The Kanienkehaka resistance at Kanehsatake & Kahnawake had a profound impact on Indigenous peoples in Canada. Oka set the tone for Indigenous resistance throughout the ‘90s, and inspired many people & communities to take action. Like Wounded Knee 1973, Oka was an awakening for an entire generation.
The Oka Crisis of 1990 involved the Mohawk territories of Kanehsatake/Oka & Kahnawake, both located near Montreal, Quebec. The standoff began with an armed police assault on a blockade at Kanehsatake on July 11, 1990, which saw one police officer shot dead in a brief exchange of gunfire. Following this, 2,000 police were mobilized, later replaced by 4,500 soldiers with tanks & APC’s, along with naval & air support.
All through the summer of 1990, Oka was the top story in Canadian TV & print media. The armed warriors at both Kanehsatake & Kahnawake inspired widespread support & solidarity from Indigenous people throughout the country. Protests, occupations, blockades, & sabotage actions were carried out, an indication of the great potential for rebellion amongst Indigenous peoples.
This manifestation of unity & solidarity served to limit the use of lethal force by the government in ending the standoff. Overall, Oka had a profound effect on Indigenous peoples and was the single most important factor in re-inspiring our warrior spirit. The 77-day standoff also served as an example of Indigenous sovereignty, and the necessity of armed force to defend territory & people against violent aggression by external forces.
Mohawks refer to themselves as Kanienkehaka (people of the flint). They are one nation of the Haudenosaunee (people of the longhouse, also the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy). The other nations in this confederacy are: Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca, Cayuga, and Tuscarora. Combined, the Iroquois have a population of between 75-100,000 in both Canada & the US. The territories discussed are all Mohawk.
Kanehsatake is located 53 km west of Montreal, Quebec. Its territory is divided into several sections and next to the town of Oka. The population of Kanehsatake is approx. 1400.
Kahnawake, on the other hand, is just 15 km west of Montreal on the shores of the St. Lawrence river, and has a pop. of 7000.
Akwesasne is located 75 km west of Montreal, near Cornwall, Ontario, and along the St. Lawrence river. It is divided between Ontario, Quebec, & New York. It has a population of 12,000.
For centuries, the Haudenosaunee have resisted European colonization. They were (and are) a large & powerful force in the eastern woodlands region of N. America. During the 1600s & 1700s, they sided with the British against first the French, and then the Americans. When the Indian Act band council system was imposed, many Haudenosaunee communities rejected it. By the 1920s, RCMP invaded the last holdouts at Six Nations & Akwesasne to force compliance.
In the 1960s, Mohawks became involved in protests & occupations. In 1968, Mohawk protesters blocked traffic on the Seaway International Bridge at Akwesasne to demand recognition of the Jay Treaty. A Mohawk—Richard Oaks—was a prominent spokesperson during the occupation of Alcatraz Island near San Francisco, in 1969.
In Kahnawake, a singing society was formed to learn traditional songs. This would form the basis for the Warrior Society. In 1970, Mohawks from Kahnawake re-occupied 2 islands in the St. Lawrence river. The next year, Kahnawake Mohawks assisted Onondagas in stopping a construction project in New York.
In 1973, warriors evicted all non-native residents from Kahnawake. This led to a large invasion by SQ, and a week long standoff. The warriors get greater support from the traditionalist Longhouse, and decide to expand their horizons.
In 1974, Kahnawake Mohawks and others re-occupy Ganienkeh, in New York state. It is an abandoned summer camp on land claimed by New York. After confrontations with local Americans & state police, negotiations lead to a settlement. The land is exchanged for another parcel, closer to the Canadian border & the communities of Akwesasne & Kahnawake (in 1977). Louis Karoniakatajeh Hall is a main spokesperson for Ganienkeh, and creates the Unity flag, also referred to as the Mohawk Warrior flag.
In 1978, the Kahnawake Survival School was established, with Mohawks teaching Mohawk language, culture, & history.
In 1979, there is a brief standoff between warriors & state police at Akwesasne (Raquette Point). That same year, Donald Cross is shot by police in Kahnawake.
Warrior flag designed by Louis Karoniaktajeh Hall, a Mohawk writer and artist. The feather represents the unity of all Indigenous peoples.
In 1981, SQ violence against Mi’kmaqs at Restigouche further alarms Kahnawake Mohawks. Various factions cooperate in drafting a confidential defense plan for the territory.
Throughout the 1980s, there is increased factional fighting over gambling & casinos at Akwesasne, which have become multi-million dollar operations. In the late ‘80s, police begin raiding casinos in Akwesasne, confiscating slot machines & seizing business records. They claimed the casinos were evading taxes & were illegal. Some Mohawks began to oppose the casinos, accusing them of corruption & anti-social effects.
In Dec 1987, over 200 police carried out raids on six casinos in Akwesasne, taking slot machines.
At Kahnawake, another form of ‘shady’ business has evolved: cheap cigarettes, allegedly the result of smuggling. By the late ‘80s, dozens of small shacks lined the roads.
On June 1, 1988, over 200 RCMP, with heavily-armed Emergency Response Teams, riot cops, etc., invade Kahnawake and raid the tobacco shops. In response, warriors seized the Mercier Bridge & blocked highways.
In July 1989, over 400 FBI & state police invade Akwesasne and are at first stopped by warrior blockades. The police re-position themselves, and are able to raid several casinos. At this time, the warriors were carrying out regular patrols to detect & deter police from invading their territory. Some anti-gambling factions were also pro-police.
On March 30, 1990, a Vermont National Guard helicopter is allegedly shot at while flying over Ganienkeh and is forced to land nearby. FBI & NY state police threaten to enter the territory and there is a standoff for several days.
At the same time, disputes between pro-gambling & anti-gambling factions escalated at Akwesasne. Assaults, fire-bombings and shootings began to occur. On May 1/90, two Mohawks were shot dead, and hundreds of police moved in to occupy the territory.
In Kahnawake, there’s not the same problems and a bit more unity; some profits from the cigarette trade are used to fund the Longhouse & Warrior Society. The warriors are also employed to act as security. Despite the conflict at Akwesasne (or maybe because of it), warriors from Akwesasne continued to assist Mohawks at Kanehsatake throughout the spring of 1990.
Resistance at Kanehsatake & Kahnawake, 1990
Foreword (by Dan David)
“I move towards the Mohawk bunker on the eastern edge of the pines. I’m nearly there when we all hear it; the loud, sharp snap of a twig somewhere in the woods to my left. Immediately, the whispered jokes & laughter stop. A rifle clip snaps into place. Someone draws back a rifle bolt and jams a bullet into the chamber. A rough voice commands everyone to “get your fucking asses down,” as though we need the reminder. “Watch out for snipers.. keep down.”
“To my right, a pair of dark figures slip silently towards the noise. They pad quickly & easily through the night, like cats on a prowl. Their rifles ready, they hop over a log & disappear into the woods.
“I look over my shoulder & see 4 or 5 people in the bunker. They’re hunched over their rifles. One person gazes through “night-vision” binoculars, scanning the forest for movement. “I can’t see a damn thing out there,” he whispers to one in particular.
“Time telescopes. Seconds feel like minutes & minutes drag on. The silence is broken only by the persistent crackle of a hand radio; someone, somewhere, wants to know what’s going on. The alert is spreading to other bunkers along a mile-long stretch of dark forest overlooking the police lines.
“Suddenly, there’s another, louder, voice on the radio. “It’s them,” someone in the bunker says in a normal tone. “It’s okay. They’re coming back.” Shoulders ease back from the rifles. The jokes & good-natured chatter begin again.
“I’m surprised that everybody takes the alarm in stride. They’re getting used to the routine after only a couple of days. No one, I notice, makes a fuss as 5 camouflaged figures file back from the woods with their AK’s cradled in their arms. They’re just kids, I think to myself.
“As I edge over to a small hill overlooking the golf course, I’m interrupted by someone suddenly near me. He’s looking off at the pine trees. Our great-grandfather planted these trees by hand. They’ve always been there for us. “Y’know,” he whispers, “I used to come here all the time when I was a kid.” He stares at the first hint of northern lights above those trees. “But I can’t remember it being this beautiful.”
“My memories of that summer at Kanehsatake are so different from the stories told by the media. Their attention was focused on the barricades. To most of them, this was just a cop story; the police & soldiers were there to “restore law & order,” to put things back the way they were. But most of the people behind the barricades were my family, friends, & relatives. And they didn’t want things to go back to the way they were. They knew that would mean a certain steady ride down a one-way street to an oblivion called assimilation” (People of the Pines, pp. 9-12).
Background to July 11/90 Police Raid
Members of the SQ tactical unit moments before they attempted to overtake the Mohawk blockade, July 11, 1990.
What triggered the 1990 Oka Crisis? To the great dismay of many, it was the proposed expansion of a golf course & new luxury homes by the Oka Golf Club and town municipality. This proposal was first announced in March, 1989.
Mohawks in Kanehsatake were immediately alarmed. The area designated for ‘development’ contained some of the last remaining forest (the Pines), a community lacrosse field, and a Mohawk graveyard.
Many non-Native residents of Oka were also opposed to the expansion as it was a members-only golf club, as well as for environmental reasons. Cutting down trees leads to soil erosion, a big problem for Oka in the 19th century.
In April, 1989, some 300 Mohawks protested against the expansion in Kanehsatake. On August 1, 1989, during a symbolic tree cutting to kick off the ground work, some 75-100 Mohawks showed up to protest. The launch was cancelled, and officials from the Quebec Native Affairs & federal Indian Affairs became involved in negotiations.
Throughout the winter & spring of 1990, protests & negotiations resulted in further delays of the expansion. On March 10, 1990, an old shack was moved into the Pines & a protest camp established.
Through the cold & snow, Mohawks took shifts in the Pines. A small woodstove was brought in. A warrior flag was put up, but removed after 2 days due to internal divisions (some wanted the camp ‘non-confrontational’ and ‘non-political’). At this time, two-way radios and a police scanner were also obtained.
Rumours that the camp was a warrior society outpost began to spread. As protection against harassment from white vigilantes (and other Mohawks), firearms were brought in. These were hunting rifles, kept out of sight but ready for defensive action.
More people start hanging out at the camp. Donations of food and other community support began to increase.
By late March, incidents of harassment lead to heated debates about weapons. Meanwhile, calls for assistance were sent out to every faction in the Iroquois Confederacy (Haudenosaunee). In the end, only the warriors would answer the call.
At Ganienkeh, there is a confrontation with state police after a National Guard helicopter is allegedly shot at flying over the territory.
After the shack is vandalized on April 22, 1990, road-blocks are erected across a dirt road running through the Pines. This consists of a large cement block at the south entrance to the Pines, and a large log in the north. The town of Oka seeks a court injunction ordering the removal of the roadblocks. This is granted on April 26, 1990. The Mohawks ignore it.
On May 1, 1990, the day that contractors are scheduled to remove the roadblocks, Kahnawake warriors arrive and join the protesters.
“The license plates of the warriors vehicles were covered by rags and they wore masks over their faces as they zipped in and out of the Pines… The strategy of the Mohawk protesters was to intimidate the police & to maintain an aura of mystery about what was actually going on behind the barricades. They were also trying to sustain the media’s curiosity and engender publicity about their occupation” (People of the Pines, p. 62).
At about 1 PM that day, a Surete du Quebec (SQ- Quebec provincial police) helicopter arrives & hovers over the camp. Several SQ cars patrol the area. In the Pines are dozens of Mohawks. With the threat of confrontation, the town council postpones the dismantling of the blockades and resumes negotiations.
That same day (May 1), two people die in factional fighting over casinos at Akwesasne. A large police occupation of the territory occurs.
On May 2, as negotiations continue in Kanehsatake, warriors in camouflage fatigues move in and out of the pines in trucks, some with weapons. An SQ helicopter flies overhead, monitoring their movement.
In early may, Akwesasne war chief Francis Boots and other warriors bring in truckloads of food, tents, sleeping bags, and other equipment.
Those who had opposed the use of weapons had largely drifted away at this time. Those who stayed,
“… remained in the Pines, and they were grateful for the advice and support the experienced warriors were offering. They realized they could not rely on the men of Kanehsatake to guard the Pines. Despite their rhetoric about defending the Pines to the death, most of the local Mohawks had never experienced a confrontation with the police, and they were unprepared to pick up a weapon” (People of the Pines, p. 65).
Twice more, in May & early June, the town council attempted to renew the injunction first granted in April. The judge, however, sees no urgent need to clear the road and tells the two sides to negotiate. At this point, the two sides are no longer meeting; federal negotiators act as a go-between.
In late May, a small log cabin is built in the Pines. Meanwhile, Oka town council meetings are packed by angry citizens demanding intervention by the SQ.
At this time, warriors begin digging trenches in preparation for a police raid. A set of night-vision devices is also obtained. Although there is the appearance of a heavily-guarded camp, in reality there were few people in the Pines. Many had jobs or family responsibilities. By late May, many were exhausted from long nights at the camp:
“Most of the warriors had drifted home to Akwesasne & Kahnawake, & even the Kanehsatake Mohawks found their commitment waning. Often there was no one in the pines at all. It looked as if the protest might die out on its own” (People of the Pines, p. 70-71).
Few people outside these 3 Mohawk territories even knew about the protest camp. In late May & early June, a delegation of Kahnawake warriors traveled to Haudenosaunee territories in Ontario & New York requesting support. In Kahnawake, money is collected to buy more two-way radios, and raffles are held for food & other supplies.
Warrior raises rifle from atop an overturned police cruiser at Oka roadblock in Quebec on July 1990. Photo by Tom Hanson / The Canadian Press.
On June 29, 1990, another injunction is sought to remove the roadblocks. This time it is granted. At the camp, women’s meetings are held daily and they decide on a strategy in which they are in the forefront, while the warriors stay back unless weapons are needed.
On July 5, the Quebec government issues an ultimatum: the Mohawks must remove the road-blocks or action will be taken. SQ patrols are stepped up. Mohawk warriors arrive daily from Kahnawake and Akwesasne.
At this time, defensive positions are improved. The roadblock at the north entrance is reinforced by a row of concrete blocks. Bunkers are reinforced & trenches dug, connecting forward positions to ones in the rear.
On July 8 & 9, John Ciaccia, Quebec Native Affairs minister, telephones Oka mayor Jean Ouellette and asks that he not send in the SQ.
On the night of July 10, 1990, the Mohawks receive a tip from an SQ dispatcher that police are preparing for a raid. Throughout the night, defensive positions are strengthened. Bunker locations are shifted and booby traps set up (punji sticks, pipe bombs, fish hooks on branches at knee & ankle level, along with fish lines with tin cans & pebbles inside).
July 11, 1990 Police Attack
Surete du Quebec (SQ) establish blockade down hill from Mohawk warrior blockade, June 11, 1990.
At day-break, Denise David-Tolley awoke from a troubled sleep. She had a dream about a violent attack and someone’s death. At 5:15 AM, the sound of vehicles alerts the camp: two large rental trucks followed by a convoy of police cruisers & vans arrive at the south entrance roadblock (near Hwy. 344). Heavily-armed SQ officers jump out of the vehicles and take up positions along the shoulder of the highway, while others climb up trees and into ditches, or crouch behind vehicles.
Two-way radios alert warriors in the Pines, while a cell phone is used to contact warriors at Kahnawake.
600 metres away, at the north entrance, a van and four cruisers arrive. More heavily-armed SQ take up positions. Altogether, there are about 100 SQ officers from the tactical intervention unit. On Highway 344, there are also several dozen riot police.
An SQ commander demands to speak to representatives from the camp. The SQ make it clear there will be no negotiations. The Mohawks are given 5 minutes to decide on a course of action. The Mohawks get this extended to 45-minutes for a tobacco-burning ceremony.
A front end loader is used to carry an SQ patrol car to make a barricade on Hwy 344. Both vehicles, along with 5 other cars, were abandoned by the SQ after the failed raid on July 11, 1990.
While the tobacco ceremony continues, & without warning, the SQ begin firing tear gas canisters at mostly Mohawk women & children. A sudden wind arises and blows the smoke back into the SQ lines (who now had gas masks on).
By this time, a warrior codenamed Rambo had already fled, abandoning his AK-47. This was now picked up by Joe ‘Stonecarver’ David, a Mohawk who had campaigned all spring against the use of weapons(!)
At Kahnawake, the alert spreads. A dozen warriors meet near the Mercier Bridge, a vital commuter link into Montreal.
“They stood around nervously, perhaps a little frightened and uncertain how to proceed” (People of the Pines, p. 31).
The Mercier Bridge, a vital commuter link to Montreal that was blockaded by warriors from Kahnawake in solidarity with Kanesatake Mohawks beginning on July 11, 1990.
Mark ‘Blackjack’ Montour then swung his car onto the highway, blocking one lane of traffic. By this time it’s rush hour with thousands of cars crossing the bridge. Some drive into the ditch to avoid Blackjack’s vehicle. Then a second warrior’s vehicle is placed on the highway, forming a’V’. Still, cars continue driving around the roadblock. Finally, Blackjack and another warrior pull out assault rifles, bringing traffic to a complete stop. They begin forcing vehicles to back up.
While it took 15 minutes to stop traffic, it would take another two hours to force traffic back to the outskirts of Chatteauguay (thereby creating an unoccupied zone for Mohawk positions). During this same time, other highways & intersections in and around Kahnawake are also blocked by groups of warriors. By 7 AM the Mercier Bridge has been captured and this information is relayed to those in the Pines.
By 7:30 AM a front-end loader is brought up by police in preparation to dismantle the barricades in the Pines. Police continue to sporadically fire tear gas & concussion grenades. More police arrive, as well as Mohawk reinforcements, who infiltrate into the Pines.
At 8:30 AM the front-end loader moves toward the Mohawk barricade and begins dismantling it. The Mohawks are in retreat and SQ officers begin leaping over the barricade and enter Pines. Shots are fired and a short but intense fire-fight breaks out between warriors & police (est. time: 30 seconds).
Corporal Marcel Lemay, shot and killed during the July 11, 1990 raid by Quebec provincial police.
One SQ officer is shot & killed: Cpl. Marcel Lemay, a 31-year old. The bullet entered through his left armpit, unprotected by his bullet-proof vest. He is killed by a steel-tipped ‘full metal-jacket’ .223 calibre bullet (the killing weapon is never found & it is unclear who fired the fatal shot—Mohawk or SQ friendly-fire?).
The police immediately retreat, jumping into their vehicles. They abandon six vans & cruisers, including the front-end loader. These vehicles are checked for weapons, then the loader is used to crush them and place them as barricades, beginning with Main Gate on Hwy. 344, overlooking the town of Oka to the east..
In Kahnawake, after 3 hours, all roads & highways passing through the territory are closed, barricades are established, and all stray vehicles are chased out. This plan was first executed in 1988 after a large RCMP raid on discount cigarette vendors in Kahnawake. At that time, the Mercier Bridge was also seized.
Along with barricaded positions on the bridge, warriors also climb up and down it, attaching fake explosive charges. Later, behind screens, they would also pretend to cut bolts on sections of the bridge with welding torches.
Warrior Strength at Time of Raid (July 11)
When the SQ first arrived at 5:15 AM in the Pines, there were an estimated 30 warriors present. By the time of the fire-fight (8:40 AM), there were an est. 60-70 armed warriors. Their weapons included numerous assault rifles, including five AR-15s, a full-auto CAR-15, an RPK (Soviet light-machine gun), three M-1 carbines, five SKS (Soviet rifle), and a sniper version of the M-14. At least 20 warriors were armed with hunting rifles (.303 & .22), shotguns, and several pistols (9mm, .45 cal., and a .357 magnum). In addition, warriors are said to have had several thousand rounds of ammunition.
Following the SQ retreat, barricades were strengthened and warriors conducted sweeps through the Pines, looking for snipers or police surveillance.
Some of the weapons used by warriors on July 11, 1990, including hunting rifles and AK47s.
Warrior’s Prepared for Counter-Attack
“The Mohawks surmised that the police would counterattack right after sunset to cut off any opportunity for warriors to use the cover of darkness to sneak in with weapons & supplies. Then, they assumed, the police would use heavy equipment to dismantle one of the barricades…
“Working with the front-end loader, the Mohawks dug trenches & foxholes throughout the encampment… near the roads and paths, they took down trees and dragged them into positions that would block an advancing column… “It didn’t make sense for them to wait,” adds [Francis] Boots. “We thought they would understand that the longer they took, the stronger we would become” (One Nation Under the Gun, p. 207).
Police Strategy on July 11, 1990
“A number of senior SQ officers had recognized the dangers of the operation in the Pines and had recommended sending in a specialized team of criminal negotiators. But they lost the internal debate on tactics. One officer later said the police commanders had expected a relatively easy operation, counting on the psychological effect of the surprise early-morning raid to flush out the Mohawks. When that failed to work, they resorted to other tactics—tear gas & concussion grenades—in an attempt to frighten the Mohawks into giving up the occupied territory” (People of the Pines, p. 28).
Government Surprised by Resistance
“It was an armed insurrection… We didn’t know what was next. Our police had been defeated & all we heard about was roaming Mohawks with guns. We though this could be our version of hell—the city shut down, the police in retreat & the Mohawks standing on top of police cars with their AK-47s held high above their heads” (a top-level aide to premier Bourassa, quoted in One Nation Under the Gun, p. 205).
The Siege Begins
During the night of July 11, more warriors infiltrated into the Pines. Meanwhile, SQ checkpoints had sealed off the area. Most warriors spent the night on patrol or positioned at bunkers & barricades (labeled Main Gate, Sector 5, China Beach, & North Pole). At North Pole, surrounded by cornfields and open pasture, far away from other positions, warriors had trouble finding volunteers for sentry duty.
In Kanehsatake, convenience stores were quickly depleted, while SQ checkpoints stopped food & medical supplies from entering. Mohawks were stopped, their vehicles checked, and even strip-searches conducted. During and after the siege, police harassment of Mohawks continued.
One of the abandoned SQ vehicles, July 11, 1990.
Meanwhile, Quebec public security minister Sam Elkas had already requested military assistance on July 12. Soldiers from the Royal 22e Regiment were secretly dispatched to Oka & Kahnawake. C-7 assault rifles, night-vision devices, and bullet-proof vests were assembled for police, and Grizzly armoured personnel carriers sent to Montreal from Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Valcartier.
At Kanehsatake, media access was immediately restricted & yet difficult to control. On July 11, some reporters had film destroyed by the SQ. Delegates from human rights organizations were also stopped from entering Kanehsatake. Some media began sneaking past police lines to get to Mohawk positions. Both the media and human rights observers would be harassed & detained by the SQ & military throughout the summer, as well as the target of white mobs.
On July 17 a Red Cross convoy brought in food, and the gym at Kanehsatake was made into an emergency food bank. By the second week of the siege, there was a chronic food shortage. In Montreal, the Quebec Native Women’s Association set up a food depot and were swamped with donations. Churches & other social movements also collected food & supplies. The problem was getting it into the communities.
Although every highway & road into Kanehsatake was blocked by the SQ, Mohawks soon realized that they didn’t go far off the road, and never entered the forest. Food and supplies were then brought in by runners across fields and through woods (along with the occasional shipment allowed through SQ/military lines). Warrior volunteers from Kahnawake also continued to infiltrate into the Pines. Boats were often used to smuggle warriors in & out, as well as guns, ammo, and camouflage gear. Police boats at times opened fire as they attempted to intercept these shipments.
Lack of Military Experience at Kanehsatake (Early Phase)
With the exception of a few warriors who had served in the US Army, most warriors at Kanehsatake had no formal military training. Some had received limited instruction at Ganienkeh, including digging trenches and use of an AK-47:
Tom Paul, Mi’kmaq warrior code-named “General” with an AK-47.
“The lack of military experience in Kanehsatake was evident in the fact that no one was actually in charge of the territory’s defense. The organization of shifts was completely arbitrary. Hunched down in a bunker at Sector 5 at the north entrance to the Pines, Stonecarver waited for three days for someone to show up to replace him during the first week of the siege. Some of the “homeboys,” mostly young Mohawks in their twenties who had not joined the fight until the morning of the raid, took over a bunker on the eastern fringe of the Pines, looking out over the golf course, which became known as China Beach.
“These neophyte warriors had to be watched carefully because they were known to be hotheads and troublemakers who drank and did drugs, or, like Apache—the warrior who gesticulated defiantly with his gun from atop the barricade of overturned police vans on July 11—they waved their guns around indiscriminately. “He was a hyper guy,” Francis Boots recalls. “We almost put him under lock & key.”
“The older warriors worried that some of the young gun-slinging Mohawks would discredit the warrior movement. Within a couple of weeks of the siege, however, many of the young Kanehsatake men on the barricades had drifted off, some of them angry or fed up with the stalled negotiations, a few of them more attracted to the idea of living in a police-free zone than in putting in long hours of duty in the Pines” (People of the Pines, p. 212).
Anti-Social Criminal Activity in Kanehsatake
With the absence of police, anti-social criminal activity increased. SQ allowed alcohol in, and soon there were problems with drunken youth and break-and-enters into homes. Some warriors, including Lasagna (Ronald Cross) and others, were also involved in all-night drinking parties and vandalism of residences.
In response, Kanehsatake Mohawks not in the Pines, but who were determined to stay, organized security patrols.
Police Surveillance Exposed (July 15)
On July 15, an ambulance drives into Kanehsatake and is stopped by warriors, who search it and check the identification of the driver & four attendants. They telephone the employer and then release the vehicle. Once it’s out of view of the media, however, warriors stop it again and demand to see their police id. A pistol is held to the head of one attendant, who confesses that he and two others are in fact police. The ambulance is ordered to leave.
Reinforcements & Negotiations
On July 15, nine Mi’kmaqs arrived at Kahnawake. The next day, four of them infiltrated into Kanehsatake, inc. 48-year old Tom Paul (General). They set up a sweat-lodge and greatly raised the morale of the warriors. As well, spiritual leaders began to arrive. Soon, the Onen:to’ken Treatment Centre, across the highway from the Pines, was set up as a negotiating center.
Tom Paul, Mi’kmaq warrior at Oka 1990, codenamed “General.”
The Mohawks had a list of demands, including title to the disputed land, withdrawal of police from all Mohawk territories (inc. Kahnawake, Ganienkah, & Akwesasne), a 48-hour period of free movement in/out of Kahnawake & Kanehsatake, and the referral of all disputes arising from the conflict to the World Court at the Hague.
The Mohawks also had 3 pre-conditions for any further negotiations: free access to food, unhindered access to clan mothers & spiritual advisors, and the posting of international human rights observers.
Both the federal & provincial governments rejected these demands. Despite condemning the warriors as thugs & terrorists, government officials continued to secretly meet with senior Mohawk warriors at a Montreal hotel in early August.
On August 1, Assembly of First Nations (AFN) vice-chief Ovide Mercredi visits Kanehsatake and is requested to provide technical advisors. On August 4, AFN lawyers & advisors arrive but are not trusted by the Mohawks, who view them as government spies.
On August 5, the Quebec government issues a 48-hour ultimatum for Mohawks to begin dismantling barricades. On August 7, the warriors fortified their positions. The next day, Quebec premier Robert Bourassa invokes the National Defense Act and calls on the Canadian Armed Forces to replace the SQ.
Response of White Population
Throughout the siege, thousands of white residents of Oka and Chateaguay displayed their racism and hatred of Mohawks. Mohawks were surrounded by white mobs & assaulted. The police barricades became a gathering point for mobs who taunted the warriors, whose positions were a few hundred meters away. They also chanted “Bring in the Army” and “savages.” By August, these gatherings became a daily routine with drinking and partying, & mobs as large as 8,000.
At night, effigies of warriors were strung up from lamp posts & burned. By mid-August, white mobs had begun to riot, attacking both SQ & RCMP riot police with rocks, sticks, Molotovs, etc..
In response, Kahnawake prepared for a potential invasion by white mobs as part of its barricade system, which remained on alert throughout the summer.
Kahnawake: Organized Community Resistance
Sign at entrance to Kahnawake.
In Kahnawake, with a population of approx. 6800, the crisis brought all community factions together in a unified defense. Self-organization within the community included communications, distribution of food, medical supplies, and gasoline. The community radio station, CKRK, became a key communications center and source of info. Even the warriors on barricade duty were fed & informed:
“The media task force also sent runners out in shifts to all the barricades and distributed copies of press releases to the Rotiskenrahkete (warriors). These reports contained daily news… people on the barricades did not feel left out & isolated from the rest of the community” (Entering the War Zone, p. 125).
At first, there was little organization of barricades at Kahnawake. Once shifts & schedules were made, the situation improved. Kahnawake war veterans were requested to help, as many young warriors did not know how to build bunkers or conduct patrols. The Legion branch in Kahnawake had some 120 members at this time.
Squads of 5 men with squad leaders were organized. At the peak of organizing, warriors had 2 squad leaders and as many as 40 warriors per shift at each highway checkpoint. As support for the barricades grew, as many as 600 men took turns on duty. Many Mohawks serving in the US or Canadian military requested leave and returned home.
Kahnawake served as a main rally point for warriors. In mid-July, a request for assistance wampum was sent to Onedias in Ontario (the closest allies to the Mohawks). About 100 Onedia warriors from Ontario, NY, and Wisconsin arrived. Most stayed at Kahnawake, while some were infiltrated into Kanehsatake.
Altogether, there were 14 bunkers & barricades at Kahnawake. Bunkers were placed on either side of road barricades to better defend them. Around bunkers and in areas where enemy forces could flank them, booby traps (inc. punji sticks, fishhooks, etc.) were placed. Other bunkers were used as decoys. Later in the summer, a series of tank trap trenches were dug near barricades to deter APC’s.
The headquarters of the Kahnawake warrior society was moved to a secret location inside the village, as the official HQ—adjacent to the Longhouse—was too obvious a target.
The defensive strategy for Kahnawake had two plans: A and B. Plan A consisted of the original barricades on each highway at the edge of the reserve. Warriors knew they could not hold these if the military attacked. Plan A positions were poor tactical locations because they were surrounded by miles of open highway.
Plan B consisted of fall back positions on the outskirts of the village itself, including sites with natural defensive advantages. If the military got past these secondary positions, warriors would wage guerrilla warfare in house-to-house fighting.
Use of Deception/Psychological Warfare by Warriors
“Psychological warfare was a crucial element of the Mohawk strategy. After the army listed the technical names of the machine guns they claimed the warriors possessed, the warriors began using those names in their radio communications—to intimidate the army into thinking they really had the hardware.
“Taking their psychological advantage a step further, the Mohawks used a variety of homemade devices to imitate the high-powered weapons the army thought they had. A circular cutting tool used in ironworking became an imitation M72 rocket launcher. An ordinary black plumbing tube was placed in the back of a pick-up truck and camouflaged so that it resembled an anti-tank missile launcher. The ruses worked. When the army distributed a press kit on warrior armaments in late August, it included a photo of an M72” (People of the Pines, pp. 244-45).
“We played on their fears and let their imaginations play games with them,” said Cookie McComber, one of the assistant war chiefs. “It was their paranoia. They took themselves so seriously” (People of the Pines, p. 245).
“The warriors covered empty shoe boxes in black, strapped them to their backs, and clambered over the Mercier Bridge to make the SQ think they were planting explosives on the bridge. They used welding torches on old scrap iron, behind a blind, to make it seem as if they were cutting the anchor bolts of the bridge to weaken it. And they wandered around an empty field, looking at a map, to pretend they were picking their way through a minefield. It was all part of a deliberate strategy to keep their enemies off guard and confused. “It was like a chess game,” said Little Marine. “They didn’t know who we were, they didn’t know what to expect,” added Michael Thomas, another warrior leader” (People of the Pines, p. 245).
In 1988, when the Mercier Bridge was seized in response to an RCMP raid on Kahnawake, warriors displayed a .50 cal. machine-gun, but it was reportedly an old, disabled, WW 2 relic.
After the initial SQ raid on July 11, Mohawks used radio communications to portray greater numbers than what they had.
Weapons at Kahnawake
There were an estimated 600 guns in Mohawk hands at Kahnawake (this number is the same given for how many armed warriors were involved). These weapons included AK-47s, hunting rifles, shotguns, pistols, and a .50-calibre semi-automatic. Throughout the summer, warriors also continued to buy weapons, ammo, & equipment. In the third or fourth week of the crisis, for example, a shipment of 80 AK-47s was smuggled into Kahnawake.
Although they had only pretended to wire the Mercier Bridge with explosives, the Mohawks could easily have done so using explosives from local construction companies in Kahnawake itself.
Solidarity Actions: BC & Canada
“Of all the protests across Canada, the most intense took place in BC, where native militancy has grown dramatically in recent years—largely because the BC government had consistently refused to negotiate Indian land claims. It was the only government in Canada that flatly rejected the entire concept of aboriginal land title.
“By late July, Indian barricades had been set up on 7 roads and railways in BC, originally as gestures of support for the Mohawk warriors, but later as a negotiating tactic in a determined bid to seek justice from the provincial government. The blockades wreaked havoc on the tourism and forestry industries of central BC, halted train traffic in the interior of the province, and brought losses of $750,000 a day to BC Rail” (People of the Pines, pp. 281-281).
A rail blockade by St’at’imc at Seton Lake was dismantled on August 24 by over 60 RCMP with batons and dogs. 16 were arrested. A few hours later, Lil’wat at Mt. Currie blocked the same railway, about 100 km south. This was also dismantled by the RCMP.
Warriors keep watch and read the funnies at Kanesatake, 1990.
In northern Ontario, Anicinabe near Longlac (Long Lake) blocked the Trans-Canada Highway in early August. On August 13 they also blocked CN Rail for about 1 week (costing an est. $2.6 million in lost revenue each day). On August 19, over 200 Ontario Provincial Police were sent to Lonclac to enforce court order and the blockade was removed.
This blockade was soon followed by blockades on nearby Canadian Pacific railways by the Pic Mobert & Pays Plat bands. When court injunctions were obtained by railway officials, another blockade would be set up by another band.
In mid-August, a railway bridge in northeastern Alberta was set ablaze. In late August, just after hours after RCMP cleared railway at Seton Lake, BC, a fire caused extensive damage to Seton Portage railway bridge.
In response to rail blockades, a CP Rail official, John Cox, stated:
“Virtually all our transcontinental traffic has been disrupted. We are at the mercy of individual bands & whatever decisions they make” (Entering the War Zone, p. 147).
In early September, after military advances into Mohawk territory, 5 hydro-electric towers were felled in southwestern Ontario. A railway bridge was also set on fire in the same region.
In southern Alberta, Peigan Lonefighters began diverting the Oldman River away from a half-constructed dam. On September 7, dozens of RCMP escorted provincial employees & heavy equipment to repair the dyke which had been breached by the Peigan. Warning shots were fired and a 33-hour standoff occurred. Milton Born With A Tooth was arrested and charged with weapons offenses.
Outside Kanehsatake/Oka, hundreds of supporters gathered at a solidarity camp (dubbed the Oka Peace Camp). Indigenous people from across North America arrived in vehicles & convoys throughout the summer, and large rallies were organized.
Officials Meet with Masked Warriors
On August 12, federal Indian Affairs minister Tom Siddon, and Quebec Native Affairs minister Ciaccia, met with Mohawks behind the barricades. They sign agreements guaranteeing access of food, medical supplies, spiritual advisors & legal observers. A masked warrior also signs as part of a last minute addition to the Mohawk negotiator’s team.
Later that day, over 3,000 angry citizens march to an SQ checkpoint, where a riot occurs. Police fire tear-gas to disperse the mob. This is followed by more rioting the next day.
Military Concerns on Deployment
Deployment of the Canadian Armed Forces was debated at the highest levels of government. Lt-General Foster publicly warned against a full military assault on the Mohawks.
“A senior federal official admitted privately in mid-August that there likely would have been several resignations among the top army commanders if Bourassa had ordered them to attack the Mohawk barricades” (People of the Pines, p. 298).
The military calculated that an assault would have required the evacuation of everyone in a 10-km radius of the Mercier Bridge, an est. 100,000 people. This assault would first comprise Leopard tanks to dismantle barricades, followed by APC’s and infantry.
Deployment of Canadian Armed Forces (Aug 15)
Early in the morning of August 15, the 5th Mechanized Brigade begins deployment of 600 soldiers. These troops rolled into St. Remi, south of Chateauguay, and set up camp. More soldiers were deployed in neary St. Hubert, St. Benoit, and in Blainville.
In all, 4,500 soldiers with more than a thousand vehicles, Leopard tanks, Grizzly & M113 APCs, trucks, artillery pieces, and other equipment, were in place by August 20. In addition, there are helicopters, Aurora surveillance planes, and naval ships on the St. Lawrence seaway.
Military Strategy & Objectives
This deployment of troops was labeled Operation Salon, the largest internal military operation in Canadian history. The operation had 4 objectives: remove the barricades at both Kanehsatake & Kahnawake, open the Mercier Bridge, remove the strong points of opposition, restore public order & security.
In order to carry out these tasks, the military cordoned off and contained the area, conducted patrols, and prepared for a final assault. They also applied slow but constant pressure, including troop advances backed up by Grizzly apc’s. In the face of this overwhelming force, the warriors would have no choice but to retreat
Military Takes Control (Aug 20)
Soldiers from the Royal 22nd Regiment at Oka, 1990.
On August 20, the military moved in to take over SQ positions. Many Mohawks were glad to see the hated SQ leave.
At Kahnawake, where there were more military vets among the warriors, communications were set up and meetings arranged between military commanders & senior warriors. Not so at Kanehsatake, where warriors refused to meet with soldiers. Instead, a delegation was organized of noncombatants.
When the Kanehsatake delegation met with military commanders, they were shown where the army wanted to place their troops, including next to the North Pole barricade. But this isolated post was unmanned, and the military would soon see the Mohawk’s bluff. Although the warriors rejected this, soldiers were placed 400 metres south of North Pole, causing them to break off any further negotiations.
At Kahnawake, the lack of inexperience & tense relations between the military and defenders at Kanehsatake was a great concern. Warriors requested that a military helicopter fly them to Kanehsatake:
“The helicopter landed on Hwy. 344, near the army’s new position on the edge of Oka… When the 3 warriors emerged from the aircraft, they were wearing black fatigues to remind everyone that they regarded themselves as professional soldiers. While the military officers waited at the helicopter, the Kahnawake warriors proceeded up the hill to the treatment center…
Armoured personnel carriers on highway near Kanesatake.
“Many of the Mohawks at the TC were not impressed by the black fatigues, nor by the insistence of the Kahnawake warriors that the same kind of protocol should be established between the army & the warriors in Kanehsatake as had been set up in Kahnawake” (People of the Pines, pp. 308-309).
One of these agreements at Kahnawake was that when warriors & soldiers encountered one another on patrol, they were to both sling their rifles.
On August 21, negotiations at Kanehsatake re-opened. Mohawks sought recognition of their sovereignty, no arrests, and long-term negotiations that would define and re-unify Mohawk territory.
On August 23, the military again advanced toward North Pole with APCs, then established a new position with razor-wire.
Attrition at Kanehsatake (by Aug 20)
“Many of those who had been in Kanehsatake during the first weeks of the siege had deserted the barricades by the time the army moved in. Some of them were bored or exhausted after the endless nights of patrols; others had simply lost faith in the negotiations” (People of the Pines, p. 308).
A Soldier’s View on Indigenous Sovereignty
One Canadian Forces soldier interviewed by the media stated his views on the Mohawks:
“The people are convinced that they’re right. They have a certain patriotism. Unfortunately, they are tossing aside the rules of our white governments. They’re in a vicious circle. As long as we don’t recognize them as a nation with their own protective force, we can’t accept that they can bear military arms. But as long as they don’t possess military arms, they will not be able to affirm their rights as a nation” (People of the Pines, p. 314).
Racist graffiti on side of Canadian Forces armoured vehicle.
Army Ordered to Dismantle Barricades (Aug 27)
On August 27, after days of frustrated negotiations, Quebec premier Robert Bourassa declares negotiations over & asks the army to dismantle the Mohawk barricades. In Kanehsatake, warriors go to red alert. The next day, civil protection authorities go door to door at Oka advising all remaining citizens to evacuate. The Red Cross brings in stretchers & body bags. Overhead, two Canadian Forces fighter planes fly over Kahanwake and Kanehstake in a show of force.
Attack on Mohawk Convoy, Kahnawake (Aug 28)
In the afternoon of August 28, some residents of Kahnawake also begin to evacuate in a convoy of some 70 vehicles, mostly women, children, & elders. They use the north exit near the Mercier Bridge, but are detained by the SQ, who search every vehicle and delay them for over 2 hours. In the meantime, local radio stations (including Montreal’s CJMS) broadcast the location of the convoy. By the time the convoy is underway, a mob of over 500 white people has gathered. They begin throwing rocks at the Mohawk vehicles, smashing windows and injuring persons inside. One elder, Joe Armstrong (71 years old) is hit in the chest with a large boulder. He would die one week later of a heart attack. Although there were approx. 30-40 police on hand, they made no effort to stop the rock throwing.
(see video: Incident at Whiskey Trench, by Alanis Obamsawin, NFB)
International Human Rights Observers Ordered Out
White vigilantes and police alike harassed human rights observers. At times they had to be flown in/out of Kahnawake by helicopter.
“The only persons who have treated me in a civilized way in this matter here in Canada are the Mohawks,” said Finn Lynghjem, a Norwegian judge. ‘The army & police do nothing. It’s very degrading… degrading to us, and perhaps more degrading to the government who can’t give us access” (People of the Pines, p. 321).
After Bourassa’s announcement that negotiations were over (Aug 27), all international observers were ordered to leave. After their departure, church observers and local human right s activists stepped in to replace them.
Attrition at Kahnawake (by Aug 27)
By late August, support for the barricades at Kahnawake, which had been so strong throughout most of the summer, began to decline. In the last days of August, only about ten warriors armed with AK-47s were still on duty, while others had only shotguns and .22-calibre hunting rifles. Some barricades had no more than 2-3 warriors.
Kahnawake Votes to Dismantle Barricades (Aug 28)
After Bourassa ends negotiations (Aug 27), Kahnawake meets to make a decision,
“One of the warrior squad leaders, codenamed Little Marine, asked the warriors if they were willing to pull the trigger if the army rolled in. “How many people here are willing to shoot?” he asked. “Who’s willing to give the order to shoot? If you just keep backing up (without shooting) you’re going to look like a bunch of fools.” Most of the warriors admitted that they weren’t willing to shoot.” (People of The Pines, p. 329).
Approximately 80 % vote to dismantle the barricades.
Military Fabricates Warrior ‘Airlift’ (Aug 28)
Warrior with CAR-15 rifle.
On July 11, 1990, the Mohawk Peoples of Kanehsatà:ke stood up against a legacy of fraudulent theft when the Municipality of Oka, in collusion with the Federal and provincial governments, tried to make way for the expansion of a 9-hole golf course and a new condominium project.
In the weeks and months that followed, Canada’s glowing image was tarnished forever. Many of us were shown for the first time the kind of treachery and brute force ways of the Canadian Government. Treachery and brute force that continues to this day.
The Oka Crisis also showed us just how entrenched racism is among Canadian citizens, particularly at the Mercier Bridge on August 28, 1990 — when a violent mob assaulted a convoy of Mohawk Elders, Women, and Children seeking refuge away from their community. The police stood by and watched. Alanis Obomsawin produced a documentary about this event, titled “Rocks at Whiskey Trench.”
Obomsawin also produced the film Kanehsatake 270 Years of Resistance, which takes us through the history and the events that took place at OKA.