Critical Analysis: The Oka Crisis
The Oka Crisis of 1990 resulted from the enduring racist ideological foundation of the Canadian state that grants it utmost authority in governing Indigenous land and to deny to Indigenous populations the right to self-determination (Gordon, 2006, p. 34). The following analysis reveals the power relations behind the Oka Crisis through a framework of “internal foreignness.” Subsequently discussed is the state sanctioned use of legal mechanisms that contributed to the domination and criminalization of Mohawk warriors, as well as the bias media representations that worked to construct the protesters as “outlaws” throughout the crisis. All such factors worked to justify their increased surveillance and the use of excessive force by the state. I conclude with a brief discussion of contemporary discourses of reconciliation and multiculturalism that veil the ongoing problem of colonization by the Canadian state.
Theorizing the Oka Crisis: Power Dynamics
The relationship between the Canadian state and Indigenous populations has been theorized by a number of scholars- all of whom provide intriguing variations of a similar argument. Despite discourses of multiculturalism and reconciliation prominent in Canadian political discourse, the current dynamics of power dominant in Canada are inherently colonial (Coulthard, 2007; Dhamoon & Abu-Laban, 2009; Alfred & Corntassel, 2005). Most relevant to the Oka Crisis is the work of Rita Dhamoon and Yasmeen Abu-Laban. The authors provide a theoretical framework for understanding the power relations between Indigenous protesters and the state during the crisis of 1990. The authors first note that within this framework of understanding, the subject deemed “foreign”, and therefore threatening, changes throughout history depending on contextual factors of risk to national security (Dhamoon & Abu-Laban, 2009). Various appeals to foreignness are employed by the state to criminalize and demobilize dissenting groups that pose a threat to the ongoing project of nation-building. In the context of Oka, this process of othering began when Indigenous residents of Kanesatake initially protested peacefully against the proposed municipal build project encroaching onto sacred territory and escalated as dissent became increasingly threatening to the state. When negotiations and injunctions proved futile to the municipality’s corporate build project, colonial state forces were brought in to repress Indigenous dissent in the form of raids and paramilitary measures. Ultimately, the state was able to use excessive force throughout the Oka Crisis because Indigenous protestors were perceived as foreigners to the state, and this was facilitated by preexisting power relations between the colonial settler and the Indigenous other.
Legal Mechanisms and the Outlaws
The state employed a number of legal mechanisms throughout the Oka crisis to suppress Indigenous dissent. Perhaps the most obvious mechanism was Mayor Jean Ouellette’s use of court sanctioned injunctions on multiple occasions to enable the dispossession of Indigenous land (Swain, 2010). Legal mechanisms such as this reinforce and legitimize the state in colonial pursuits while simultaneously criminalizing protestors. The state’s use of such mechanisms led to the suppression of protest being viewed uncritically by the masses as the maintenance of law and order, rather than state-endorsed political violence; in other words, the use of socially acceptable legal mechanisms allowed for the mass perception of state repression as the preservation of the common good (Dhamoon & Abu-Laban, 2009, p 176). Legally sanctioned repression manifested in a number of ways during the crisis, but namely in the ongoing justified surveillance of Mohawk Warriors by federal troops and the policing of Indigenous bodies. It justified the continued police raids of Kanesetahke territory as well as all paramilitary measures taken in an effort to contain the crisis- all of which were sanctioned by the federal government administration of Brian Mulrooney (Dhamoon & Abu-Laban, 2009). Dhamoon and Abu-Laban further suggest that, through processes of racialized othering, Indigenous populations were constructed as “outlaws” and thus posed an imminent threat to national security (2009, p. 176). The authors note that “constructs of the unruly Indian were engendered by presenting Indigenous resistors as criminals who threatened the security of “our” nation and were foreign to “our” laws” (Dhamoon and Abu-Laban, 2009, p. 176). The use of colonial legal mechanisms against protestors and the discursive process of othering resulted in the demobilization and criminalization of the Mohawk warriors.
Media Representation of Oka and the Managing of Dissent
The state endorsed various forms of public order policing throughout the Oka crisis in an effort to impose colonial order and criminalize the dissenting Indigenous movement. Coercive, persuasive, and information based repression are all observable in the state’s efforts. Coercion can be observed in the excessive use of police, RCMP, and federal military troops to maintain order during the crisis, while persuasion is clear in the government’s attempts to negotiate with the Mohawk Warriors. But perhaps most prominent throughout the crisis was the use of information based repression that can be observed in the bias media representations of Indigenous protesters and Mohawk Warriors. Dhamoon and Abu-Laban highlight relevant media headlines to demonstrate that such representations contributed to the dominant perception of Indigenous protesters as internal foreigners and domestic terrorists. Most notably, the authors allude to headlines that frame protestors as violent, savage, and criminal (Dhamoon & Abu-Laban, 2009, p. 176). Similar sentiments are echoed in the (2012) work of Pauline Wakeham, who argues that an ongoing “rhetoric of terrorism” was applied to Indigenous protesters to delegitimize their efforts and quell dissent. By generating such a discourse, state sanctioned media outlets and government officials (including Prime Minister Brian Mulroney himself) diverted public attention from the problem of racism and ongoing colonization, ultimately contributing to the criminalization of Indigenous protesters (Dhamoon & Abu-Laban, 2009; Gordon, 2006; Wakeham, 2012).
The Oka Crisis reveals a great deal about contemporary power relations in Canada. Canada is known globally for its adoption of increasingly liberal human rights policies; so how is it then possible that race conflicts so enduring as the Oka Crisis persist in a nation that prides itself in multiculturalism? Gordon (2006) argues that the concept of racialized control is deeply rooted in Canada’s contemporary policies of multiculturalism (p. 37). Such policies attempt to neutralize persisting colonial power relations by erasing varied histories of oppression- in the case of Indigenous populations, this results in the erasure of histories defined largely in terms of territorial dispossession. By propagating the narrative of Canadian multiculturalism, the state is able to deflect attention from the enduring power relations that persist in the lives of Indigenous peoples today (Gordon, 2006, p. 38). The case of Oka reveals the true boundaries of multiculturalism that are enforced and maintained by the Canadian state that were thought to have ceased in the modern age of “reconciliation.” This is further illustrative of the ongoing denial of self-determination to indigenous populations in an effort to preserve capitalist-colonial power relations.
Conclusion: What does the Oka Crisis mean today?
The enduring fight of the Mohawk Warriors during the Oka Crisis reveals that Indigenous populations continue to be subjects of conquest by the Canadian State (Gordon, 2006). By constructing the Mohawk Warriors as “internal foreigners” during the crisis, the state was able to preserve and strengthen pre-existing colonial power relations. The maintenance of the state was further enabled through the use of legal mechanisms and the construction of Indigenous protesters as outlaws- thus contributing to the racialized criminalization of protesters. Dominant discourses of terrorism and national security marked the crisis and were thus reflected in media representations of protesters. But what the Oka Crisis made clear in the contemporary age of reconciliation is that the state is no less interested in domination. Its mode of attack has simply evolved under a guise of multicultural idealism.
Alfred, T. & Corntassel, J. (2005). Being Indigenous: Resurgences against Contemporary Colonialism. Government and Opposition. 40(4), 597-614.
Coulthard, G. S. (2007). Subjects of empire: Indigenous peoples and the ‘politics of recognition’ in Canada. Contemporary Political Theory, 6(4), 437-460. Retrieved from https://login.proxy.hil.unb.ca/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/237019859?accountid=14611
Dhamoon, R., & Abu-Laban, Y. (2009). Dangerous (Internal) Foreigners and Nation-Building: The Case of Canada. International Political Science Review, 30(2), 163-183. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/25652897
Gordon, T. (2006). Producing Capitalist Order: Police, Class, Race, and Gender. Fernwood. 29-51.
Swain, H. (2010). Oka: A political crisis and its legacy. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre.
Wakeham, P. (2012). Reconciling “Terror” Managing Indigenous Resistance in the Age of Apology. American Indian Quarterly, 36(1), 1-33.