Throughout the summer of 1990, a group of Mohawk activists formed blockades in protest of a golf course expansion which encroached on traditional lands around the town of Oka, Quebec. This led to a standoff with Quebec police and the Canadian military which lasted 78 days. This conflict, known as the Oka crisis, laid bare the true nature of the Canadian state and presents us with important lessons in the struggle against the oppression of Indigenous peoples today.
The Oka crisis, or the Kanesatake Resistance, stands today as a heroic example of Indigenous militancy. It is widely held as a turning point for the Indigenous movement in Canada, and has served as a basis of inspiration for similar blockades ever since. As we have been witnessing an uptick in the Indigenous struggle, it is important to study the Oka crisis in order to learn the lessons that will help today’s movement win.
History of ‘the Oka Question’
The land known today as Oka was originally a settlement that was supposed to be held in common by a French Jesuit seminary and local Indigenous groups, mostly Mohawks. However, the Jesuits went behind the backs of the First Nations living there and asked the king of France to make them the sole owners, which he granted. After Britain took control of Quebec, they continued to recognize their sole ownership.
The relationship between the Jesuits and the Indigenous people there was paternalistic and oppressive. Because the Jesuits had total ownership of the land, First Nations needed their permission to hunt, fish, farm, or build houses. The Jesuits would frequently have Indigenous people arrested for chopping firewood without their permission, even during the cold winter months.
These tensions lead to a number of struggles in the 18th and 19th centuries, the most significant being led by Mohawk Chief Joseph Onaskenrat in the 1860s through 1870s. He emboldened the local Mohawks to protest their conditions, and petitioned the government for title to the land on multiple occasions. He led a mass conversion of Christian Mohawks from Catholicism to Protestantism in protest of the Jesuits, and in 1869, he chopped down a large elm tree as a direct challenge to their authority. He and a group of armed Mohawks even threatened an armed uprising against the Jesuits.
Eventually in 1934, the Jesuits sold off their land to the newly formed municipality of Oka. This happened without the participation of the First Nations and the city made no acknowledgement of Indigenous rights to land. To this day, no level of government has made any agreement with the Mohawks of Oka over land rights. The Oka question remains completely unresolved.
Build-up to the blockades
Beginning in the 20th century, the federal government set up channels for Indigenous communities to file for land recognition, but they have always been totally farcical. The land claim process is sluggish, without any promise that the claims will ever go anywhere. By the 1990s, some claims had been in the process for more than 15 years. Likewise, when Indigenous communities did hear back, they were almost always denied. Kanesatake, a Mohawk village located near Oka, filed dozens of times throughout the 1970s and 1980s. In 1975, they filed a claim that was rejected almost immediately because the federal government claimed they couldn’t prove they have lived on their land since “time immemorial.” Never mind that the Canadian government hasn’t occupied any land in Canada since “time immemorial,” and Mohawks have been living in Oka since before any European settlements. Shortly after, they filed a less comprehensive claim in 1977, which sat in the system for nine years before being rejected.
Alongside their struggles with government bureaucracy, Mohawks in Quebec were frequently harassed by provincial police and the legal system. Mohawks had regular run-ins with the Surete du Quebec (SQ) over fishing and hunting laws that restricted their traditional ways of life. Likewise, the police led frequent, violent raids on Indigenous communities for innocuous crimes like unregulated gambling and untaxed cigarette sales. In September 1989, up to 75 SQ officers raided Kanesatake armed with riot gear and a police helicopter over allegations of an illegal bingo ring. Indigenous communities had very little trust in either the federal or Quebec government, and the SQ was correctly seen by many as a racist tool of government repression.
It was these combined elements that made some kind of open confrontation with the state a total inevitability. While a common reproach from the Canadian government or right-wingers is that the Mohawks took up arms, all of the legal channels of change that the government set up for Indigenous people were total dead ends by design. On top of this, the harassment they received from the police only heated things up further. It was only a matter of time before Indigenous people correctly turned their backs on the state processes and started to take matters into their own hands. Georges Erasmus, Dene activist and former president of the Assembly of First Nations, foretold this in 1988 when he said, “Canada, if you do not deal with this generation of leaders and seek peaceful solutions, then we cannot promise that you are going to like the kind of violent political action that we can just about guarantee the next generation is going to bring to you.”
Things came to a head in March of 1989, when the Oka Golf Club announced a nine-hole expansion of their private golf course. The original course had already encroached upon a traditional Mohawk cemetery, and the expansion would require clearing down an area known as “The Pines”, which was a nearby forest respected by the people of Kanesatake. This expansion was, of course, approved by the city without any consultation with the Indigenous population. When asked at a town hall whether he had discussed the development with Kanesatake, Mayor Jean Ouelette simply shrugged his shoulders and said, “You know you can’t talk to the Indians.”
The development plans were met with immediate protest, from Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike. A petition opposing the development circulated around town and received 900 signatures, which is sizable considering Oka only had a population of around 3,000. In March, a group of Mohawks erected a barricade on a dirt road that leads into The Pines, with the intention of blocking off any attempts to start clearing the forest. Many people involved in the barricade had ties to the Mohawk Warriors, a militant, Haudenosaunee nationalist organization that has had a history of standoffs with the state. They would quickly become the face of the coming standoff.
The blockades go up
On July 11, at around 5 a.m., a fleet of SQ cars and trucks composed of about 100 officers were sent into The Pines to tear down the barricades. They came armed with riot shields and assault rifles. The police came in the middle of a traditional tobacco ceremony and, without warning, fired smoke and concussion grenades into the blockade camp. This resulted in a gunfight between the Mohawks and police. An estimated 93 rounds were shot off in 20 seconds, which resulted in the death of an officer. It is still unclear which side he was shot from, but shortly after, the SQ retreated.
In the confusion, the SQ left behind a number of police vehicles, which the Mohawks used to reinforce the barricade. In retaliation for the attack, a group of Mohawks from the nearby community of Kahnawake seized the Mercier bridge, which is one of the few major routes between the nearby city of Chateauguay and Montreal. At the time it carried 70,000 cars every day.
The SQ responded by setting up a total blockade of Kanesatake. They halted travel in and out of the community and refused the entry of food, medicine, and other necessities. They were clearly willing to let the people of Kanesatake starve if it meant taking down the barricades. In the span of a few hours, the blockade developed into an all-out armed standoff, with the communities of Kanesatake and Kahnawake on one end and the provincial police on the other.
Although the blockades were triggered by the golf course expansion, it wasn’t what kept them going. In fact, within three days of the standoff, the city announced that the expansion had been cancelled. Yet the blockades didn’t end. This is because the question of the golf course expansion was merely a symbolic issue. The people of Kanesatake have never had control over the land that they live on. Their rights had been trampled on by various governments for centuries. The golf course was just another injustice. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back, but the Mohawks were looking for more than just the expansion being cancelled. What they wanted, fundamentally, was control over their land and their own communities. This movement provided such an opportunity.
While their precise demands changed a few times over the course of the standoff, they generally demanded the removal of police and military from Kanesatake and Kahnawake, clemency for those involved in the standoff, and for all issues relating to Mohawk sovereignty and land rights to be referred to the International Court of Justice. While what they meant by sovereignty wasn’t very clearly defined, and there were differing viewpoints from behind the barricades, in general what they wanted was control over the lands they lived on and had historical claims to, negotiations with the federal government to define these lands and what control Mohawk communities had over their own affairs. Ellen Gabriel, prominent Mohawk activist and a leading figure of the standoff, has written strongly about implementing the principles of “free, prior, and informed consent,” the idea that Indigenous communities should have the right to deny any development or project that encroaches on their land before it happens.
From the viewpoint of the Canadian ruling class, these demands were totally unacceptable. Canadian capitalism requires unrestricted access to land for things like housing developments and resource extraction. The right to “free, prior, and informed consent” for any Indigenous group would restrict this, and would restrict profits. This is something that has been admitted by members of Canada’s ruling elite. In his book on the standoff, former deputy minister of Indian Affairs Harry Swain admits that he “would not in any case have engaged in serious talks on the precondition that Canada and the Mohawks were separate sovereignties”. In an address to the House of Commons, then-prime minister Brian Mulroney once said that Indigenous self-government “does not and cannot ever mean sovereign independence within Canadian territory.”
Eventually the federal government was forced to negotiate with the Mohawks, but the discussions were completely farcical. None of the government officials they assigned had any mandate to promise anything, and their sole role was to try and talk the Mohawks into taking down the barricades. Because of this, the talks went absolutely nowhere.
The federal government wanted nothing but to crush the Mohawks. To grant any concessions on the question of Indigenous sovereignty would have set a dangerous precedent for them going forward. Geoffrey York and Loreen Pindera speak on this in their book People of the Pines:
“After the shootout at Oka on July 11, the Mohawk warriors posed a serious political problem for the federal government. Under the existing rules, Indian bands with land grievances were supposed to wait patiently for a solution from Ottawa. They were told to file an official claim and join the long line of bands waiting for a bureaucratic decision, which could take a decade or longer. By refusing to follow the established rules, the warriors became a dangerous threat to the status quo. They exposed the weakness of federal land claims politics, dramatized the frustrations of aboriginal people, and generated enormous public sympathy in much of the country. Day after day, the warriors focused an embarrassing amount of attention on Ottawa’s failings in aboriginal issues.”
The Mohawks were subjected to human rights abuses throughout the entire standoff. Aside from being denied food and medicine, Indigenous people were routinely harassed and beaten by police, even if they had nothing to do with the standoff. One man, Angus Jacob, was picked up by police on the way to go shopping with his wife, where he was then kicked and choked. His nephew-in-law, Daniel Nicholas, was strapped to a chair and beaten, slapped, and burned with cigarettes.
The Canadian government went out of its way to cover up these abuses. The police harrassed journalists, and international observers were routinely forbidden from entering the barricades. They had to sneak themselves in. Finn Lynghjen, a Norwegian judge and international human rights observer, said that “The only persons who have treated me in a civilized way in this matter here in Canada are the Mohawks.”
The need for class solidarity
The Mohawk blockades were met with incredible enthusiasm by Indigenous people from coast to coast. Protests spilled across the entire country. Blockades and demonstrations popped up in Manitoba, Alberta, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Nova Scotia. Some of these protests are detailed in People of the Pines:
“Hundreds of Natives rallied at the Manitoba Legislature to support the warriors. Micmacs in Nova Scotia held protest marches and hunger strikes. Algonquins from western Quebec had occupied an island in the Ottawa River. Ojibways from northern Ontario partially blocked the Trans-Canada Highway. Alberta Indians threatened to destroy hydro transmission lines if the Mohawk barricades were attacked. At the end of July, more than two thousands natives and non-natives from as far away as British Colombia and Prince Edward Island rallied at a park outside Oka to boost the morale of the warriors.”
These actions were especially popular in B.C., which is far from surprising considering that, at that point, the province refused to recognize any Indigenous land title whatsoever. By July, seven roads and railways had been blocked off by B.C. First Nations. B.C. Rail was experiencing losses of $750,000 a day. A group of Ojibwes in northern Ontario blockaded a CN railway that passed through their reserve, which brought losses of $2.6 million a day.
Not only that, but Indigenous people flew in from all over the country to bolster the barricades, sneaking past police by foot and boat. Most involved in the standoff were from Quebec, Ontario, and New York, but many also came in from as far in as B.C. and Nova Scotia. At its height, more than 600 people had joined the Mohawks.
Oka developed from a small regional dispute into the focal point of the Indigenous struggle. It became a symbolic issue for the centuries of injustice Indigenous people have faced in Canada, and natives from all across the country became inspired to take action. Unfortunately, however, they remained mostly isolated.
While there was general sympathy from the non-native population and there were instances of support from non-Indigenous workers, it never developed far past that. And this is primarily due to the total inactivity of Canada’s labour leadership.
In an instance like this, when an oppressed group is fighting against the state, it is the responsibility of the working class as a whole to support them. Canada’s unions should have mobilized mass demonstrations in support of the Mohawks. They should have pointed out that the politicians that were attacking Mohawks were the same politicians that were cutting social services and making workers’ lives harder. They should have taken advantage of the opportunity to support them, which would have built ties and strengthened both the Indigenous movement and the labour movement.
Unfortunately, they remained mostly silent. In July, there was an over 2,000-strong protest in Ottawa held in support of the Mohawks with participation from the Canadian Labour Congress and other unions, which could have served as the basis for greater solidarity, but it never moved past that. Federal NDP leader Audrey McLaughlin also spoke at the rally, but in a total hypocritical turn, she later said that the Quebec premier had “the right to call in the armed forces.” There was a total lack of leadership for the non-Indigenous working class, and this paved the way for reaction.
Certain backwards and racist elements were enraged by the blockades, and without a clear lead from the labour leadership, these people were able to gain support and organize counter demonstrations during the standoff. In Chateauguay, there were protests of up to 10,000 people, where they burnt down effigies of Mohawk warriors and chanted “damned savages.” The main organizer of these protests was a former SQ agent, and they were advertised by Gilles Proulx, a popular right-wing radio host at the time. The protests saw regular visits from Chateauguay MP Ricardo Lopez, who previously said that Indigenous people should be shipped off to Labrador if they wanted their own land. White supremacist and fascist groups worked openly in the protests distributing fliers and literature. Gangs of vigilantes roamed the area, and tried to chase down and beat any Indigenous people they found leaving the blockades to buy food or medicine.
Had the labour movement supported the blockades, these elements would have been greatly weakened. The shared interests that non-Indigenous workers have with Indigenous peoples in their fight against corporate encroachment and the Canadian state needed to be brought to the fore against the racist divisions fomented by the right wing and the capitalist governments. The reactionary protests should have been countered with demonstrations in solidarity with the Mohawk struggle. Unfortunately this did not take place, and the absence of any real opposition allowed these bigoted elements to gain significance.
Without participation from the wider labour movement, the Indigenous protests remained isolated from most of Canadian society. The fact of the matter was that the only way that this movement would have succeeded is with broader support from the rest of the Canadian population and from the labour movement in particular. Trade unions could have organized initiatives to provide the barricades with food, medicine, and supplies.
What needed to be explained then, as it does today, was that Indigenous workers and non-Indigenous workers have a shared interest in overthrowing capitalism. The Mohawk communities involved in the standoff weren’t isolated from other workers, they worked mostly in surrounding communities with non-Indigenous workers. As a matter of fact, many of them were employed as metal workers in Quebec and New York, meaning that a good deal of the Mohawks at the blockades were union members themselves, or at the very least worked closely alongside union workers. The Indigenous struggle and the workers’ struggle are intimately related, and they need to be linked up in order for either of them to succeed. The fact that Canada’s labour leadership didn’t take any real initiative to support these protests is scandalous. It allowed the movement to dissipate and prepared the way for the state to shut them down completely.
This is the main lesson from this struggle and something for us to bring into the movement today. With unprecedented support for Indigenous peoples among the non-Indigenous population, there has never been a better time to build a united struggle against capitalist encroachment on Indigenous lands and the Canadian capitalist state as a whole.
The Canadian state’s true colours are shown
On Aug. 20, the federal government sent in 4,500 troops with tanks and helicopters and put them under the control of Quebec. For context, this was the same number of troops Canada sent to the 1990 invasion of Iraq, which was being planned at the same time Oka was playing out. This shows that the Canadian ruling class saw the standoff as a war against the Mohawks, and they devoted the resources needed to crush them. Naval ships were stationed in the St. Lawrence River and fighter jets flew over Kanesatake in a show of force. As troops came in, the Red Cross followed with stretchers and body bags. The military was clearly prepared for a bloodbath. Both the federal and Quebec Liberal provincial governments agreed on sending the troops in. Even Jacques Parizeau, leader of the Parti québécois which was in the opposition at the time, sided with the Canadian state on the army being sent in, and said that “For me, as for many people, the Warriors are terrorists.”
On Aug. 27, the Quebec government announced the end to any negotiations with the Mohawks and that they would be tearing down the barricades. All journalists and international observers present at the barricades were ordered to leave under threat of prosecution. The next day, they destroyed the barricade at Mercier Bridge, and the occupation there was ended. Even after the standoff at Mercier Bridge, the police and military retained a heavy presence at Kahnawake, patrolling and intimidating the residents to keep them from attempting any other protest.
On Aug. 28, a convoy of about 70 cars left Kanesatake to evacuate mostly elderly people, women and children. The SQ stopped the convoy to search for weapons. In the meantime, Gilles Proulx divulged the location of the convoy publicly on the radio. A racist mob surrounded the convoy, and threw stones at it as the SQ stood aside and watched. One hit an elderly Mohawk man named Joe Armstrong, who died just a few days later.
On Sept. 1, troops came in with bulldozers and tanks to push back the barricades. The Mohawks were reduced to holding a single alcohol treatment facility. While there, the military shut down electricity and water on multiple occasions. The military went to great lengths to make sure there were as few outside witnesses as possible. Journalists were prohibited from sending film out from the barricades, and they were forbidden from receiving supplies. The Canadian Association of Journalists described this as “one of the worst attacks ever on the Canadian public’s right to know.”
The military’s assault during the standoff clearly reflects the role of the state under capitalism. The government isn’t a neutral body. It is not designed to reflect the interests of people generally. Rather, it is an organ of class rule. It is controlled by the ruling class for the sake of its own interests. The capitalists use it to keep workers and the poor oppressed, and to keep themselves rich. Whenever profits are threatened, the state will turn to any means necessary to protect them. Because Canadian capitalism requires the oppression of Indigenous people to keep profits flowing, the interests of the state are irreconcilable with the interests of working class and oppressed natives, meaning that the state will always be sent against Indigenous people. Oka was expensive for the ruling class. It cut into business, and inspired action that cut into business even further. The state had no other choice than to clamp down on it.
This was further highlighted in the confrontation at Tekakwitha Island. On Sept. 18, the military landed on a deserted island right outside of Kahnawake under the guise of searching for weapons. The community was outraged to hear of a military operation happening on their territory, and hundreds of Mohawks rushed to the island to demand that they leave. What resulted was an all-out brawl, where soldiers beat down a crowd of unarmed people with batons and the butts of their rifles for having the nerve to not want the military on their land. The fight left 75 Mohawk men, women, children, and elderly wounded.
Back at Kanesatake, those who remained at the stand-off were able to hold onto the treatment facility until the 26th, but by then demoralization had set in and they decided to end the standoff and leave the facility. When they tried to leave, troops swarmed in to arrest them as they were leaving, and in the process, a 15-year-old Mohawk girl was stabbed in the chest with a bayonet, where she was held for 22 hours before being allowed to see a doctor. With this, the standoff had ended. It ended with a partial victory, as the golf course extension had been cancelled. However, the fundamental question of land rights remained unanswered. The people of Kanesatake and Kahnawake still didn’t control their land.
Legacy of Oka
Oka helped spark an important turning point in how the Canadian state deals with Indigenous issues. For centuries, they bulldozed over native people with total disregard. This in turn alienated Indigenous people from the state. They rightfully felt that the Canadian government didn’t have their interests in mind. This has made Indigenous people one of the most militant segments of Canadian society. Indigenous workers and poor have always been the quickest to make use of radical tactics like blockades and occupations. While Oka was ended, it was only the beginning of a series of standoffs throughout the 1990s and early 2000s that included Ipperwash, Burnt Church, Gustafsen Lake, and the 2006 Six Nations occupation.
The Canadian state realized that if they continued to ignore Indigenous issues completely, then these sorts of standoffs would keep happening. They were worried about another confrontation developing to the size and scale of Oka. Harold Calla, one of the most prominent members of Canada’s tiny Indigenous bourgeoisie, noted that ”Oka changed everybody’s approach in the non-aboriginal world: address these issues, or there will be many Okas. Oka said we’re all at risk.”
The state realized they needed to make Indigenous people feel like they have a say in government. Both the federal and provincial governments opened up a new host of Indigenous government bodies and treaty-making processes. B.C. began its first treaty claims task force just months after the wave of blockades there died down. Since the 1990s, a growing number of Indigenous people have also been given high posts in government. We’ve seen this most recently with the appointments of Mary Simon as Governor General and Michèle Audette to the Senate.
However, none of this means that Indigenous people have more control over the government than they had before. Working class and poor natives—the vast majority of natives—have absolutely no say over these government bodies, and these treaty-making processes almost never rule in favour of First Nations. The Canadian government has not given more control to Indigenous people in general. They’ve merely carved out a certain space in the state for a very thin layer of privileged native elites. This is done to give the impression that the government works in favour of Indigenous people, and to try to draw them away from radical action such as blockades. Métis Marxist Howard Adams explains this in Prison of Grass:
“Native organizations are the ‘hidden hand’ of the government’s bureaucratic oppression. These organizations have become more effective in controlling and suppressing the Indian and Métis masses than any government agency. Governments have found that these organizations are exceedingly cooperative, although at times, for the sake of their credibility with the native masses, these organizations stage professional civil-rights actions, such as sit-ins. All in all, these native organizations are for the most part opportunistic and elitist, serving to keep the native masses oppressed and at the same time giving the governments a liberal, democratic image, as if they were seriously concerned about the situation of the Indian and Métis people.”
It is clear looking at the conditions of native people today that things are not any better for them than they were before Oka. Indigenous people still make up the poorest section of Canadian society. First Nations are still routinely denied rights to their land, as we’ve seen in the cases of the Unist’ot’en Camp in B.C. and 1492 Land Back Lane in Ontario. Even in Kanesatake, they are still denied control over their land. As recently as this summer, residents from Kanesatake have been protesting against a planned housing development that would encroach on their land.
Revolution, not reconciliation
What Oka teaches us is that Indigenous workers and poor should not have the slightest faith in the government. Canadian capitalism was built on the oppression of Indigenous people. To this day, this very same oppression remains an essential feature of the Canadian government. The Mohawks at the Oka barricades understood this, and they left behind an important tradition of radicalism that we should hold true today. There is no “reconciliation” with a system that exists on the continued exploitation of Indigenous people.
There is no way forward for Indigenous workers and poor under capitalism. Indigenous rights are routinely tossed to the wayside in order for the wealthy elite that runs this country to continue making a profit. This oppression can only be fought through united class struggle between Indigenous and non-Indigenous workers. All workers, regardless of race, have a shared interest in overthrowing capitalism. The corporations and politicians that trample over Indigenous land rights are the same ones who exploit workers and cut wages. The Indigenous movement and the wider labour movement need to join together in order to defeat them.
The potential for united class struggle in Canada has never been stronger than it is right now. For the first time ever, public opinion lies firmly on the side of Indigenous people. Awareness of the conditions faced by Indigenous people has hit an all-time high. Indigenous oppression has become a huge source of outrage across the country, and it threatens to develop into a mass movement. We’ve already seen this with the recent discovery of mass graves at former residential schools, which has sparked the spontaneous destruction of statues representing colonial figures. At the same time, the social base of reaction has depleted significantly. During recent stand-offs, like those at Unist’ot’en and Land Back Lane, we have not seen anything resembling the large racist protests that took place at Oka. The current moment presents an enormous potential for united class struggle. We must learn the lessons of Oka and turn this potential into a revolutionary reality.
Oka Crisis of 1990: Indigenous Armed Self-Defense and Organization in Canada, by Gord Hill
Skyscrapers Hide the Heavens: A History of Indian-White Relations in Canada, by J.R. Miller
People of the Pines: The Warriors and the Legacy of Oka, by Geoffrey York and Loreen Pindera
Oka: A Political Crisis and its Legacy, by Harry Swain
The Toronto Star online archive