The Summer of 1990

Where were Canadians when Oka happened … and where are we now?

I tried to go to the barricades, or at least near them. Even in the middle of the crisis, it was clear that something big was happening and that we would hear of it for years to come. Just after aboriginal peoples had played a prominent role in the demise of the Meech Lake accord, Canadians watched the 1990 standoff at Oka and knew that a new political challenge was arising. I wanted to see for myself what it might look like, this clash over a golf course and real estate development on land claimed by the Mohawk of Kanesatake. The heavy police presence at the site was not surprising, but what I was not prepared for was an exclusion zone that must have been a hundred square kilometres. The whole region was roadblocked like that small U.S. town that has been hit by some super-lethal virus in a Stephen King novel: if the disease is allowed to spread, say goodbye to the whole great country. Keeping the thing contained was a matter of survival.

Twenty years later, the challenge is still with us. But we have contained it and gotten used to it. Locally, Kanesatake is still a mess, and nationally there has been no reconciliation. But Canadians are no longer afraid of the Mohawk people along the St. Lawrence or of anybody else in “Indian country.” The challenge of what the constitution calls “aboriginal and treaty rights” has been weighed, costed and thoroughly absorbed into the Canadian body politic. Indeed, the threat of aboriginal claims on Canadian business as usual has so receded that the Harper government found it unproblematic, in November 2010, to sign on to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples—a non-binding document that Canadian governments since Jean Chrétien’s last ministry had argued was a grave threat to the country’s legal order.

How did we get to this point? Harry Swain’s Oka: A Political Crisis and Its Legacy makes fascinating contributions to answering this question, some of them despite the author’s best intentions. Swain was deputy minister at the federal Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development at the time of the Oka crisis, and was a key participant in the events. Now retired, he has written a highly readable account of the crisis and its antecedents, and of the way the federal government and its bureaucratic machinery dealt with it. Swain’s narrative relies on a broad range of sources, some public and others dependent on his top-level access, including interviews that he conducted with former senior civil servants and military leaders.

The book is written in refreshingly lively language, and is peppered with occasionally blunt formulations that make it clear that Swain is anything but a bloodless bureaucrat. But this does not make the book “unvarnished” or uncommonly “frank,” contrary to what one of the cover blurbs claims: there remains something guarded, even elusive, about Swain’s own part in the whole affair. If he lets slip tantalizing clues of his behind-the-scenes role, such as secret meetings with unnamed aboriginal leaders at his Ottawa residence late at night, he does not tell us what came of them. But in a two-page epilogue called “Condolence”—the Iroquois ceremony that serves to express “deep sympathy and support for someone who is called on to carry heavy burdens, personal or communal”—Swain tells us that, in 1991, he was so honoured by the Oneida First Nation at the initiative of Terry Doxtator and Bruce Elijah, two important Oka peacemakers. The book is silent on what Swain might have done, at Oka or elsewhere, to deserve such “an honour beyond words”—his phrase not a little ironic in the circumstance—but we understand that it is not just anybody who gets condoled. Part of the story, clearly, remains to be told.

Swain begins Oka with a long focus on the history of the mighty Iroquois Confederacy, from before European contact through wars, treaties and then gradual marginalization. He then tells the story of the Mohawk communities of Kahnawake, Akwesasne and Kanesatake; he shows how, in particular, the latter was serially betrayed over 400 years by the Sulpician religious order, the French Crown, the British Crown, the Canadian government and the Quebec government, thus creating the conditions for the 1990 crisis to incubate and erupt. These early chapters offer a sympathetic portrayal of the political systems and cultures of the Iroquois peoples, and are exemplary in their account of how dishonourably the European powers and their Canadian inheritors have dealt with them. The attention paid to the three Mohawk communities is particularly important, as later chapters will show how the 1990 “civil war” at Akwesasne in the Cornwall area—over casinos and smuggling—provided the other trigger of the crisis and how Kahnawake’s control of Mercier Bridge in Montreal was just as important a theatre of events as the barricaded perimeter at Kanesatake.

Shortly before arriving at the Oka crisis itself, Swain detours through DIAND, his perch during the events, the principal interface between Canada and indigenous peoples for over a hundred years, and a major player in the crisis, its origins and its aftermath. Understandably, the account of his old department is broadly positive, and Swain is especially pleased with his own administrative and crisis-management accomplishments there. From this point on, the book is, among many other things, a revealing first-person narrative on the workings of the highest reaches of Canadian public administration. But this is also where the continuing challenge that aboriginal peoples present to Canada catches up with Swain: while he is admirably clear-headed and honest about how Canada has done indigenous peoples wrong over the centuries, in particular in the case of the Kanesatake Mohawk, he is conflicted about what we should do now to right the situation. Indeed, the former mandarin cannot detach himself from his long-time employer and cannot see how DIAND (now Indian and Northern Affairs Canada) is a fundamentally dysfunctional element in the evolving relationship.

In the end, the best Swain can do is to champion lamely the Harper government’s reform of the specific land claims commission and affirm the unchallengeable sovereignty of Canada over its lands and peoples. If the Mohawk will not stop claiming that they are a sovereign people, Swain writes, “it is hard to see anything ahead but capitulation or bloodshed if the issue is forced.” If it comes to this, he adds, the Canadian government should just declare the Mohawk defeated at Kanesatake back in 1990, and continue with business as usual: military defeat would mark the conclusive end of claimed sovereignty. If this policy anticlimax is more than a little dispiriting, coming from a man condoled presumably for his peacemaking role at Oka/Kanesatake, it is also extraordinarily revealing: Swain’s inability to deal with Oka’s legacy in a constructive way is the perfect illustration of our own collective failure to face the challenge. More on this later.

The crisis at Oka/Kanesatake started with the Sûreté du Québec’s failed assault on a Mohawk barricade on July 11, 1990, resulting in the death of SQ Corporal Marcel Lemay, followed by the blockading of Mercier Bridge by Kahnawake Mohawk. But the ground for the confrontation had been thoroughly prepared by centuries of broken promises, a century of Indian Act interference in aboriginal governance, a poisoned relationship between the non-indigenous town of Oka and the Kanesatake community, and the civil war at Akwesasne. Swain is very good on all of this. As the crisis develops, he paints convincing portraits of the major players and offers fair-minded, if DIAND-tinted, evaluations of their roles. He writes that most non–aboriginal players—politicians, the military and police, the media—were vastly ignorant of Mohawk and aboriginal history and perspectives. There were a few key exceptions, notably Quebec’s minister of Native affairs, John Ciaccia (who had a previous career as a DIAND bureaucrat) and several federal ministers and mandarins who also had significant DIAND experience. The expertise in Ottawa was important in facilitating professional crisis management, while Ciaccia’s goodwill helped to reduce tensions at the barricades at key moments. What Swain does not say is that the same DIAND expertise that was valuable in the short term is a big part of the long-term problem.

Oka’s disruptive and racist town council largely disappears from view after it plays its part in launching the crisis with its real estate projects. From that point, the chief bad guy is indisputably the incompetent and also racist Sureté du Québec, which was eventually to be sidelined and rescued, in slow motion, by a Canadian army that Swain presents as the crisis’s true saviour. Unsurprisingly, given their track record, federal and provincial politicians and their back-up bureaucrats were unable to negotiate a solution. For their part, aboriginal representatives and militants were at odds with one other during the crisis, just as much as they were with representatives of the colonial power, and just as they tend to be at any given time. Courts, meanwhile, were distinctly unhelpful. Indeed, in the course of his scathing account of the provincial police force’s actions, Swain does note that the SQ intervened reluctantly in the conflict between Oka and the Mohawk, only after the town obtained a Quebec Superior Court order (also granted reluctantly) for the police to dismantle the barricade. This is only one of many instances recounted by Swain of judicial undermining of Mohawk claims in and around Kanesatake over the centuries, and it is a useful reminder that courts have long been part of the problem rather than part of the solution in indigenous-Canadian relations. It is remarkable how often, in Swain’s account, courts at all levels and at all times reluctantly rule against aboriginal people, noting repeatedly that while justice is on the aboriginal side, the law always happens to be on the Crown’s or settlers’ side.

From the time of the army’s takeover of security operations at Kanesatake and Kahnawake to its essentially peaceful dismantling of barricades six weeks later, the standoff devolved into continuing political stalemate and increasing military pressure. It was the latter that finally squeezed the Mohawk out of their Kanesatake encampment in late September, as it was an essentially military process that reopened Mercier Bridge.

The army’s professionalism through the crisis, in fact, goes deeper than its behaviour at the barricades and, as such, saved us all from much greater political trouble. As Swain shows, the legal framework for the army’s intervention at Oka was doubly and grievously flawed. On the one hand, once the Quebec government officially requested (and obtained) assistance from the Canadian Forces, the military came under provincial authority, which bizarrely left the federal government outside the military chain of command: Canada’s Chief of Defence Staff answered only to the Quebec premier. On the other hand, once the military stepped in, the Chief of Defence Staff operated with complete tactical autonomy from any political masters—whether in Ottawa or in Quebec City. In terms of democratic governance and accountability, both these features of the National Defence Act’s framework for a provincial “requisition” are highly problematic. Had the military leadership been less than exemplary in their own management of the situation, a far more damaging crisis could have been triggered, well beyond the issue of Canada-aboriginal relations.

With Meech dead but still warm, Canada-Quebec relations were at a low point. A jurisdictional fight between Quebec City and Ottawa, involving the army in the middle of the Oka crisis, would have been a disaster. It would have escalated tensions to a degree and in a way that would have been harmful for Quebec sovereignists just as for federalists across Canada. As things stood, it is worth noting that although Swain is attentive to the just-failed Meech Lake Accord’s effect on Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and Premier Robert Bourassa’s ability to deal with Oka, he is entirely silent on Meech’s dividing impact on Quebec-Canada public opinion regarding the standoff. As Meech had just catalyzed anglophone Canada’s hostility to Quebec’s autonomist aspirations, Oka acted to further divide the country’s two national communities. The majority of Quebec’s francophone public opinion swiftly turned against the Mohawk, not only because of the standoff at Kanesatake and the death of Corporal Marcel Lemay, but also (perhaps more) because of the blockading of Mercier Bridge that seriously disrupted Montreal’s daily life. Meanwhile, opinion outside Quebec (and among Quebec’s anglophone community) was broadly sympathetic to the Mohawk.

The fact that aboriginal peoples’ claims had just played such a prominent role in legitimizing anti-Meech opinion turned out to be a major asset for the Warriors at Kanesatake and Kahnawake. While the francophone media in Quebec were keen to research and highlight the Warriors’ criminal-gang dimension, anglophone media decried the reporting of their francophone colleagues as racist. It is only in later crises, outside Quebec, that the Warriors came to be portrayed, across the country, as gangsters. Swain’s own take on the Warriors is fully informed from the beginning, as he was briefed in real time on the group’s developing activities in Akwesasne and the other Mohawk communities. He shows considerable subtlety in portraying the group’s complex intermingling of traditionalism, youth-support program, political resistance and economic opportunity, all eventually morphing into criminal activities and organization. Swain himself shows how “criminality,” here, should be understood as that which is constructed as forbidden by the colonial power: “smuggling,” in particular, is nothing more and nothing less than commerce that a political authority chooses to ban. In the absence of other economic opportunities, it is hardly surprising that the trade has gone on despite its “criminal” labelling and the material consequences that followed.

Twenty years later, the Warriors’ combination of political radicalism and organized crime remains as potent as ever—on this count as on others, the legacy of Oka is that nothing has changed. Just now, the Canadian Forces were about to issue an apology—four years in the making—for mentioning the Warriors in the context of a discussion of insurgent groups in a 2006 draft training manual. Here is a symbolic move that takes forever to prepare—owing more in this case to a fear of controversy than to sound policy making—but that will make not the slightest change to the way in which the armed forces actually train: this latest controversy between Canada’s government and its indigenous peoples is exemplary, and could elicit a blunt comment from Harry Swain. But where we go from here remains as unclear as ever.