Oka, 25 years later (or, Indigenous land defence, 523 years later)

On July 11, 1990, a long-simmering dispute over a stand of pine trees escalated into a major stand-off between Indigenous land defenders and local and provincial police just outside of Oka, Quebec. Eventually, the Canadian army would be called in by a nervous provincial and federal government.

Throughout the 78-day standoff, the people of Kanesatake, who were trying to protect their land (including a burial ground) from being turned into a golf course, were vilified, slandered, attacked physically, dismissed, demonized, and denied the basics of life:

Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Simon remembers seeing the SQ [Sûreté du Québec]  tactical squad moving in the morning of July 11.

“I thought, ‘They’re going to kill everybody up there,’” he said.

When he heard a police officer had died, he had one thought: “We’re going to pay for this one. This is not going to go under-answered.”

What happened next, Simon said, left his community traumatized.

“It was incredible. The SQ would not allow any food to come in to our territory. Our people were systematically searched illegally,” he said.

Ultimately, the mayor of Oka called off the proposed golf course and the dispute was seemingly resolved. The usual blue-ribbon government panel made recommendations which were ignored, and the media’s attention moved on.

Today, the typical “On this day in ___” stories recap the basic narrative as it was established at the time – a narrative which is resolutely ahistorical. The issue of the golf course and the pines is presented without context.

What goes unmentioned is that this indigenous burial ground was located where it was because for generations, white people in Oka wouldn’t allow indigenous bodies to be buried in their graveyard.

What goes unmentioned is that land which had been guaranteed to them by the French crown in the 1700s was covertly signed over to the government without their knowledge in the early 1800s, and never returned.

What goes unmentioned is hundreds of years of aggression both macro- and micro-, of the daily violence of settler colonialism, of the slow-motion genocide which has been perpetrated against Indigenous people.

What goes unmentioned is that Oka was just the latest – and most eye-catching – in a long tradition of Indigenous land defence.

That is a tradition which has carried on ever since, from Ipperwash and Caledonia to ongoing disputes like the Chippewa of the Thames First Nations’ court challenge against Enbridge’s Line 9 pipeline to the Unis’ot’en Camp blockading the path of energy gigaprojects in the mountains of British Columbia. The Oka standoff sadly seems to have taught the federal government nothing about respecting Indigenous land rights, which BC Grand Chief Stewart Phillip believes will inevitably lead to another standoff on the scale of Oka:

[Phillip] said the time for meaningful consultation has long passed and, if the government intends to honour its constitutional obligations to Indigenous people, it has no other choice but to reject to Northern Gateway.

As it has been in the past, the conflict can be traced back to the Crown’s unwillingness to honour Indigenous sovereignty.

“The courts have said very clearly that consultation needs to happen at the earliest instance when it become clearly evident that a project proposal will in fact infringe on the rights and interests of First Nations people or communities.” […]

“I think one just simply has to reflect on what took place in Elsipogtog broke out several months ago,” he said. “We can expect that in BC if the Harper government and Clark government attempt to ram these projects through without meeting the legal standard of consultation and without addressing the concerns that have been raised by so many different groups throughout the province.”

Twenty-five years after Oka, it’s clear that the Canadian government is still just as intent on exploiting Indigenous land and resources for private profit as it ever was. Indeed, this exploitative intent on the part of government was one of the key findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which wrote:

The Canadian government pursued this policy of cultural genocide because it wished to divest itself of its legal and financial obligations to Aboriginal people and gain control over their land and resources.

Any recounting of the events of the Oka standoff which fails to mention this context is by definition incomplete.

If you’re interested in learning more about this moment in Canadian history, I highly recommend the National Film Board documentary “Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance”, which explores the historical roots of the conflict as well as showing both the major events of the standoff and the ways in which these events were interpreted by all involved parties, including the media. It’s a truly engaging film, and quite an educational one as well.

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