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Revisiting the Oka Crisis: Testimonies from the frontlines

Last Updated Jul 10, 2020 at 5:41 pm CDT

Canadian soldier Patrick Cloutier and Brad Laroque alias "Freddy Kruger" come face to face in a tense standoff at Kanesatake in Oka, Que., Saturday September 1, 1990. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Shaney Komulainen

In this two-part series, Tina Tenneriello revisits the Oka Crisis and hears from those who were on the frontlines while finding out more about the ongoing conflicts yet to be resolved. Watch Part 1 tonight on CityNews at 6 p.m.

 

It’s been 30 years since all eyes were on Oka, a small town just an hour west of Montreal.

A dispute over an area known as the Pines kicked off a 78-day standoff, now familiar as the Oka Crisis.

The then-mayor of Oka, Jean Ouellette, was looking to expand a golf course into sacred Mohawk land that houses a cemetery for their people.

“Dig up our ancestors, and put a golf course. It was horrifying to think about that.”

Wanda Gabriel was a liaison person for the Kanesatake Mohawk in the summer of 1990.

That day, provincial police forces were called in to dismantle the protest set up by the Mohawks – setting off what is also known as the Mohawk Resistance.

“The violence started when the Sûreté du Québec came in. They attacked us – it was a peaceful demonstration.”

Grand Chief Serge Otsi Simon of the Kanesatake Mohawk was also there that day.

“I remember the smell of tear gas in the air,” says Simon.

“We saw people panicking and running back, and it wasn’t too long after that that we heard the first shot. It seemed like it lasted forever.”

A provincial police officer had been killed.

WATCH: The Oka Crisis: 30 years later

The Canadian Armed Forces were sent in, as the Mohawks of Kanesatake built barricades and nearby the Mohawks of Kahnawake blocked access to the Mercier bridge.

Behind those barricades were Mohawk warriors, as well as women and families who were taking a stand to protect the land.

Gabriel remembers the indigenous people and allies around the world who also showed their support.

“I think it was a wake-up call to break the silence on some of the conditions we were living in as indigenous people.”

The conflict came to a close on September 26, but 30 years later Mohawks are still fighting for their land and living with the consequences of the crisis.

“It’s still with us, that summer, because of the impact that trauma has on individuals. You lose your sense of safety in the world, and it has never been restored in Kanesatake,” Gabriel says.

“How could this happen? How could a golf course be more important than the lives of people and the land rights of the first peoples of this land?”