The Sounds of Solidarity: An Oral History of Rhythm Activism’s Oka and Oka II

Sean Carleton 

To mark the 30th anniversary of the siege of Kanehsatà:ke and Kahnawá:ke, commonly known as the 1990 “Oka Crisis,” I have been interviewing a number of non-Indigenous musicians about the music they made in solidarity with the Mohawk land struggle.

I’ve spoken with Chris Hannah from the thrash punk band Propagandhi and hip hop artist Maestro Fresh-Wes about their musical contributions in the years after the standoff. But what did solidarity sound like during the summer of 1990?

I recently spoke with Norman Nawrocki of the Montreal band Rhythm Activism. The band put out two underground cassette tapes Oka (1990) and Oka II (1992). In particular, Rhythm Activism’s song “Oka Polka” was released in September 1990 and was actually played behind the Mohawk barricades as part of the resistance that summer. My conversation with Norman sheds light on the extent of anti-Indigenous racism in Quebec in 1990 as well as the importance of non-Indigenous solidarity efforts to counter that racism, then and now.

All photos provided by Norman Nawrocki.

Sean Carleton (SC): Can you start by introducing yourself and Rhythm Activism?

Norman Nawrocki (NN): I’m originally from Vancouver, but I now live and work in Montreal. I’ve been here for many years, since 1981, and I was here during the so-called “Oka Crisis,” the Canadian crisis at Oka in 1990. At the time, I was part of a cabaret rock ensemble and we called ourselves Rhythm Activism. We started out as a spoken word, music duo that evolved into a band that did musical theatre and toured the world and released all kinds of albums.

In 1990, I remember listening to the radio on 11 July as the Quebec provincial police, the SQ (La Sûreté du Québec), raided the peaceful Mohawks at Kanehsatà:ke in the sacred pines. I was eating my porridge at the kitchen table, listening to the shouts, screams, and gunshots, thinking “what the hell is going on?” I mean, many of us knew there was a peaceful barricade that had been erected in the community for months prior, with Mohawks, mostly women, protesting the development plans in the pines, approved by the mayor of Oka who wanted to take their land. This peaceful protest drew activists from Montreal because a lot of people who supported their cause had been making reports about what was going on. The struggle was fairly well-known amongst my community at least.

So when, on 11 July, the police started attacking the Mohawks, I was pretty stunned. I turned on my TV and saw the footage and was like, “what is happening?” The images were shocking. I was horrified. From that moment on, I never turned my TV off for the whole summer. Very quickly I started asking myself what I, as a socially conscious artist, could do here in Montreal to raise greater awareness and non-Indigenous support for the Mohawk’s struggle? I had to do something. That’s where the idea – the thinking, the experience, the feeling, the rage – came from that got channeled into music.

SC: How did you come to release the Oka cassette in September 1990?

Listen and purchase Oka here.

NN: I realized that I had to say something and raise my voice in opposition and solidarity. I was listening to mostly francophone radio, and it was horribly racist and spewing out all kinds of misinformation about the Mohawks and Indigenous peoples generally. Being in the music industry, I knew who some of these people were and felt ashamed.

Rhythm Activism had always done socially conscious songs, and so this seemed like a time to use our artistic platform to take a stand. We felt like we had a responsibility to respond. So, I presented this idea to my bandmate Sylvain Côté, the guitar player, and I said, “look, we’ve got to do something.” He felt the same way. Being on the same page helped, but it still took time to craft the music and message, to capture what we really wanted to say, or felt should be said by non-Indigenous folks like us. We debated if making music was really the best way to show solidarity, you know? So, it took weeks of really trying to think what we could do and say that would be impactful. It wasn’t until sometime in August where we actually sat down to write music and lyrics – just as other events started happening, the occupation of the Mercier Bridge, the arrival of the army in Kanehsatà:ke, and I was also trying to attend as many solidarity demonstrations that were being planned in Montreal.

You need to remember that this was all pre-internet; things were being done on typewriters and fax machines and telephone calls and knocking on people’s doors to spread the message. Communication was different back then. That’s why we decided to put out these DIY cassettes.

We wanted our music to come out of this moment and counter the racism in Montreal at the time, but we also wanted to pick up on the solidarity that was being shown as well. We read the newspapers and did our homework. We also recorded things directly off the TV and radio that we were hearing – we were using tape recorders; it was cumbersome but effective in capturing the sounds of the moment.

SC: Yes, and you can hear that on the “Oka Polka,” in that it splices together, or samples, the soundbites of that summer and includes them on the song. Also, can you confirm that the song, because it was released in September 1990, was actually played behind the barricades before the standoff ended?

NN: Yes. I went to visit the barricades. You could only get so close, because the police and military kept supporters and the media away. But people who were on the other side told us on many different occasions that they would put the cassette on and point the speakers towards the soldiers and blast them with the “Oka Polka.” That was a kind of resistance to the forms of harassment they were enduring, with endless helicopters flying over head, shining super bright lights into the camp at all hours, terrorizing them with military white noise machines – it seemed unbearable. So, if the “Oka Polka” helped redirect some of that harassment, I’m happy. What the police and army were doing was wrong.

I later met this Mohawk guy from Kahnawá:ke and he hold me he used to blast the “Oka Polka” in his car when he would go through the police checkpoints that summer. As the police and military would stop him, the guy would roll down his window, ask if they liked music, and then he’d blast the song. He told me that “some of those fuckers actually laughed; they had a sense of humour. I think some of them were actually on our side but couldn’t say that at the time.”

It was gratifying to know that the music we were making was being used in that way, as a kind of resistance, by Mohawks. To have the music be used in the fight back that summer is especially significant to me all these years later.

And it wasn’t just behind the barricades. We sent that cassette all around North America and it charted across Canada on alternative radio – that’s how it worked back then – cassettes were the means to get your music out to the people. We assembled them by hand and mailed them out, and they played everywhere. The response was really positive because a lot of people were getting the same corporate, mainstream, racist, anti-Indigenous news we were getting in Montreal, and the cassette was providing a refreshing alternative perspective.

SC: Another important part of the cassette was that it included liner notes that featured infographics and newspaper clippings to provide more information. And, proceeds from the sale of the cassettes went to support the Mohawk Defense Fund. The project raised money and consciousness.

NN: Yes, we were aware that the people behind the barricades needed money, not just token solidarity. In Montreal, there was not as much support as I had hoped – many non-Indigenous Quebecers were antagonistic, they saw the Mohawks as criminals and instigators. They had no sense of the injustice that was going on and that had been going on for centuries. Plus, Mohawks needed money for all kinds of things, like food, medicine, legal defense reasons. So, when word went out about the need to raise money, we thought the cassette could be used for that purpose.

And then, of course, two years later we released another cassette, Oka II, to raise additional money specifically for the legal defense. We also organized a benefit concert – some money went to the radio station at Kanehsatà:ke as part of that to help them get their own voice out there – as well. And people responded, donating money, food, and even a car to the cause. It was inspiring.

Norman Nawrocki is on the right.

SC: Can you explain a bit more about OKA II, which comes out in 1992?

Listen and purchase Oka II here.

NN: Well, the Mohawk’s struggle has been going on for 300 years, and it’s not over today. 1990 was just one part of an ongoing fight – and once the standoff was finished it wasn’t “over” for those who had been behind the barricades. Thankfully, in Montreal, there was a First Nations Solidarity Committee comprised mostly of Francophone activists, but some Anglophone activists as well. That committee did a lot of fundraising and coordinating of support for those behind the barricades – and we were part of that effort. But it did not end in September 1990. The work continued for months and years afterwards. There were trials and legal battles – as well as ongoing police harassment of Mohawks in both Kanehsatà:ke and Kahnawá:ke – and so there was a continual need for solidarity.

We put out the second cassette, Oka II, to raise additional funds and more awareness about the continuing struggle. The liner notes this time also included more articles, this time by Mohawks themselves, in their own voice, talking about the ongoing issues and experiences of oppression, terror, and harassment. We wanted to share those perspectives with people. Like, let’s xerox these things and put them in the cassette. It was as much about sharing information as the music itself. This was all, again, very DIY, handmade. There were about 500 copies of each cassette, which were then subsequently copied and re-shared. I only kept one copy of each cassette. I don’t know where the other 998 copies went. But the big thing was that they were picked up by radio stations in Canada and the US, and the message got out to even more people.

Oka II was also a response to the ongoing racism in Quebec society in the aftermath of 1990. You can’t even believe the terrible things being said on local radio. That was the thing that really spurred us into action. There were songs written by Quebecois assholes lambasting and dehumanizing the Mohawks, and that music was aired and the DJs would laugh when introducing the music, “here’s another good one to put those Mohawks in their place.” It was disgusting. We have this culture in Quebec called “garbage radio,” and the racist nonsense, the drivel on the airwaves is just incredible. That stuff is just toxic, racist poison. But people listen to it. So, we wanted to speak back to that as well. That’s also why we made sure that the first cassette was in French and English. We wanted to make it clear to the Francophones, you don’t speak for all of Quebecers. By making the first track on the cassette in French, we were daring local radio to play it, to provoke people.

SC: So, you feel that the standoff put anti-Indigenous racism in Quebec in the public spotlight?

NN: It revealed the depths of anti-Indigenous racism here, for sure. There are so many stories. Seeing effigies of Mohawks being hanged from lampposts and being burned in the streets by racist mobs. This was not just once or twice in the suburbs, but here in downtown Montreal, too. In my own neighbourhood. Or, seeing Quebecers stoning Mohawk women, children, and elders at Whiskey Trench, fleeing Kahnawá:ke as the army was set to invade that community. The police just stood by and did nothing. It was sickening. I was ashamed of being a white settler living here in Montreal on unceded Mohawk land. I was seeing lynchings in effigy, as people cheered.

I put a poster up in the front window of my apartment facing the street that said, “Army Out of Oka. Get the Troops Out. Stop the Madness.” And my neighbours in the housing coop where I live, so-called progressives, were livid. That only emboldened me. Later, I turned the sign into a sandwich board and rode around Montreal on my bike to spread the message. People fingered me, honked, yelled. Some people even tried to run me over with their cars. All of that pushed me further to think, “what else can I do.” Music was my outlet, my way of fighting back.

SC: I think it is important to realize there were some Quebecers were speaking out that summer. Sometimes those dissident voices – in the moment – are overlooked, or assumed to be absent. That’s why I am glad you were willing to speak with me and digitize the two cassettes to give people the chance to rediscover and listen to the sounds of solidarity you made.

NN: Thank you for reaching out and encouraging me to reshare this music for the 30th anniversary.

SC: Speaking of the 30th anniversary, and revisiting this music, what thoughts and feelings are you having, 30 years later. I mean, I’d like to say that 1990 changed Indigenous-settler relations forever, that Canada learned its lesson; however, the treatment of the Wet’suwet’en just this past winter reveals that not much has changed – that the racism and structural problems highlighted in 1990 are still very prominent today. How does that make you feel?

NN: I’m frustrated by how little has changed in the really big picture. I mean, with Shut Down Canada, there are more non-Indigenous peoples aware of the ongoing legacy of colonization and the injustices continuing daily for Indigenous peoples, but in terms of big structural change, not enough is being done on Canada’s part. That’s disappointing.

But there are a lot of young people engaging in direct actions and consciousness-raising events that is heartening. It’s an uphill struggle though; the fight is still the same fight. Colonization continues, 500 years later. Here, in what is known as Quebec, and specifically in Kanehsatà:ke, the land issue has still not been resolved. In fact, more land is being taken away, even today. I don’t think people realize that. The struggle continues, as does the need for solidarity and non-Indigenous awareness and action.

It’s now up to a whole new generation to add their own voices to the struggle, and hopefully they can learn from the voices of the past. I’m glad to have played a small role in speaking – and singing – out that summer and in the years afterward. That’s why I’m an artist. If my work can help provide a different perspective and some historical context on things, I’m happy. Hopefully it can inspire others to find their own way of contributing to the work of building a better world.

Norman Nawrocki is an internationally acclaimed, Montreal-based author, actor, violinist, cabaret artist, educator, and producer.

Sean Carleton is an historian and a Contributing Editor with Active History.

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