Remembering Oka

July 11 2010 marks the 20th anniversary of the Oka Crisis.  The Quebec crisis pitted the Mohawk community of Kanesatake against the Francophone community of Oka over the expansion of a municipal golf course onto Mohawk burial grounds.

After a year of unsuccessful attempts at reaching resolution through the courts, the Mohawk set up barricades and occupied the burial grounds.  The conflict that arose resulted in a 78 day stand-off between the Mohawk, the Sûreté du Québec and the Canadian military.  On July 11th riot police stormed the occupation, resulting in the death of police officer Marcel Lemay.

Remembering this event provides an important opportunity to reflect on how Canada, Canadians and Aboriginal people engage with each other and each other’s past.

CBC Radio’s C’est La Vie, which focuses on life in French-speaking Canada, ran a powerful documentary on the Oka Crisis three weeks ago.  The short twenty minute piece focuses of Francine Lemay, sister of the slain officer, and her efforts over the past two decades to learn, understand and reconcile the issues that led to her brother’s death.

In addition to Lemay’s story, the documentary also emphasizes the important role community history plays in helping to balance the silences in more official narratives of the past.  Her story highlights the need for understanding the historical context of Aboriginal land claims and the tensions that can develop when the desires of the present are taken into account without due consideration to past relationships and context.

History and historians have an important role during these conflicts.  Few land claims are new and, much to my surprise when I started researching the eighteenth-century history of another Aboriginal community along the St. Lawrence, many of these claims have been made more-or-less consistently for over a century (in many cases two or three!).

Alanis Obomsawim’s Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance (embedded below) tells some of the broader stories of the Oka Crisis.  Her documentary helps to contextualize the tensions of the conflict and illustrate the long and complicated history of the Kanesatake Mohawk.

The history in Obomsawim’s film shares many similarities with the history of other First Nation communities along the St. Lawrence River.  Kahnawaké began to complain of settler encroachment on its land in the 1750s, during the French Regime.  They had their claims acknowledged by the British in the 1760s, but continued to be challenged by illegal settlement on their land.  Similar issues developed in Odenak (also known as Saint-Francois) and Wendaké (formerly known as Jeune-Lorette or Nouvelle-Lorette) in the late-1760s and 1770s; they continued throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  Many of these early claims resonate with the issues that sparked Oka (and continue to be an issue there).

Although discussing another province, Christopher Moore’s recent essay on the Six Nation’s land claim in Caledonia, Ontario serves as an important model for how historians can contribute to this discussion.  Moore’s argument draws together the local situation in Caledonia, the history of Six Nation land claims in Ontario, and the more recent history of land claims in British Columbia to suggest that following B.C.’s lead could be beneficial for all of the parties involved in Ontario.

J.R. Miller’s recent Compact, Contract, Covenant: Aboriginal Treaty-Making in Canada also makes a significant contribution.  This book helps to situate events like the Oka Crisis in the national context of Canadian-Aboriginal relations.  Miller distinguishes between the differing ways in which Europeans and Aboriginal people engaged with each other across Canada.  Most importantly, he demonstrates how the treaties and agreements negotiated over the past three centuries form a critical foundation for the development of the Canadian state.  His discussion of Kanesatake (pp. 241-244) also shows how particular conceptions of the Canadian state shaped Canada’s approach to First Nations people.

The tensions that sparked the Oka Crisis in 1990, and how it has been interpreted, were deeply rooted in the past.  July 11 provides an opportunity for reflection.  It is not only an appropriate time to think about the events that transpired during the summer of 1990, but also why it happened.  Recent events have demonstrated that there are important lessons to be learned from this dark chapter in Canadian history.

8 thoughts on “Remembering Oka

  1. Moore’s argument starts from the position of Six Nations’ claims being completely legit and he bases his starting point not on evidence but on appeals to emotion. Six Nations now have a fraction of the original Tract? There’s a good explanation for that. Within a few years of taking possession of the Tract, Joseph Brant had sold off half of it. That fact is well documented as is the colonial government’s resistance at acknowledging Brant’s sales. And several decades later when the government examined the issue of squatters on Six Nations land you know what they found? A great many “squatters” had been sold their land by Six Nations Indians, Chiefs among them (Chiefs who were complaining about those squatters to begin with). Shady dealings indeed.

    To top it all off, back when Six Nations agreed to a reserve that is close to the size it now occupies (mid-1840’s), Six Nations members moved willingly. There is no record of violence or coercion to get Six Nations Indians to move, they simply picked up and moved to within the reserve’s new boundaries. Almost as though they had agreed to it……..

  2. Thanks for your comments Jack. You are certainly right that the Six Nations land claims are complicated by these land sales. But, I have always seen the history of Six Nations as more complex than this. Below I have included my understanding of some of the challenges to understanding the history of the Grand River area:

    There is some question about the initial Haldimand Proclamation in 1784. Brant understood it as giving Six Nations uninhibited access to the land, and the right to sell. This was not in keeping with British policy towards Aboriginal people after the 1763 Royal Proclamation. The Royal Proclamation made it clear that settlers were not to purchase land from Aboriginal people: “We do hereby strictly forbid, on Pain of Our Displeasure, all Our loving Subjects from making any Purchases or Settlements whatever, or taking Possession of any of the Lands above reserved, without Our especial Leave and Licence for that Purpose first Obtained.” John Graves Simcoe reinforced this interpretation in 1793, claiming that the land was held in trust by the British government, and could not be sold to settlers. Lord Dorchester, the governor-in-chief of British North America, overuled him and registered the sales but forbid new sales after the mid-1790s (although sales continued to be made until 1841). None of this negates Six Nations’s claims to independance and autonomy, but it does emphasize that British law was not clearly nor consistently applied to the settlers.

    The British policy embodied in the 1763 Royal Proclamation developed out of experiences in other colonies when private land sales between Aboriginal people and English settlers sparked significant tensions (i.e. seventeenth-century history of New England). Sometimes land was sold by people without proper authority or the meaning of the sale misunderstood by one (and often both parties).

    The challenge this posed was made explicit in the 1763 Proclamation: “great Frauds and Abuses have been committed in the purchasing Lands of the Indians, to the great Prejudice of Our Interests, and to the great Dissatisfaction of the said Indians; in order therefore to prevent such Irregularities for the future, and to the End that the Indians may be convinced of Our Justice, and determined Resolution to remove all reasonable Cause of Discontent, We do, with the Advice of Our Privy Council, strictly enjoin and require, that no private Person do presume to make any Purchase from the said Indians of any Lands reserved to the said Indians, within those Parts of Our Colonies where We have thought proper to allow Settlement.” Private land sales had been flagged as highly problematic early on in Britain’s settlement of North America.

    It seems to me that it is the failure of British officials in applying the Royal Proclamation, Brant’s well-founded belief in Six Nations’s independance and autonomy from the British (i.e. the Royal Proclamation), and the issue of whether Brant had the support of his community to alienate these lands in the first place, that are the principal challenges in understanding this issue.

    Getting to the heart of this issue was made even more difficult by the Canadian government’s restictions on Aborignal people through the 1876 Indian Act (particularly in the 1920s when amendments to the act restricted Aboriginal people from raising funds to mount legal challenges and hereditary councils were banned). This led to a period across Canada where it was difficult for Aboriginal people to speak publically about these issues. The re-emergence of these issues in the 1970s, and particularly after 1982, has led many to see these claims as new. Taking a historical perspective demonstrates that most are not. The arguments being made today share many similarities with those made during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

    Getting to the bottom of these issues is difficult business and one of the reasons, alongside government footdragging, that land claims take so long to resolve.

    The history of Native-Newcomer relations in Ontario is not my principal area of research. I would be interested to know what historians you are reading, and what books other people would suggest to read on this subject. I have found these two works helpful in thinking about this subject:

    For a quick study: The Handbook of North American Indians, “Six Nations of the Grand River, Ontario,” pp. 525-536.

    Something a little longer: Alan Taylor’s “The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution” (Toronto: Random House, 2006).

    Perhaps if other people have resources they would like to share they can include them here in the comments section too.

  3. Thanks Daniel for pointing out that the link no longer works. There was an article about her in the Hudson Gazette last week, but the link seems to have changed. I have switched the hyperlink to the one you suggested. Anyone interested in doing some digging can see if they can find the original article in the Hudson Gazette. The hyper link was:

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