Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Caution: Road Blocks Ahead

Originally from March/April 2005 issue of The Applecart

Caution: Road Blocks Ahead

By Revolt fer Brains
In the summer of 1990, the world watched as a group of Mohawk warriors and supporters from Quebec engaged in a 77 day long armed standoff with provincial police and the Canadian military in an effort to assert their land rights and sovereignty as a nation.
It happened in Kanesatake, a Mohawk settlement near the town of Oka, Quebec. Like many other First Nations, the Kanesatake Mohawks have time and time again been denied title to their traditional land. And, like many other First Nations, their outcries and protests were downplayed and ignored, forcing them to take a more direct approach to defending their land, and their lives.
In 1989, the mayor of Oka, Jean Ouellette, unveiled plans to expand the old nine-hole golf course to 18 holes. The plans called for the nine-hole expansion and sixty luxury townhouses to be built on a strip of land reaching into the pine forest that the Mohawk people of Kanesatake claimed to be theirs. Several protests against the expansion were held over the next year, most initiated by the Mohawk community of Kanesatake, but scores of non-Mohawk residents of the town of Oka opposed the plan as well, for a variety of reasons. Many townspeople were angered that the town council had not consulted the Mohawk people about the project, and a petition circulated, gathering nearly nine hundred signatures from residents of Oka and the surrounding area.
Despite widespread opposition, the Oka town council voted in favour of proceeding with the project in early March 1990. On March 10th, the people of Kanesatake set up camp in the Pines. The occupation of the disputed land to prevent the project had begun.
The Mohawk people stayed at the camp day and night to prevent landscapers from beginning their work to expand the golf course. In mid-April the Mohawk people erected a barricade on a road leading to the Pines after their camp was vandalized. Four days later, the Oka town council obtained an injunction against the Mohawk occupants to remove the barricade. The Mohawks did not budge, and on May 1st, the Quebec provincial police, the Surete du Quebec (SQ), attempted to push past the barricade only to be met with resistance by Mohawk warriors and supporters, some of whom had come from nearby Kahnawake to assist with the occupation.
Then, in the early morning of July 11th, the SQ launched a raid on the occupied territory. A gun battle broke out, and SQ officer Marcel Lemay was killed. Beginning that day, in an effort to prevent further potentially violent raids against them, the Mohawk protesters erected a series of new roadblock on Highway 344. The SQ responded with roadblocks of their own. The standoff was on, and tensions mounted.
Across the country, many other aboriginal groups showed their support for the Mohawks of Kanesatake, and at the same time expressed their own frustrations by organizing similar actions. Roadblocks and barricades went up on railway tracks and roads in B.C., Manitoba, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec, and Nova Scotia. Rallies, marches, and hunger strikes were held to support the warriors, and some even made the trek to Kanesatake to become warriors and fight with the Mohawk people.
In nearby Kahnawake, Mohawk warriors seized the Mercier Bridge, essentially cutting the Montreal suburb of Chateauguay off from the city itself. Chateauguay residents grew furious, and in mid-August several hundred residents rioted. The Chateauguay riots exposed an underlying racist sentiment toward the Mohawk people of the region. Some radical rightwing groups were involved in the riots, including members of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Many people were threatened for simply looking like a Mohawk. In one case, two young men were beaten by an angry mob who assumed they were Mohawks simply for wearing camouflage pants.
As the standoff dragged on into mid-August without any solution drafted by the negotiating parties representing the various interests in the situation, the prospect of a peaceful solution seemed to be slipping away. On August 17th, Quebec Premier, Robert Bourassa requested that the Canadian military replace the SQ at the frontlines of the standoff, and the change over was complete by August 20th. Seven days later, Bourassa made yet another move.
“We cannot have in Canada or in Quebec this type of democracy or pseudo-democracy that permits citizens, no matter what the value of their ultimate cause, to choose which laws they are going to follow…”. And with that, the Premier requested that the army dismantle the Mohawk barricades. What followed was an escalation that almost guaranteed a violent and potentially bloody end to the situation. The army began moving their roadblocks closer to the Mohawk barricades, pushing the limits, and testing the warriors’ resolve.
On September 1st the army pushed forward past three Mohawk barricades and into Kanesatake, and by the next day they had advanced further to the barricade blocking the entrance to the Pines. Out-manned and out-gunned, the warriors and supporters fell back into the pines and took up defensive positions. Children were taken to a nearby community centre as their parents feared door-to-door raids by the army that could put them in harm’s way.
On September 7th the military breached the final barricade. The warriors and supporters retreated into the nearby drug and alcohol treatment centre that had acted as the Mohawk headquarters throughout the standoff. There, the Mohawk rebels spent 19 days under constant fear of an assault by a much stronger military force, all the while asserting their rights to land and sovereignty. But by September 26th, the rebels realized that there was nowhere left to go. Their bargaining power had fizzled.
That evening, the military was prepared to take the Mohawk rebels into custody. They anticipated the warriors and their supporters would walk down the main route from the Pines and turn themselves over, but the fighting spirit of the Mohawk rebels still burned.
The rebels left the treatment centre at approximately 7:00pm and started down the path toward the frontline. Suddenly, they veered off the path and headed northeast toward the town of Oka. The Canadian soldiers were caught off guard, if only briefly, as the rebels attempted to escape arrest and the abuse that was certain to follow.
Some were able to evade the military and make it to the town. Most, however, did not. The military swarmed the Mohawk rebels, knocking them to the ground, and clubbing them with the butt of their rifles. One soldier stabbed Waneek Horn-Miller, a fourteen-year-old Mohawk girl, in the back with a bayonet as she rushed down the highway toward Oka carrying her four-year-old sister. At 8:00pm, the Mohawk rebels were loaded up and taken away on two military busses.

Though the Mohawk rebels were taken into custody by the military, many Mohwak people saw the events of the summer of 1990 as a victory. They had shown the provincial and federal governments, and the people of Canada that they were no longer content to be marginalized and forgotten, and they inspired a number of other aboriginal communities to stand up for their rights in the process.
Many aboriginal communities have become disenchanted with the federal and provincial governments’ contempt for their claims to land and sovereignty. Recent history is laced with many examples of aboriginal communities resorting to direct action in their fight, after finding little or no help from the legal system.


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