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Know the West

Canada’s Oka Crisis marked a change in how police use force

Decades later, the standoff between Mohawk activists and police shows a stark comparison in militarization.

 

Mohawks and supporters face off against Canadian Army and Quebec provincial police. During the summer of 1990 Mohawk Indians from the Kanesatake Indian Reserve, Quebec Provincial Police and Canadian army soldiers engaged in a 78 day stand-off that was sparked by the town of Oka's plans to expand a golf course through a native burial ground. One police officer was killed during an exchange of gunfire on the first day of the conflict.
Christopher Morris/Corbis via Getty Images

Some words are visceral reminders of collective historic trauma. “Selma” or “Kent State” recall the civil rights movement and the use of military force against U.S. citizens. “Bloody Sunday” evokes “the Troubles” of Northern Ireland. Within Indigenous communities in North America, the word is “Oka.” 

That word reminds us of the overwhelming Canadian response to a small demonstration in a dispute over Mohawk land in Quebec, Canada, in 1990. Over the course of three months, the Canadian government sent 2,000 police and 4,500 soldiers (an entire brigade), backed by armored vehicles, helicopters, jet fighters and even the Navy, to subdue several small Mohawk communities. This summer marks the 30th anniversary of the so-called “Oka Crisis,” which lasted from July 11 to Sept. 26, 1990. Today, as racial justice protests sweep daily through U.S. streets, the Oka Crisis marks a critical transition in the state’s use of the military against its own citizens and the subsequent rise of militarized police in North America.

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The crisis began after months of benign actions by Mohawk activists to protest against the expansion of a golf course and condominium village near Oka, Quebec. The Mohawk contended that the land, which included a Mohawk cemetery, was their aboriginal territory and sacred to them. They did not want further development or desecration of the area. Members of a local Mohawk community, Kanesatake, set up a resistance camp near the golf course and blockaded one of the roads. On the morning of July 11, as people from the camp were getting ready for work, Quebec sent in an armed tactical unit from the Sûreté du Québec, a provincial police force better known as the SQ. The SQ launched tear gas at the campers, and, in an exchange of gunfire between the SQ and the Mohawk, an SQ corporal was killed. The cause of death was never fully resolved. A standoff between the nation of Canada and the Mohawk people ensued.

The SQ set up its own blockades and checkpoints with armed police along local roads. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) were called in to assist the SQ. Other Mohawk villages supported the Kanesatake protesters. The village of Kahnawake, for example, blocked the Mercier Bridge, which stopped traffic into and out of Montreal, one of Canada’s largest cities. The Mohawk blocked other roads to disrupt traffic.

With the numerous blocked roads and bridges and an increase in violent but unarmed encounters between the two sides, the Canadian Armed Forces were called in to replace the police. Negotiations began in an effort to end the various blockades, especially on the Mercier Bridge. After parliamentary debate in late September, and with clashes continuing to cause injuries, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney assured the Mohawk that he would address their concerns. The armed standoff ended on Sept. 26.

In the end, the Canadian government purchased the land at the heart of the dispute, and the development expansion was cancelled. However the land was never returned to the Mohawk. “Oka” remains in the memory of many Indigenous people as a moment when the Mohawk stood up to the military over their sacred land.

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There is a difference today, of course. At Oka, the provincial police asked the military to intervene. At Standing Rock and other recent protests, including recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations, the police have less need for the military. Instead, law enforcement is already equipped with surplus military equipment, vehicles and weapons. In Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of American Police Forces, journalist Radley Balko traces the militarization of U.S. police. Balko argues that the use of military equipment and weapons by local police forces is problematic and antithetical to most police department missions: to be “peace officers” or to “protect and serve.” This signals not just a change in equipment, he says, but in the officers’ mindset: “A lot of cops sort of see themselves as soldiers now.” 

A masked Mohawk Warrior stands atop a road block in the town Oka which was the scene of a 78 day stand-off between Mohawks and police over a land dispute.
Christopher Morris/Corbis via Getty Images

Other research suggests that militarized police departments are more dangerous, especially to communities of color, and that militarized police culture puts violent tactics above peaceful conflict resolution. Thirty years after the Oka Crisis, it is possible that we are all worse off. In that crisis, despite the violence, the military had clear orders, and the soldiers made way for negotiators. Today, in besieged communities, militarized police are a fact of life. They have no orders to leave. There are no negotiators to be found, no peace to be had.

Rosalyn LaPier (Blackfeet/Métis), Ph.D., is an award-winning Indigenous writer, ethnobotanist and environmental activist. She is an associate professor of environmental studies at the University of Montana and a research associate at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.