Considering Kanehsatake, Thirty Years Later

This photo is one of a number taken at the Oka Peace Camp set up in July 1990 in solidarity with the Mohawks of Kanehsatake who rose up in defense of their ancestral lands after the Oka Golf Club proposed an extension and the building of luxury condos over a Mohawk ancestral graveyard in the sacred wooded area known as “The Pines”. This land had never been ceded. In early July, after the Mohawks refused to end their non-violent occupation of the area or to take down the barricade, the Sûreté du Québec (Quebec police) moved in resulting in a violent confrontation. Later, the Canadian army was called in. Mohawk women, including Ellen Gabriel, played a central role in the uprising, which lasted for 78 intense days (July 11 – September 26, 1990). In the end, the golf course was not extended, and the condos were not built. But the larger issues of land sovereignty have never been resolved.

This photograph was taken at the Oka Peace Camp, which was set up in solidarity with the Kanehsatake resistance. (Amy Gottlieb)

The photograph shows a large Government of Quebec sign that states “Calvaire D’Oka”, with a handmade sign below it reading “Stop Government Terrorism!” 

September 26, 2020 marked the thirtieth anniversary of the end of the 78-day blockade at Kanehsatake, known widely as the Mohawk Resistance, and sometimes as the Oka Crisis. The resistance, developed out of a long history of settler intervention in Kanehsatake, and particularly a long-contested golf course that was built on Mohawk land, including ancestral burial grounds.

When proposals were made in 1989 for the expansion of the golf course and an adjoining real-estate development, the Mohawks of Kanehsatake protested and set up a blockade. On July 11, 1990, the combat-ready Quebec provincial police force (the Sûreté du Québec) fired tear gas and “advanced on the barricade”;  the gunfire that followed left a member of the Sûreté of Quebec dead, and bullets smoking in the trees. The police withdrew and for the next 78 days, there was a stand-off between the protestors and the police, ending with the surrender of the “last of the Mohawk warriors.”

As the violence of commercial fishers against Mi’kmaq fishing rights escalates, it is hard not to think of Kanehsatake and to recognize it as story well-known, as unceded territory well-trod. The events at Kanehsatake are part of a long trajectory of resistance to colonialism and a critical example of the state’s approach to those who contest the illegitimate acquisition of Indigenous land and resources.  

This violence is often enacted on the bodies of women, although it is not women alone who bear the marks of the hands of the state. In an article for Rebel Girls Rag (p.4), Doreen Falling Doll Silversmith wrote that in 1990, when the Sûreté breached the barricades, “the army and police stormed the Longhouse; the sacred, spiritual heart of our tradition, and beat up women as they prepared a meal. This was on the pretext of looking for weapons. One woman was taken to the hospital with a fractured cheekbone and others suffered severe bruising as a result of this cowardly attack.” She continues, “Why did the army and police throw women and children to the ground and rough them up as they were leaving the Oka barricade? Why was a woman thrown into a razor wire fence which cut into her body?”

This photo is one of a number taken at the Oka Peace Camp set up in July 1990 in solidarity with the Mohawks of Kanehsatake who rose up in defense of their ancestral lands after the Oka Golf Club proposed an extension and the building of luxury condos over a Mohawk ancestral graveyard in the sacred wooded area known as “The Pines”. This land had never been ceded. In early July, after the Mohawks refused to end their non-violent occupation of the area or to take down the barricade, the Sûreté du Québec (Quebec police) moved in resulting in a violent confrontation. Later, the Canadian army was called in. Mohawk women, including Ellen Gabriel, played a central role in the uprising, which lasted for 78 intense days (July 11 – September 26, 1990). In the end, the golf course was not extended, and the condos were not built. But the larger issues of land sovereignty have never been resolved.

An image of Doreen Silversmith at the Oka Peace Camp. (Amy Gottlieb)

When barricades went up again in Kanehsatake in 2020—this time to support the efforts of Wet’suwet’en land defenders protecting their territory from the encroachment of the Coastal GasLink pipeline—it became clear that little had changed. At Wet’suwet’en, there were several actions by the RCMP, including one in which heavily armed RCMP officers, accompanied by a helicopter “and a convoy of more than 30 vehicles,” came and arrested the matriarchs of the Unist’ot’ten healing centre. The RCMP cleared the camp, pulling down red dresses that had been hung among the trees to represent the lives of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

The RCMP’s attempt to intimidate Indigenous people in the name of commercial interests, in this case Coastal GasLink, was not only an echo of Kanehsatake, it was an ongoing demonstration that despite the rhetoric of reconciliation, the federal, militarized, carceral state, would continue to be used to suppress Indigenous resistance.

The legacies of the standoff at Kanehsatake are evident in other ways. One example is the use of hunger as a weapon against the resistance, in ways that replicate how the state has aimed to control Indigenous peoples by weakening the body through deprivation. When the blockades were up, the RCMP “sealed off” supply lines, and “harassed anyone who tried to bring food and other necessities” (p.5). After the standoff was over, the Sûreté raided the community food bank, as Ellen Gabriel has described (p.9), “looking for weapons.” In a speech in Toronto in 1991, she described the use of hunger as a tactic during the crisis, in which the police ‘used food as a weapon knowing full well that there were children inside; knowing full well that there were elders who refused to leave their homes because they said, ‘This is my home and nobody is going to make me leave it’.”

These tactics—starving protesters out—mimic the many ways that the state has used hunger to suppress the actions and lives of Indigenous people in Canada. In his book Clearing the Plains, James Daschuk has traced in part how famines were exploited to force Indigenous peoples off their lands, to rely on government assistance for food, and the neglect that followed, leading to starvation, illness and death. It is difficult to mobilize in the face of starvation; the already-challenging circumstances of resistance are made more difficult by the physiological consequences of cupboards long-bare. In Nova Scotia, these histories echo in the current attack on the rights of Mi’kmaw fishers to harvest lobster year-round for food, ceremony, and to make a moderate living. Hunger is one of the many ways that control of Indigenous resistance continues on through the systems that keep certain people starving while others are enabled to thrive.

A political cartoon from the October 1990 issue of Feminist Action (p.5).

The image shows a member of the Sureté du Quebec in riot gear saying, “Halt” to white woman carrying groceries. The woman, who also has a baby in a stroller, is stating, “You guys don’t embarrass very easily, do you.”

 The baby (below, and in a smaller font) is saying, “Bob, the whole world is watching.”

In the weeks after the anniversary of the Kanehsatake resistance, as eyes turn to Mik’maqi, it is worth thinking carefully about these histories, this legacy. Let us consider again the ever-present ways that violence continues to creep when there is potential for land and resources to be of service to the capitalist imagination: Kanehsatake for a golf course, Clayquot Sound for its ancient cedars, Attiwapiskat for the diamond mines nearby, Muskrat Falls for the hydroelectric power, and Mik’maqi for the lobsters, to name just a few.

In an essay published in the Fall 1990 edition of The Womanist (p.9), Lee Maracle reflected on the nature of violence as the crisis at Kanehsatake unfolded. Her words ring true today. She wrote: “To call upon us to submit to the organized violence of golfers, corporate logging companies, multinational oil corporations or any other such truck who seeks to strip mine, clear-cut, or play games on the graves of our ancestors is to distort the meaning of violence. We are being asked to sacrifice our sacred creation, our children, our lineage. We cannot do that.”

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We can’t look back at the resistance at Kanehsatake without highlighting Alanis Obamsawin’s landmark documentary:  
Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance (1993).

Watch it together with her 2002 film tracing the struggle over the rights of Mi’maq fishers in Nova Scotia: Is the Crown at War with Us?

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