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Peace Camps in Quebec and Manitoba to support the Mohawks in the “Oka Crisis”, Canada, 1990
In the summer of 1990, Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal Canadians gathered at a “Peace Camp” in Oka, Quebec, Canada and a “Peace Village” in Winnipeg Manitoba, Canada. Their goal was four-fold:
To support the Mohawks of Kanehsatake and Kahnawake Quebec who were in a stand-off with the Canadian government and military
To bring attention to issues of injustice towards Aboriginal people in Canada
To do teaching on Aboriginal culture and spirituality
And (very explicitly, in the case of the Manitoba action) to provide a harmonious example of Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal people living cooperatively together.
To understand these two parallel actions, it is important to have some background on the Mohawk stand-off, an event which has become infamous in Canada as the “Oka Crisis.”
First Nations1 Canadians have a long history of struggle and resistance, confronting colonial and Canadian government policies, treaties and discrimination. On March 10, 1990, Mohawks of the community called Kanehsatake in the province of Quebec, peacefully occupied a stand of sacred forest known as “The Pines.” This land, never ceded by the Mohawk Nation, also included an aboriginal cemetery. The mayor and council of the neighbouring Non-Aboriginal town of Oka had just passed a motion for the forest to be cut down in order to allow for the expansion of the adjacent 9-hole golf course and for the building of luxury housing. The original nonviolent barricade in The Pines blockaded a small dirt road that ran through the forest for several hundred meters, and then alongside the existing golf course, before joining with a gravel road. After several weeks of peaceful occupation the mayor of Oka demanded that the barricade be removed by July 9, 1990. When it was not removed, on July 11 a Surete du Quebec (Provincial Police Force known as the SQ) SWAT team of an estimated 1,000 members was sent in to dismantle the barrier. By this time members of the Mohawk Warriors Society from communities in upstate New York, Ontario and Quebec had joined those from Kanehsatake on the barricade, which was no longer unarmed. When the SQ moved in, an armed confrontation occurred, leading to the death of Cpl. Marcel Lemay of the SQ. The SQ withdrew and the Mohawks used the abandoned police cars to erect a more substantial barricade, this time blocking Highway 344. The Mohawks of Kanehsatake were supported by fellow Mohawk Warriors at the Kahnawake reserve near Montreal, who blocked off the Mercier Bridge to Montreal in solidarity. A stand-off ensued between government and Mohawks at each barricade.
On August 6, the government of Quebec called for the Canadian Army to replace the SQ police force. On August 12, with the barricades still intact, an agreement about pre-conditions for negotiations was signed by all parties (Canadian and Quebec governments and representatives of the Mohawks). Despite this, and despite the initiation of negotiations, on August 15 the military began moving into place. By August 20 the military had surrounded the community of Kahnawake, and the blockade at Kanehsatake, which had retreated into the relative protection of the Treatment Centre. By late August, under threats of an armed invasion by the military, residents of Kahnawake were encouraged to leave the community for their own safety. Consequently, on August 28, a convoy of cars, mainly driven by women and carrying children and the elderly left Kahnawake. They had to cross the still-closed Mercier bridge, which they did via a cordon of SQ. Despite the cordon, as the Mohawks drove off the bridge and through the “Whiskey Trench” off-ramp they were attacked by a rock-throwing mob calling out racist threats. Numerous Mohawks were injured, all were traumatized. Joseph Armstrong, an elderly Mohawk man and Canadian veteran of WWII died of a heart attack a few days afterwards. The car in which he had been traveling was hit by rocks, and a large stone smashed through the windshield and hit him in the chest. The police did not move to restrain the rock throwers.
The “Oka Crisis” itself continued for 78 days. Human rights observers from the Quebec Human Rights Commission, the European Union and the International Federation of Human Rights were present at various times throughout the conflict. The Mercier bridge barricade was dismantled, following an agreement with the Canadian military, on August 29. The protestors in Kanehsatake remained behind the barricade until September 26, when those remaining in the Treatment Centre decided to leave the Centre and return to their homes. On leaving the Centre they were physically detained by the Canadian military and given into police custody to be arrested. Some of the protesters were beaten by army and police as they were taken into custody, as is evidenced in the video footage taken that night, and published in Alanis Obomsawin's film Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance.
Concerned aboriginal and non-aboriginal people across Canada were appalled by many of the things that happened during the “Oka Crisis” - by the blatant and violent racism enacted against the Mohawks, by the horrific attack on the unarmed convoy, by the lack of willingness to enter into real negotiations, by the ludicrousness of destroying a sacred forest and a burial ground in order to expand a golf course. Across the country, people were frustrated when their expressions of concern, and desire for a peaceful and just settlement seemed to go unheeded by the Canadian government. Many people channeled this frustration into nonviolent action.
Nonviolent Actions in Support of Quebec Mohawks
The above is the history of the 'Oka Crisis.' What remains less well-known are the nonviolent actions that happened concurrently, and called for a peaceful end to the stand-off near The Pines. This case study will describe and analyze two of the largest of these campaigns: the “Peace Camp” that aboriginal and non-aboriginal people held on the outskirts of Oka itself, and the “Peace Village” that did a lengthy 'sit-in' on the grounds of the Legislative Buildings of the province of Manitoba. There were also multiple actions in the first weeks of August 1990, including barricades of the main railway lines across Canada, and of highways, logging roads and railroads in the provinces of British Columbia, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, Nova Scotia, Quebec and Ontario (bands involved included the Lil'wat at Mount Currie, the St'latl'imx at Seton Lake, the Mohawks of Six Nations Brantford, the Peigan Lone Fighters at Oldman Dam, and the Ojibway of Longlac, Pic Mobert and Pays Plat). Some of the first of these actions were spontaneous, but they increased in frequency when George Erasmus (Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations) sent a memo to all First Nations communities across the country, asking for them to demonstrate their support for the protesters at Kanehsatake. These actions – some of which were nonviolent -- deserve more attention and analysis than their brief mention here, but for clarity this case study here will be limited to the two actions that although they were geographically very distant, were highly similar in their goals.
Peace Camp in Oka
Activists initiated the Peace Camp at Oka on July 29, 1990. Up to 2500 people at times gathered in these early days in the baseball diamond of Oka Park, on the outskirts of the town of Oka (and as near The Pines as the SQ would allow people to go). Many of those present had come to participate in the barricades, but were barred from getting closer, so took up residence at the Peace Camp. Participants included non-aboriginal members of the town of Oka who were sympathetic to the cause of the Kanehsatake Mohawks, members of the Kanehsatake Mohawk First Nation, and aboriginal and non-aboriginal allies from across Canada, the United States and Mexico. People camped in the field, and tried to get materials to the besieged Mohawks in Kanehsatake. Speakers addressed the crowds, and indigenous leaders sang traditional songs and held traditional ceremonies. Supporters stayed at this site for almost two months.
Tensions sometimes ran high in the camp, such as after it became known that the Mohawk Warrior 'Spudwrench2” had been found asleep by the military near the barricade and had been beaten to the point where he required significant medical intervention. Activists and campers were additionally outraged that while the military had promised to allow Spudwrench to return to the Treatment Centre when he could be released from hospital, instead he was taken into police custody. Feeling betrayed by the beating, and by the broken commitment, campers were in disagreement about whether the Camp was enough, or if action, perhaps even violent action was needed. Nonviolence, however, continued to be upheld at the Camp. The Camp was also the target of pressure from opponents – Oka residents opposed to the Camp protested on at least one occasion, and the SQ turned back people who were trying to come and join the Camp.
On September 21, under pressure from the SQ, people in the Peace Camp were forced to leave. The provincial government of Quebec declared the park closed for the season and forbade camping there. Some demonstrators were bused out by the SQ, who stopped and interrogated the protesters once they were away from the site. Other Campers resisted passively and were forcibly removed by the SQ. Residents of the town of Oka who had been present at the Camp were barred by the SQ from returning to their homes, and at least two residents who tried to do so were detained by the police. Another Oka resident who tried to take Peace Campers to her home was denied permission to do so by the SQ. Once all the 'campers' had left, the SQ dismantled the camp.
Peace Village in Winnipeg
In the first week of September 1990, aboriginal and non-aboriginal activists set up the “Peace Village” on the front lawn of the Manitoba Legislative Buildings. Initiators of this action included the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) and the Original Women's Network. From the beginning, the Peace Village was set up to show support for the Mohawks of Canada, to bring attention to indigenous issues of social justice (especially land claims), to call for a peaceful end to the armed stand-off at Kanesehatake and Kahnawake, to support aboriginal culture and healing, and to model aboriginal and non-aboriginal people living respectfully and cooperatively together. The Peace Village grew rapidly – the Winnipeg Free Press reported that on September 12 there were already 39 tents and 3 teepees. The largest teepee was a medicine lodge and organizing centre, the smaller teepees were for spiritual support and to emphasize aboriginal culture. Four coloured banners were flown over the camp, representing the 'four nations of people.' Additional people gathered nightly to listen to speakers, to pray, to sing, to dance, to drum. Speakers included Phil Fontaine, leader of AMC. By September 14, the Winnipeg Free Press was reporting that the encampment would stay for the length of the standoff in Quebec, and by now consisted of 60 tents. There were 150 – 200 staying overnight in the Village and up to 1500 people in the daytime and evening, including visitors.
Relations with the Security forces at the Legislative Buildings were very good. Security permitted the demonstrators access to the buildings for warmth, shelter, water and washroom facilities. Security expressed to the Winnipeg Free Press on Sept 14 that their only concerns were the small disturbances that occasionally created by people opposed to the Peace Village. One such situation happened on September 22 when a dozen pro-army demonstrators and Joe Borowski (prominent MB anti-abortion activist who had not been allowed to encamp on Legislative grounds) came to picket the Peace Village.
On September 23, the AMC announced that although the stand-off at Kanehsatake continued, the Peace Village would come down the next day. Village spokesperson Bob Macdonald is quoted as having said that the goal was “to support Quebec Mohawks” and that they felt they'd accomplished that goal. Additionally, weather influenced the decision to pack up (Winnipeg experiences very cold winters. By late September the autumn weather has already become very cool). There was some resistance from some at the Village who said that they wanted to continue until there was a peaceful resolution at Oka. Art Shofley, an elder at the Village, lived there with his son. Shofley declared that being at the Peace Village was important: the national media was showing negative images of Mohawks, so the Village had been needed to give a positive image, especially to aboriginal youth. Shofley described the Peace Village as a sacred place, a “bush camp in the city.”
1“First Nations,” “Aboriginal” and “Indigenous” are the preferred terms used to describe the people who are also known in Canada as “Native Canadian” or (in times past), “Indians.” “First Nations” refers to their status as the first occupants of the land now known as Canada.
2The men behind the lines at the Kanehsatake barricade used code names to protect their identities. Randy Horne, a Mohawk high-steel worker, used "Spudwrench" because a spudwrench is a common tool for metal workers.