Thirty years later, there are still scars from the Oka Crisis

July 11 marks the 30th anniversary of the beginning of what became known as the Oka Crisis, a 78-day standoff in Kanesatake between the provincial and federal governments and Mohawks there and in Kahnawake.

The standoff started when Quebec provincial police (Surete du Quebec) moved in on demonstrators in an area called the Pines – a stretch of woods adjacent to the Oka Golf Club that contains a Mohawk cemetery. The demonstrators had been camping out in that area after the village of Oka voted to expropriate the land to expand the public club’s nine-hole golf course. 

“I was getting ready for work that morning,” said Kanesatake Council Grand Chief Serge Simon, who was living in Oka at the time. “And it was really early in the morning. I saw the tactical squad start to organize at the base of the hill. When I started seeing them going up, I said to myself, 'They're going up there to kill everybody.'" 

“They showed up and we kind of said: ‘holy s___ they’re here,” said Ellen Gabriel, one of the Kanesatake Mohawks who was camping in the Pines. The SQ fired tear gas into the area, and then moved in. 

Gunfire erupted.

“All I know is that there was a lot of firing going on,” said Randy “Spudwrench” Horne, a Kahnawake Mohawk who was in the Pines at the time. “You could hear it in the trees. And hitting the bark. And I guess some guys got really mad and they start firing back.” 

One SQ officer -- Cpl. Marcel Lemay -- was shot and killed as a consequence. His death was never solved. It was the beginning of an armed standoff that almost lasted three months. 

“Really after day one or two, everybody thought that this was going away,” said Kenneth McComber, a Kahnawake Mohawk. “After day three we started saying ‘this is not going away.’” 

The crisis intensified when the Mohawks of Kahnawake decided to block the Mercier Bridge, which suddenly affected South Shore commuters. In mid-August, then-Quebec premier Robert Bourassa requested the Canadian Forces take over from the SQ. 

A young Kanesatake Mohawk named Tracy Cross was serving with the army in Germany at the time. Shortly afterward, he said he came under unusual scrutiny. 

“At one point my phone was tapped,” he said. “I probably had every investigative unit investigate me.” 

At that time Cross’s brother Ronald was barricaded inside the Pines. Taking the nickname “Lasagna,” Ronald Cross became a talismanic figure of the standoff and the militant hard line of the Mohawk warrior movement, appearing on the cover of magazines from Maclean’s to Soldier of Fortune. Tracy Cross ended up becoming a Kanesatake Police Chief. 

As the standoff continued, “I was very angry. At that point I wish I was here. On the other side of the fence. I mean it's your people right?” he said. 

SCARS REMAIN

The crisis revealed to many that Canada and Quebec still had a long road to reconciliation with its Indigenous population. 

“Something went wrong early in the process, so when you got to that morning of July 11, things had gone too far out of control with the tragic consequences we know,” said Geoff Kelley, a former Quebec Indigenous affairs minister.

“And I’d say it left scars that many of which haven’t healed down to today.”

The crisis had the end result of galvanizing many Indigenous communities to exercise their rights, Horne said.

“It woke up a lot of people,” he said. “All across the country. All the Natives they started to realize they had to fight more for their rights. And I’m glad it happened.”  

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