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Conflict over land use which is in dispute between native groups and civilian or private interests is an ongoing issue across Canada. Many treaties and land claims, although officially settled, are still disputed and many unsettled land claims have frozen any decisions having to do with large tracts of territory. Usually these disputes are handled through lawyers, government agencies, negotiation processes and other mediation tools but over the last 30 years, physical confrontation, and occasionally violence have broken out.

The Oka crisis was one such case and has become the symbol of native militancy and unresolved issues. Oka is a small town in Quebec which is located beside the Kanesatake Mohawk reserve. Much of the land in the area had been claimed by the Mohawks and plans for the expansion of a golf course in Oka included land that had been used by the Mohawks as burial ground. The Mohawks had filed a land claim that part of the golf course expansion that would include the ancestral burial ground and sacred grove, but that claim had been turned down in 1977 due to lack of evidence for specific legal requirements.

In 1989 Oka mayor Jean Ouellette approved the expansion of the Oka golf course onto the lands claimed by the Mohawks which would include sixty luxury condos and 9 additional holes on the members only course. Some of the townspeople in Oka were against the expansion but when inquiring about the plans, the mayors office refused to discuss the project.

Some of the Mohawks decided to take action and set up barricades leading to the development site. The mayor responded by demanding that the barricades be taken down. When the Mohawk refused to dismantle the barricades, Major Ouellette asked the Quebec Provincial Police, the SQ, to intervene and have the barricades and the Mohawk removed. The history or relations between the SQ and native groups had not been a good one and the potential for confrontation was expected.

On July 11th, 1990, the SQ struck with tear gas and flash bang grenades and during the ensuring confusion gunfire broke out which resulted in the death of SQ Corporal Marcel Lemay from a wound to the chest just below his armpit. The police fell back as the confrontation escalated and decided to setup roadblocks into the reserve. Militant natives from other bands across Canada joined the action at Kanesatake. The Mohawks responded by setting up a blockade on the Mercier Bridge where it passed through their territory. This effectively cut of the Island of Montreal from it's south shore suburbs.  

The blockade created enormous traffic jams which began to alienate many of the local inhabitants of Montreal from the Mohawk cause. At this point the Federal government intervened offering to purchase the disputed land from Oka and prevent further development. The situation quickly deteriorated into a crisis as racial commentary on Montreal radio talk shows exploded on the air.

With the loss of control of the situation by the Quebec Provincial Police, Ottawa decided to send in the RCMP who were also quickly overwhelmed by Mohawk actions and aggression and groups of people who were angry with the Mohawks and their actions. On August 14th, the RCMP lost control and 10 of their members were injured. 

Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa announced on August 8th that he was asking for Federal military support for the situation but the action brought back memories of the 1970 October Crisis and Prime Minister Mulroney was hesitant to send in the troops. The military were however put on alert and by mid-August it had become obvious that military action would have to be resorted to in order to restore order. On August 20th the Van Doos, the Royal 22nd Regiment, replaced the Police at 3 barricades and moved towards the Mohawk blockade. The Van Doos moved to within 5 metres of the native blockades without shots breaking out.

Most of the events were broadcast across the country on the nightly news and a feeling of crisis had pervaded the national consciousness. The Mohawks, faced with overwhelming force, were forced able to negotiate a resolution to the situation with the Van Doo commander Lieutenant Colonel Robin Gagnon. This however was the not the end to the crisis as more militant Mohawk members refused to leave the disputed area and were upset that the Mohawk band had given away the Mericer Bridge blockade in dealing with the authorities.

Matters came to a final head on September 25th when Mohawks began to try and disrupt the military perimeter and when the soldiers turned an ineffective water hose on the natives, who responded by throwing water balloons and taunted the soldiers. Finally the remaining Mohawk burnt their weapons and started to return to the reserve but many were stopped by the Van Doos and turned over to the SQ for arrest. 

The 78 day crisis had brought native issues to the forefront and although a greater understanding of what they faced was gained by many, many other Canadians developed a hardening attitude towards natives claims and rights.

 

 


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Reference: www.canadahistory.com/sections/eras/eras.html