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From October to Oka - Canada’s “crises” are not ours

By Deborah Murray and Chantal Sundaram

November 10, 2020

This year marks 30 years since the so-called “Oka crisis” in Kanesatà:ke, Kanien'kehá:ka (Mohawk) territory on Turtle Island, within what is now the Canadian state - and a section of it carved out for another conquered nation, now called Québec.

Québec is the remnant of New France, also a conqueror of Indigenous nations, before it was itself conquered – but on much different terms. The Québec government within the Canadian state remains to this day both oppressed and oppressor, to the extent that it is allowed to exercise authority over the territory it supposedly controls.   

This year also marks 50 years since the imposition of the War Measures Act by the Canadian state during the so-called “October Crisis.” In 1970, an uprising of a small number of québecois took place, and was thought to be much bigger due to the wide and palpable support for independence at the time.

Hundreds not directly involved were arrested, mostly progressives, activists and trade unionists. Just a year and a half later, in the spring of 1972, Québec unions launched a general strike against both the government in Ottawa and Canadian capitalism.

Both the Québecois nation and Indigenous nations remain under the same troubled roof, in extremely different ways, but both give the lie to the possibility of peaceful coexistence in a federal state forged by conquest and bent on using repression against any questioning of its ultimate authority.

And Québecois and Indigenous people are pitted against one another in ways that build the racist right - in very different ways, but which ultimately lead to the same fuel that feeds the growth of the right.

The federal state that calls itself “Canada” has its own spin, or silence, on all of this.

The so-called “October crisis”

The movement to contest the legacy of Québec’s historic oppression has long been hijacked by a racist, identarian – and solidly neoliberal and capitalist – leadership. From the PQ’s Charter of Values  to the middle-ground posturing of the Québec Liberals, to the blatant racism of the CAQ, it has become difficult to remember that the rebels who provoked the “October Crisis” of 1970 were in fact anti-capitalists and internationalists.

Nevertheless, a historical apology is owing to the hundreds of progressive Québecoises and Québecois who were rounded up at that time, and the only representatives in a position to demand one are these mainstream parties: the PQ, the PLQ, and now the Bloc. An apology is owing, above all by the son of the Prime Minister who put tanks in the streets and wire-tapped phones with the infamous threat about how far he was prepared to go: “Just watch me.”

This state-sanctioned cancellation of all democratic rights and civil liberties could be used again against Indigenous uprisings, which are taking place today both in Québec and English Canada - from the Mi’kmaq in Nova Scotia to the 1492 Land Back movement in Caledonia, Ontario – to the Mohawk of the pines in Kanesatà:ke.

This is what should be remembered about October 1970.

The so-called “Oka crisis”

The “Oka crisis” is now called the siege of Kanesatà:ke by Kanien'kehá:ka (Mohawk) land defenders to expose this fight as no standoff between two equal powers, but a siege by the Canadian state.

Over 2000 police (SQ and RCMP) and 4500 soldiers were sent in along with armored vehicles, helicopters, jet fighters and the navy. Canadian armed forces were sent in under precedent-setting measures in Quebec that did not require the use  of the War Measures Act.

Despite it all, the people of Kanesatà:ke defended their land and stood their ground against a violent onslaught by Québec and Canadian forces.

Racist responses in Quebec were widely reported in English Canadian media, but not the many acts of solidarity and support. A militant movement was built with Mohawks in Akwesasne and Kahnawake, other indigenous people across Turtle Island, as well as settler allies. During the height of the siege, daily demonstrations took place in Montreal. Food and other supplies, and moral support were brought directly to what was then known as Kanesatake. The demonstrations and solidarity work were mostly organized by francophone Québecois, notably long-time anti-poverty activist Francois Saillant who in 2018 was a candidate for the left-independantiste party Québec solidaire.

Among the many land defenders in Kanesatà:ke in 1990, the name of Ellen Gabriel stands out. First known as a Mohawk spokesperson that summer, she has continued to lead the fight for the Kanien'kehá:ka of Kanesatà:ke.

The struggle for Kanesatà:ke today

This past summer, Ellen Gabriel toured the area with a Kanehsatà:ke Tourism Office sign with an image on it of the Kaswentha or Two Row Wampum, symbolizing the agreement of peace and mutual respect with settlers.

She live-streamed her tours of the territory and spoke about unceded land that once included 689 square kilometres but now is only 12 square kilometres. The territory includes the Pines, where the infamous golf course at the centre of the 1990 siege is located, and the surrounding territory of Oka National Park, an industrial farm, and a housing development.

She talked about climate change, and systemic racism against the Kanien’kehá:ka and Indigenous defenders of land, hunting and fishing rights and Treaties across Canada, notably in B.C., Ontario, and Nova Scotia.

Gabriel addressed the historic systemic racism of residential schools and band council governing bodies, such as the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake (MCK), all created under the Indian Act. She demanded that Trudeau act on recommendations from the report on MMIWG (Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls) completed in 2017, and spoke to the tragic death of Joyce Echaquan, who live-streamed the final moments of her life at the hands of violently racist health care workers at a hospital in Joliette, QC.

A major focus of Gabriel’s tour of the territory was a housing development being built by Grégoire Gollin. He purchased the land from the town of Oka, which Gabriel notes, doesn’t have the right to sell unceded land. Gollin ‘gifted’ a parcel of land to the people of Kanesatà:ke in an agreement he’d signed with MCK Chief Simon. The people were not properly consulted.

In October, the town council of Oka held a one-hour video call as a public consultation on declaring the Pines, excluding the golf course and Gollin’s housing development, a heritage site. If approved, Oka would have total say over any development or modification of the Pines.

The Kanien'kehá:ka has defended their land from federal and local governments trying to force them off through directives, court injunctions, special military measures, moratoriums and more. They will continue to defend it.

This is what should be remembered about 1990.

A tale of two crises

There is no comparison between the siege of Kanesatà:ke – or between the ongoing daily criminalization and repression of Indigenous people across the Canadian state which includes an obscene ratio of incarceration per population -  and the number of Québecois arrested in the 1970 War Measures sweep.

But there is something inescapable they have in common: the same jails, the same police state, the same ability to cancel the entire veneer of civil liberties for all.

Apologies are owing to both, and they should be given (don’t hold your breath) and the demand for apologies can expose the crocodile tears of Trudeau junior, who is equally capable of invoking repression against anyone who threatens the fake happy family of “Canada.”

Just watch him.

Whose interests does “Canada” serve?

Most progressive people who are neither Indigenous nor Québecois, today identify the Canadian nation-state as progressive, or at least better than the one to the south. Especially given the recent struggle against Trumpism.

But this is a very wrong read. “Canada” is a wolf hiding behind a sheep’s thin skin of civil rights won through struggle, and public healthcare won through struggle, both of which can be so easily skinned off either violently, or silently eroded by stealth.

The racist history of the RCMP in defending a federal state founded on institutionalized repression is yet another argument to defund the police at every level. The debate that BLM has opened up on the question of whose interests are served by police has struck a chord internationally, and in Canada a part of that answer must be the way policing and the potential deployment of military forces within Canada serves a federal system founded on colonialism.  

But Indigenous movements – from Wetsu’wet’en to Kanesetà:ke, from the Mi’kmaq to 1492 Land Back Lane in Caledonia - have shown that even before we can effectively defund and disarm the forces of the Canadian state, it is possible to resist them.    

Just watch them.

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