In the summer of 1990, the Mohawks of Kanehsatake and Kahnawake reserves (near the town of Oka in Quebec), stood off against Canadian security forces to protect encroachment on their land. This event is commonly known as the Oka Crisis of 1990, and is a critical example of the ongoing, strained relationship between Indigenous groups and colonial governments in Canada.
The Origins of the Crisis
The events leading up to the Oka Crisis can be traced back to at least 1717, when Mohawk people and their lands, were placed under the authority of the Sulpicians (a Roman Catholic order), and later, the Governments of Canada and Quebec. The Mohawk community demanded that their right to the land be recognized–including petitioning the Governor General in the 1850s and contesting the matter in court in the early 1900s–but their rights and land were continuously stripped away by new laws and court rulings that rejected their title. By 1945, the Mohawk community had been stripped of over 680 km2 of land, some of which had been used to build the Mercier Bridge and seaway. One part of the land–a traditional forest and home to a sacred burial ground known as the Pines continued to be disputed.
In 1961, a golf course was built on land in the Pines without consent from the Mohawk people. Shortly after, the Mohawk people of the area submitted a land claim to the federal government, but it was rejected. After the rejection of a second land claim in 1986, the door was open to the Town of Oka to move forward with plans to expand the existing golf course, to be accompanied by a luxury townhouse complex. The expansion would have destroyed even more of the Pines, specifically the sacred burial ground. After these plans were announced by the town in March of 1989, Mohawk people began protesting by the hundreds, and the development plans were postponed.
Blockades and Beyond
In March 1990, the development was scheduled to begin. To prevent construction from occurring, Mohawk people from the Kahnawake, Kanehsatake, and Akwesasne reserves erected a large barricade blocking off access to the area. Two court injunctions were granted that would have allowed the forcible removal of protesters from the barricades, but the protesters ignored them. The Oka town council then requested the Sûreté du Québec to intervene. Following this request, on the morning of the July 11, 1990, Sûreté du Québec officers, armed with AR15 assault rifles, tear gas, and concussion grenades attempted to storm and seize the barricade. The Mohawk people responded and in the end, one Sûreté du Québec officer–Marcel Lemay–was shot and killed. The Sûreté du Québec retreated.
After this incident, tensions continued to grow, as the Mohawk warriors seized the Mercier Bridge, resulting in a request from the Premier of Quebec for support from the army. On August 20, 1990, 5100 soldiers were deployed to the Montreal area. With the potential threat of further conflict, Mohawk women, children, and elderly left Kahnawake, only to be stoned by a mob of angry locals. The following day, negotiations ended the Mercier Bridge blockade. On September 18, 1990 the army sent soldiers to Tekakwitha Island in order to outflank the warriors and a seven-hour fight ensued, leaving 75 Mohawk warriors injured. On September 26, 1990 the crisis ended when remaining Mohawk protesters/warriors left their hiding places in a surrender to both the army and the Sûreté du Québec. Five of those arrested were found guilty of criminal activity, and of those only one person serving jail time.
After the Crisis
After the resistance ended, the golf course expansion was cancelled and the land was sold to the federal government. Additional plots of land were purchased for the Mohawk people (see Kanesatake Interim Land Base Governance Act), although the land was not established as a reserve and no official transfer took place. Still, more than thirty years after the crisis at Oka, the land claims that the Mohawk people have been making for their traditional territory since the 1700s remain unresolved.
In 1991, the federal government established the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, which addressed several issues highlighted through the Oka Crisis. The Commission released a comprehensive report which provided recommendations on how to mend the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada.
Similar protests are still happening in Canada today. Some important examples include the 2020 Wet’suwet’en First Nation protests in British Columbia (related to the expansion of the Coastal Gaslink Pipeline) and the protests current 1492 Landback Lane protests carried out by members of Six Nations of the Grand River from Caledonia, Ontario (related to the Mackenzie Meadows land development).
- Oka Crisis Interactive Timeline : An in-depth account of the historical context dating from the 1600’s up to the events in 1990.
- CBC Oka Crisis Archives: An archive of 1990 CBC news coverage of the Oka Crisis.
- Rocks at Whiskey Trench: A documentary about the Oka Crisis with a focus on the Indigenous perspective.
Contributors: Joshua Beech, Quinten Hunter-Rhodes, Abinaya Kalanandan, Patience Moses