Media Analysis of the Oka Crisis (Kanesatake), Quebec, 1990

The Oka Crisis – a 78-day standoff between Quebec police and the Mohawks of Kanesatake, lasting from July 11, 1990 to September 26, 1990 – was an event that garnered a tremendous amount of media attention that summer.  The dispute between the town of Oka and the Mohawks revolved around whether or not a golf course and condominiums would be built on a stretch of land legally belonging to the town of Oka, but historically having been used by the Mohawks, as well as having sentimental value for the Mohawks.  This heavily contested issue was the source of an immense amount of tension in the town of Oka.  On March 11, 1990, when the Kanesatake Mohawks put up barricades blocking entrance into a wooded area surrounding their land, this drew media attention due to the fact that this was an overt sign of resistance, and the Mohawks were sending a message to town officials, which the general consensus being that the Mohawks were justified in defending their land and their beliefs.  However, it was not until July 11, 1990 when the Quebec police, on the orders of Oka Mayor Jean Ouellette – following an injunction to tear down the barricades – raided Kanesatake, and one police officer was killed in the melee, that a significant amount of attention was focused on this land dispute, and how it was grossly mishandled.

In analyzing the media depictions of the stand-off, the most dominant frame used to represent the Mohawks is the violence frame.  The violence frame posits that the dissenters being depicted in the media are either violent or have the potential to be violent (Boykoff 2007).  Throughout the duration of the standoff, although the media generally supported the Mohawks’ motives for barricading themselves, the Mohawks were frequently portrayed as violent, based on their attire and demeanor.  In the Toronto Star, on the day following the police raid and subsequent commencement of the 78-day standoff, the Mohawks were described as wearing war paint and having their mouths and noses covered with bandannas (Doyle 1990: A1).  The same article also provided this description of the Mohawks: “Masked Mohawks clad in combat fatigues and carrying a variety of automatic weapons patrolled on all-terrain vehicles and golf carts commandeering from the course” (Doyle 1990: A1).  The article also included two pictures: one of a Mohawk taking aim behind a heavy machine gun, and another Mohawk standing atop an overturned police cruiser holding a rifle above his head, both dressed in camouflage clothing, with bandanas covering their faces.  The description given in this article, accompanied by these images, gives the reader the impression that the Mohawks are a group of volatile people prepared to strike at any time.  In another Toronto Star (1990) article, when presenting one Mohawk’s  view on the situation, a description of his appearance as a “25-year old khaki clad Mohawk, who was standing in the disputed woods with a .303 calibre rifle over his shoulder” (p. A13) prefaced his statements, rather than just presenting his statements alone.  Another description in the Globe and Mail described a group of Mohawks as “Mohawk Warriors who have a formidable arsenal, have warned such an action (raid) would end in a bloodbath” (Picard 1990: A4).  Descriptions and images such as these threaten to overshadow the cause of the standoff, which was the excessive use of force by the police in their attack against the Mohawks, despite the fact that the Mohawks had been promised by the Quebec Security Minister, Sam Elkas, that no attack would occur that night or following morning.  Furthermore, in the Toronto Star’s front page article on the raid, containing the two images of Mohawks previously described, the title read: “Officer dies as Mohawks battles police”.  This title, along with a photo of the officer, as well as the two menacing images of the Mohawk males, takes away from the fact that the police initiated the confrontation and it makes it seem as though the Mohawks are at the root of the violence.

In addition to the violent framing of the Mohawks, there was also a discourse of war being utilized in the media portrayals of the conflict (Boykoff 2007).  One article alone contained multiple phrases describing the scene, such as “a raging gun battle”, “a furious exchange of fire”, “a bloody clash”, one witness described it as being “just like a war movie”, or “they launched a massive assault” (Doyle 1990: p. A1, A14).  While this was a description of the confrontation involving both the Mohawks and the police, there is always the risk that the brunt of the threat will fall on the Mohawks, thus furthering the construction of threat of the dissenters.

Another form of framing evident in the media reporting of the events was the disruption frame.  Out of solidarity with the Kanesatake Mohawks, following the police raid, 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.  The blockade was described in one article as turning “commuter traffic to chaos” (Toronto Star 1990: A13).  A Globe and Mail article explained that: more than 68, 000 commuters use the bridge every day, and the detour has added up to three hours to their daily trip” (Picard 1990: A4).  The same article also stated that “there is a financial cost of the crisis, the least of which is the $1-million a day the province is spending to maintain a police presence” (Picard 1990: A4).  This framing illustrates the disruption to law-abiding citizens, as well as the financial cost to the province, which is paid for by the taxes of these citizens.  In presenting this information, it risks misinterpretation, in that observers may see this disruption as a goal of the Mohawks, when the Mohawks simply want to stand up for their beliefs and raise awareness for the injustice they feel is being brought against them.

Another way in which the Mohawks’ cause could be discredited was the representation of the Mohawk Warriors as a rebel group.  In one article they were described as “members of a Mohawk faction from the Kanesatake reserve” (The Gazette 1990: B2). Another article also stated: “in the past, Warriors have defended lucrative business interests from police, such as casinos and cut-rate cigarette shops in Akwesasne and Kahnawake” (Norris and King 1990: A1).  While the Warriors are a group of Mohawks who frequently partake in forms of resistance towards the police or government, in order to further a cause, portraying them as a criminal group whose interests do not represent the rest of the Kanesatake Mohawks, is misleading.  This could lead people to believe that only a handful of Mohawks actually oppose the construction of the golf course, while the rest of the Mohawks are drowned out or intimidated by the Warriors.  This type of representation is what leads to the construction of groups being labeled as “terrorists” (Adese 2009).

Despite some of the underlying possibilities for misrepresentation of the Mohawks, what differed in the media coverage of this case of dissent, in contrast to most others, was the level of criticism lobbied against the police and the town of Oka.  This is atypical in coverage of acts of dissent because the violence frame is so often disproportionately applied only to the dissenters and not the police, who often use a much greater level of force (Boykoff 2007).  Furthermore, there are two factors which affect whether or not an act of dissent will garner any mainstream attention.  These two factors are the size of the act of dissent and the presence of conflict (Boykoff 2007).  In this case, these two factors were both present, which led to the widespread coverage and dissemination of the details of the conflict.  In doing so, it not only brought attention to the injustice of the land claims dispute between the Mohawks and the town of Oka, but also to the broader issue of Canadian-native relations.

References

Adese, Jennifer. 2009. “Constructing the Aboriginal Terrorist: Depictions of Aboriginal Protests, the Caledonia Reclamation, and Canadian       Neoliberalization.” Pp. 275-85 in Engaging      Terror. A Critical and Interdisciplinary Approach, edited by M. Vardalos, G.K. Letts, H.M. Teixeira, A. Karzai and J. Haig. Boca Raton: Brown Walker Press.

Boykoff, Jules. 2007. “Mass Media Deprecation.” Pp. 216-47 in Beyond bullets: The Suppression of Dissent in the United States. Oakland: AK Press.

Boykoff, Jules.  2007.  “Mass Media Underestimation, False Balance, and Disregard.” Pp. 248-    60 in Beyond Bullets: The Suppression of Dissent in the United States. Oakland: AK Press.

Doyle, Patrick. 1990. “Officer dies as Mohawks battle police.” The Toronto Star, July 12, p. A1, A14.

The Gazette. 1990. “Tragic blundering at Oka; Legalism and native delusions spell trouble.” The Gazette, July 12, p. B2

Norris, Alexander and Mike King. 1990. “Defiant Mohawks dig in; Indians threaten to blow up Mercier Bridge if attacked again.” The Gazette, July 12, p. A1.

Picard, Andre. 1990. “Oka conflict now macho test of wills.” The Globe and Mail, July 23, p. A4.

The Toronto Star. 1990.  “Mohawks vow to blow bridge if any natives hurt by police.” The Toronto Star, July 12, p. A13.

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  1. […] drunk or death – to the way the media has mismanaged and misrepresented Indigenous people – think Oka – Johnston feels schisms both large and small have contributed to the hardening of […]

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