the Pines: The People and the Legacy of Oka (1991). Donna Goodleaf wrote Entering the Warzone: A Mohawk Perspective on Resisting Invasions, which was published by Theytus Books in 1995.

Gerald R. Alfred, a Kahnawake Mohawk who was part of the band council during the crisis, and who later became a professor of political science, wrote Heeding the Voices of Our Ancestors: Kahnawake Mohawk Politics and the Rise of Native Nationalism (1995). This was based on his PhD dissertation, which examined the issues.

John Ciaccia, the Minister of Native Affairs for Quebec at the time, wrote a book about the events related to the Oka Crisis. His book, titled The Oka Crisis, A Mirror of the Soul, was published in 2000. Harry Swain, then the federal deputy minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, wrote "Oka: a Political Crisis and its Legacy," in 2010.

Robin Philpot wrote a book about English Canada's use of the crisis as a political tool following the failed Meech Lake Accord: Oka: dernier alibi du Canada anglais (1991).

Anarchist author and activist Peter Gelderloos has argued that the Oka Crisis should serve as a model for activists to get what they want for four reasons. [40]

  1. It was able to successfully seize territory and repel state forces
  2. It did not have the support of political or economic elites
  3. It spread ideas of indigenous sovereignty and social justice
  4. It was successful in stopping the construction of the golf course

In art

Joseph Tehawehron David, a Mohawk artist who became known for his role as a warrior during the Oka Crisis in 1990, developed a body of artistic work that was deeply influenced by his experience "behind the wire" in 1990.

In the 1999 film The Insider , Al Pacino's character Lowell Bergman says "Everybody thinks Canadian Mounties ride horses and rescue ladies from rapids. Mike, they backed locals in Oka in a fight with Mohawks over building a golf course on their burial site, they beat up protestors at Kanesatake".

The Canadian punk rock band Propagandhi wrote a song titled "Oka Everywhere", which was released in 1995 on a 10-inch split album with I Spy. It was later re-released on their 1998 compilation album Where Quantity Is Job Number 1 .

Additional sources

A vast amount has been written in both English and French and on the Oka crisis, including, but not limited to:

In French:

Documentary films

See also

Related Research Articles

Mohawk people Indigenous tribe of North America

The Mohawk people are the most easterly tribe of the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois Confederacy. They are an Iroquoian-speaking indigenous people of North America, with communities in northern New York State and southeastern Canada, primarily around Lake Ontario and the St Lawrence River. As one of the five original members of the Iroquois League, the Mohawk are known as the Keepers of the Eastern Door – the traditional guardians of the Iroquois Confederation against invasions from the east.

Kahnawake Indian reserve in Quebec, Canada

The Kahnawake Mohawk Territory is a First Nations reserve of the Mohawks of Kahnawá:ke on the south shore of the Saint Lawrence River in Quebec, Canada, across from Montreal. Recorded by French Canadians in 1719 as a Jesuit mission, it has also been known as Seigneury Sault du St. Louis, Caughnawaga and 17 European spelling variations of the Mohawk Kahnawake.

Kanesatake Mohawk Territory in Quebec, Canada

Kanehsatà:ke is a Mohawk settlement on the shore of the Lake of Two Mountains in southwestern Quebec, Canada, at the confluence of the Ottawa and Saint Lawrence rivers and about 48 kilometres (30 mi) west of Montreal. People who reside in Kanehsatà:ke are referred to as Kanehsata'kehró:non. As of 2014, the total registered population was 2400, with a total of about 1350 persons living on the territory. Both they and the Mohawks of the Kahnawà:ke reserve, located across from Montreal, also control and have hunting and fishing rights to Tiowéro:ton.

Akwesasne Mohawk Territory

The Mohawk Nation at Akwesasne is a Mohawk Nation (Kanien'kehá:ka) territory that straddles the intersection of international borders and provincial boundaries on both banks of the St. Lawrence River. Most of the land and population are in what is otherwise present-day Canada. A small portion is also in the United States. Although divided by an international border, the residents consider themselves to be one community. They maintain separate police forces due to jurisdictional issues and national laws.

Alanis Obomsawin Abenaki artist and filmmaker in Montreal

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Oka, Quebec Municipality in Quebec, Canada

Oka is a small village on the northern bank of the Ottawa River, northwest of Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Located in the Lower Laurentians on Lake of Two Mountains, where the Ottawa has its confluence with the St. Lawrence River, the town has a main thoroughfare that is now part of Quebec Route 344. It's located 50 km northwest of Montreal.

Joseph Onasakenrat Mohawk chief

Joseph Onasakenrat, also known as Sosé Onasakenrat, was a Mohawk chief of Kanesatake, one of the Seven Nations of Canada in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Honoré Mercier Bridge bridge crossing the St. Lawrence River near Montreal, Quebec, Canada

The Honoré Mercier Bridge in Quebec, Canada, connects the Montreal borough of LaSalle on the Island of Montreal with the Mohawk reserve of Kahnawake, Quebec and the suburb of Châteauguay on the south shore of the Saint Lawrence River. It is the most direct southerly route from the island of Montreal toward the US border. It carries Route 138, originally Route 4. It is 1.361 km (0.846 mi) in length and contains four steel trusses on its first section. The height of the bridge varies from 12.44 m (40.8 ft) to 33.38 m (109.5 ft) with the highest sections located over the St. Lawrence Seaway. The bridge is named after former premier of Quebec Honoré Mercier.

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John Ciaccia Canadian politician

John Ciaccia was an Italian-born Canadian politician who was provincial cabinet minister from Montreal, Quebec. Ciaccia served as a member of Quebec's National Assembly from 1973 to 1998, representing the Mount Royal riding for the Quebec Liberal Party. He occupied various posts in the cabinets of Liberal premiers Robert Bourassa, and Daniel Johnson Jr, such as minister of Energy and Natural Resources, International Affairs, Native Affairs, and Immigration and Cultural Communities. At the time of his resignation, Ciaccia was the longest serving member of the Assembly. Ciaccia gained international attention for his efforts in negotiating the end of the Oka Crisis alongside his federal counterpart Tom Siddon in 1990. Former Quebec Premier, Jean Charest described Ciaccia's political career as having, "...revolutionized relations with the native people and cultural communities of Quebec by always favouring an approach marked by respect."

<i>Face to Face</i> (photograph) Canadian Army soldier

Face to Face is a photograph of Canadian Pte. Patrick Cloutier and Anishinaabe warrior Brad Larocque staring each other down during the Oka Crisis. It was taken on September 1, 1990 by Shaney Komulainen, and has become one of Canada's most famous images.

Roxann (Karonhiarokwas) Whitebean is an independent film director and media artist from the Mohawk Territory of Kahnawake (Canada).

On September 1, 1990, Indigenous activists set up a “Peace Village” on the front lawn of the Provincial Legislative Building in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. The encampment was to stay up indefinitely in anticipation of a peaceful resolution to the Oka Crisis. The goal of the Peace Village was to show support for the Mohawks of Kanehsatake and Kahnawake protesting near Oka Quebec and to call for a peaceful resolution in the armed stand-off between them and the Canadian armed forces and Sûreté du Québec (SQ). There were further goals of the Winnipeg, Manitoba Peace Village which included bringing attention to indigenous issues such as land claims, and to model a community of indigenous and non-indigenous people living together peacefully and cooperatively.

Rocks at Whiskey Trench is a Canadian documentary film, directed by Alanis Obomsawin and released in 2000. The film centres on the Honoré Mercier Bridge blockade of 1990 during the Oka Crisis, focusing in particular on the incident when a group of Mohawk women and children from Kahnawake, in the process of being evacuated from the community due to fears of a Canadian Forces occupation, were violently pelted with rocks as they crossed into Montreal.



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