The Oka crisis refers to the violent 78-day standoff involving the Quebec police, the Canadian armed forces, and the Mohawk natives of the towns of Kanesatake and Oka, on the northern shore across from the island of Montreal. In March of 1990, the municipality of Oka announced plans for the expansion of a private golf course and the construction of luxury condominiums in a wooded area called the Pines (Dhamoon and Abu-Laban 2009). The Pines was an area considered to be sacred, and to which the Kanesatake Mohawks and people from Oka had open access. The proposed construction would involve razing the trees and enclosing the Pines for private use. Thus, within that same month, the Mohawk people barricaded the wooded area as a sign of resistance (Kalant 2004). However, by July, this harmless act of resistance would erupt into something much worse.
To put things a bit more into perspective, it is important to understand the historical context in which this struggle is rooted. Conflict over land claims between the Kanesatake residents and the Canadian state dates back to the 1700’s. French colonization of Quebec started in the early 1500’s through to the mid-1700’s, ending with the conquest of Quebec by the English. This period was characterized by exploitation and attempted Christianization of the Iroquois natives (of which the Mohawk nation comprises one of the six nations of the Iroquois Confederacy), as the goal of the French colonial administration was to establish a clone of the feudal and agricultural society of France (Swain 2010). In 1715, the Sulpician order of Catholic priests had been granted a plot of land by the French King, to which they set aside a section of land for the Iroquois – later known as the towns of Kanesatake and Oka – in 1716 (Swain 2010). Since that time, the Kanesatake people have been in constant conflict with the seminary over the use and ownership of the land, with the seminary selling off much of the land throughout the 1800’s and 1900’s, to developers and the town of Oka (Kalant 2004). Understandably, the Kanesatake Mohawks felt a great deal of resentment towards the Canadian state for not rectifying the situation even after Quebec came under British rule.
From the Mohawk standpoint – of repeatedly having to defend their land – barricading the Pines was their attempt to stop further usurpation of land they held sacred. However, on July 11, 1990, Jean Ouellette, the mayor of Oka – who had won a court injunction against the protesters – called in the Sûreté du Quebec (SQ), the provincial police. That morning, over one hundred armed members of the SQ, dressed in riot gear, and equipped with tear gas and heavy equipment raided the area in an attempt to disperse the protesters(Dhamoon and Abu-Laban 2009). They were met with an unexpected level of resistance, as they descended upon the Mohawk people with tear gas and weapons drawn. In the confusion, shots were fired from both sides and one officer was fatally shot, with the SQ quickly retreating. In solidarity, the Mohawk community in Kahnawake blockaded the Mercier Bridge and Highway 132, which were both important commuter routes from the suburban communities on the South Shore to the island of Montreal. Negotiations continued throughout the summer, with the SQ eventually being replaced by the Canadian army. By the end of August, with no clear resolution in sight, the community of Kahnawake decided to remove their barricades, leaving the Oka and Kanesatake protesters without strategic support, thus making them vulnerable to army pressure. Throughout the month of September, they were pushed back from the land they occupied during the summer, to a single compound, with the remaining protesters leaving this compound by the end of the month. The golf course expansion that had ignited this battle was cancelled by the mayor of Oka (Kalant 2004).
Dhamoon, Rita and Yasmeen Abu-Laban. 2009. “Dangerous (Internal) Foreigners and Nation- Building: The Case of Canada.” International Political Science Review 30(2):163-83.
Kalant, Amelia. 2004. National Identity and the Conflict at Oka. New York, NY: Routledge.
Swain, Harry. 2010. Oka: A Political Crisis and Its Legacy. Vancouver, Canada: Douglas & McIntrye.