The Uprising at Kanehsatà:ke: A History of Resistance

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the outbreak of the Uprising at Kanehsatà:ke by warriors of the Kanien’kehá:ka Nation, otherwise known at the Oka Crisis.

This land is ours, ours as a heritage given to us as a sacred legacy. It is the place where our fathers lie buried beneath those trees, where our mothers sang our lullaby, and you would tear it from us an leave us wonderers at the mercy of fate. – Chief Joseph Onasakenrat of Kanehsatà:ke

July 11, 2015 marks the 25th anniversary of the courageous armed defence of sacred Kanien’kehá:ka land in the part of Occupied Turtle Island known as quebec. What the colonial state would come to label the uprising the “Oka Crisis”, for the Kanien’kehá:ka at Kanehsatà:ke it was the culmination of 270 years of silent war waged against them in the form pillage, subterfuge and land theft. Triggered in the immediate sense by the threat of a golf course expansion and condominium development onto land that the community held sacred,  by the time the “crisis” came to an end the oyenko:ohntoh (warriors) of the Kanien’kehá:ka had held off the Sûreté du Québec (SQ), the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and finally even the kanadian armed forces, and they were joined in their resistance by Onkwehón:we from all over Turtle Island, from kanada, the united states and as from as far away as Mexico. Along with the Zapatista uprising in Mexico 4 years later, the resistance at Kanehsatà:ke set the scene for the last 25 years of indigenous resurgence against the colonial state. This is their story.

Ohenten Kariwatehkwen

Today we say: We are here. We are rebel dignity, the forgotten of the homeland. – Emeliano Zapata, Nahual

In the language of the Kanien’kehá:ka people, Ohenten Kariwatehkwen means “words that come before all else” and it refers to the traditional thanksgiving address of the Six Nations Rotinonshón:ni Confederacy, and indeed there are some words of thanksgiving that should come before all else is said about the resistance at Kanehsatà:ke. In the 25 years since the events we have lost a number of the brave warriors who stood up for Onkwehón:we everywhere in the name of freedom, independence and self-determination. And it is to them that I wish to begin with by saying thank you. To Thomas “the General” Paul, Leroy “Splinter” Gabriel, Todd Diabo, Joe “Stone Carver” David, “Mad Jap” and Ron “Lasagna” Cross, kahwatisire, migwetch. Gi zah gin, gigawabamin menawah, māēhnow-pemātesenon yōhpeh!.

270 Years of Colonialism: the Beginnings of the Crisis

One who would take away our rights is, of course, our enemy. – Deskaheh, Rotinonshón:ni

The events that would eventually culminate in the armed uprising had their roots in the 270 years of struggle over land between the people of the Kanien’kehá:ka nation at Kanehsatà:ke and the francophone town Oka and the catholic church. The Uprising proper began on July 11, 1990, and lasted until September 26, 1990. Over the course of this three month period, three people died and the event served as the flashpoint for a series of conflicts and confrontations between the central settler government of kanada and Native peoples that have yet to see a resolution. One only has to look at the renewal of the conflict over Six Nations territory near Hamilton, Ontario, the resistance to the 2010 Winter Olympics, or the powerful pan-Native movement that was Idle No More. Next to the name Oka are engraved Gustafen Lake, Ipperwash, Caledonia, Grassy Narrows and Chiapas.

The Uprising exploded out of the pursuit by the Kanien’kehá:ka nation of a land claim, which included a burial ground and a sacred grove of pine trees near Kanehsatà:ke. They were brought into direct conflict with the settler town of Oka when the town sought to develop its private exclusive members only golf course, and an upscale residential area onto the sacred and disputed land.

For thousands of years, as with the rest of Turtle Island, all of the land in the region of Oka was Indian land. Before the arrival of whites, the Kanien’kehá:ka had helped forge a confederacy of five nations, which they called the Rotinonshón:ni, and which still exists today, having expanding further with the addition of a six nation. The Kanien’kehá:ka were known as the Keepers of the Eastern Door of the Confederacy’s territory.

On his second trip to what is now kanada, frannco-european explorer Jacques Cartier arrived at one of the main Rotinonshón:ni settlements, Hochelaga (present day Montreal). In 1663 the Society of the Priests of Saint Sulpice in Paris were given control of the Island of Montreal, and thus began the dispossession of those lands from their original Onkwehón:we inhabitants.  The former residents of Hochelaga were moved around many times by the Sulpicians before in 1716 the governor of New France (quebec), in the name of King Louis XV, then only six years old, granted the lands encompassing the Kanien’kehá:ka cemetery and the pines to the catholic monastic order. The Kanien’kehá:ka, who had ancestral lands in the area of Montreal (70 km west of Oka), were given a written promise of a tract of land 9 miles by 9 miles on the condition that if they were to leave the land its title would revert to the King. The Sulpicians were given an adjacent tract 1.5 miles by 9 miles.

However, the Sulpicians were not pleased this settlement. They wanted all of the lands, as it was a well-established place for trade. One year later, with the aid of the governor of Montreal, they were able to seize the rest of the land, using the argument that it would help speed up the conversion process of the “savages,” and that in times of war the people of Kanehsatà:ke would help defend against other Onkwehón:we. The Kanien’kehá:ka at Kanehsatà:ke were never made aware of this deal, which was signed across the ocean in Paris. Thus they remained loyal to the catholic church and the king of france, fighting on their side against the british in those two imperial-colonial powers running battle for control of north amerika. By 1721 the french had completed the removal of the last Onkwehón:we residents of Hochelaga. On the understanding that they would be left unmolested, the people of Kanehsatà:ke made a wampum belt, a traditional way of recording agreements in Rotinonshón:ni society.

In 1760 with the defeat of france and the british conquest of the french territory in kanada, an ultimatum was sent to the people of Kanehsatà:ke that if they did not pledge allegiance to the king of england their village would be destroyed. The people agreed, and they were told by the british envoy that their freedom of religion and title to the land would be protected in the name of the king, though all those who did not wish to become british subjects were given 18 months to sell off their land. This left the Sulpicians in an odd situation, actually having title to the land, yet unable to sell it as Onkwehón:we did live on it. In order to get out of this predicament, four months before the end of the 18-month deadline, the head of the Sulpician seminary in Paris transferred title to the land to the head of the seminary in Montreal, who in turn swore allegiance to the british crown.

Beginning in 1787 subsequent Kanien’kehá:ka chiefs took up the issue of the land, using the wampum belt to convey their concern. The year after kanadian confederation, 1868, Joseph Onasakenrat, a young leader was recognised for his intelligence and was patronised by the Sulpicians. They sent him to the College of Montreal in order to train him for the priesthood. He returned to his people and became the first Chief of the Kanehsatà:ke Kanien’kehá:ka to read and write like the whites. While working for the order as a secretary he became aware of the treachery. He marched on the house of the Sulpicians with his Algonquin and Nipissing allies and confronted them for illegally holding the land and demanding its return. In response, the brother of the Bishop of Montreal arrived and threatened the chiefs with life in prison at Kingston penitentiary if they would obey the priests. He also informed Chief Onasakenrat that the crown had bought land for them in Ontario, to which Onasakenrat replied:

We will never go there. We will die on the soil of our fathers, and our bleaching skeletons will be witness to nations yet unborn, of Rome’s injustice and greed.

By the 1930s the remainder of the land, generally known as the Commons, had become an impromptu golf course for the white residents of Oka. Native residents complained that the white golfers would chase away their cattle with the clubs and that there was nowhere left for them to graze. Later, in 1947, Commons, including the pines and the cemetery, were outright seized by the town of Oka. Even the Kanien’kehá:ka cemetery became the property of the town of Oka.

In 1961, after many of the sacred pines had already been felled, the construction a nine-hole golf course on the Commons, le Club de golf d’Oka, was finally completed. The Kanien’kehá:ka community had launched a legal protest against its construction, however, as could have been expected, by the time the case was heard in court, it was already too late to stop the worst from happening.

In 1977, the Kanien’kehá:ka community filed with the official land claims process, run by the kanadian federal Office of Native Claims. The government agreed to process the claim and funds were provided to the community in order to carry out additional research. Nine years later though the claim was rejected. It was announced in 1989 by the office of the mayor of Oka, Jean Ouellette, that the remainder of the pines on the land would be cleared to make way for additional expansions to the members-only golf club’s course in order to make it into a full eighteen holes. In addition to the eighteen-hole golf course, a total of sixty luxury condominiums were also being planned for construction on a section of the sacred pines. Due to the fact that the federal state had rejected the Kanien’kehá:ka claim on the land three years earlier all of these plans to destroy their sacred land were made in the absence of any consultation with the nation.

On March 10, 1990, the residents of Kanehsatà:ke began a small protest on a dirt road leading to the sacred land. Later, the protesters were given until July 9 to obey an injunction issued by the colonial courts to cease and desist. This was to be the spark that set the fire of the ultimate confrontation between the colonial governments of kanada and quebec and the courageous warriors of Kanehsatà:ke.

Outbreak of Resistance

A Warrior is the one who can use words so that everyone knows they are part of the same family. A Warrior says what is in the people’s hearts, talks about what the land means to them, brings them together to fight for it. – Bighorse, Diné

In order to protest against the court decision which had allowed the golf course construction to proceed some members of the Kanien’kehá:ka community erected a simple barricade across a dirt road, blocking access to the areas in question. Oka Mayor Ouellette demanded compliance with the court order, but the protesters refused.

The crisis escalated beyond the realm of normal peaceful protest when, on July 11, the mayor requested the presence of the Sûreté du Québec (SQ – The quebec provincial police). In response to the entry of the SQ into the situation the warriors of the nation, in accordance with the ancient Constitution of the Rotinonshón:ni Confederacy, asked the women whether or not the arsenal of weapons they had amassed should remain, and if they should be used to defend the land and the community. The decision of the women was that the weapons should be used only if the SQ opened fire first.

As a community spiritual leader was burning tobacco and giving thanks the SQ arrived at the barricades and a SWAT team was swiftly deployed in an attack against the protesters. In response, the women charged to the front with the knowledge that it was their obligation to protect the land. Soon, in a state of confusion, the SQ began to retreat, but as they retreated they launched tear gas and concussion devices at the Kanien’kehá:ka lines. This only strengthened the resolve of the Kanien’kehá:ka, and they dug into their positions. The wind, which was still when the SQ began their attack on the protesters, now picked up and blew the SQ’s own tear gas back at them, and also onto highway 344. In their retreat, the SQ was forced to leave behind much of their equipment behind, including sex police cruisers and a payloader. The warriors and community allies quickly expropriated these and used the pay loader to overturn the cruisers and push them into an ever blockade, this time on the main highway, the 344.

This all took only fifteen-minutes. However, during this initial confrontation between the warriors and the agents of the state, rounds of fire were exchanged. During the gun battle, 31-year-old SQ Corporal Marcel Lemay was shot and died a short while later. The warriors and community members in the pines were saddened by the death of Lemay, as they knew they would be blamed, no matter where the bullet came from.

Following this initial battle the situation escalated as the Kanien’kehá:ka were joined by other Onkwehón:we from across Occupied Turtle Island, from Lakota, Niitsítapi, Absaroka, Haida, Diné, Tsalagi, and even from as far-a-field as Mexico and of course members of the Kaion’kehá:ka, Oneniote’á:ka, Ononta’kehá:ka, Shotinontowane’á:ka and Tehatiskaró:ros—their Brother and Sister Nations within in the Rotinonshón:ni Confederacy. The Kanien’kehá:ka themselves were forged into a united front against the destruction of their sacred lands, despite disagreements between various factions in the community. Protests and acts of solidarity erupted across Turtle Island, on both sides of the artificial border. To the east of Oka, at the Mercier Bridge, a major traffic artery between the Island of Montreal and the South Shore suburbs, at the point where it passed through the territory of the Kahnawà:ke Kanien’kehá:ka community, warriors formed a blockade in a courageous act of solidarity with the brothers and sisters. At the peak of the crisis, the warriors refused to dismantle their barricades and the SQ established their own blockades to restrict access to Oka about 5 km outside of it and brought more than 1000 officers to be stationed in Oka, itself a town of only 1800. With all the blockades erected, travel on the Mercier Bridge and Routes 132, 138 and 207 was completely blocked.

The federal government, in an effort to ease the crisis, agreed to spend $5.3 million to purchase the contested section of land, with the intention of preventing any further development. This, of course, would have resolved the initial issues, namely Mohawk sovereignty over the land. This left the Kanien’kehá:ka outraged.

Colonial, anti-Native, racial hatred in the québécois was inflamed during the crisis by members of the community. They were fanned most by radio host Gilles Proulx who repeatedly reminded his listeners that the Kanien’kehá:ka “couldn’t even speak French” and the federal member of parliament for Châteauguay said that all the natives in quebec should be shipped off to Labrador “if they wanted their own country so much”. It allowed for the true colours of the kanadian and quebec ruling class establishment to emerge, after years of pushing multiculturalism and tolerance.

The Kanadian State Escalates

The difference between a warrior an a soldier is a soldier fights a war with no consciousness, a warrior finds balance through common sense. – Los Nativos

However it soon became apparent that the SQ had lost control of the situation and as a response, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police was brought in to take charge, but it itself was soon defeated and held off by the warriors and their allies who held steadfast, even in the face of this new and serious escalation. Ten of the Mounties present at Oka were hospitalised and on August 14th the premier quebec, Robert Bourassa, requisitioned the assistance of the kanadian armed forces in “aid to the civil power” by invoking the Emergencies Act.

Federal Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was reluctant to go along with this plan of action, but he had no choice as it was the right of Bourassa, under the act, to employ the military when he believed it was required for the maintenance of the colonial order in the province. The Chief of the Defence Staff, General John de Chastelain accordingly placed quebec-based troops in support of the provincial police authorities. Something in the area of 2,500 regular and reserve troops from the 34th and 35thth kanadian Mechanized Brigade Group were put on notice and, on the morning of 20 August, troops of the quebec-based Royal 22e Regiment, the ‘Van Doos’, led by Major Alain Tremblay took over three of the SQ-RCMP barricades and arrived at the final blockade leading to the primary disputed area. The SQ had originally established a no man’s land of one and a half kilometres between themselves and the barricade at the pines, but the army, in a brazen, aggressive move, pushed this to space within five metres, which lead to many literally face to face confrontations between masked warriors and, often inexperienced, kanadian soldiers. Further numbers of military personnel and equipment were mobilized at staging areas around the region, while CF-116 Freedom Fighter reconnaissance aircraft staged air photo missions over Kanien’kehá:ka territory.

Hope took a fall though when the 29th of August the Kanien’kehá:ka of Kahnawà:ke negotiated an end to their protest and siege with Lieutenant Colonel Robin Gagnon, a ‘Van Doo’ commander. This resulted in the siege of the Kahnawà:ke reserve being ended. However, while many of the people at Oka felt betrayed by the turn of events at Kahnawà:ke, this was not to be the end of the situation in Kahnawà:ke as the SQ went in to raid their longhouse, though it had previously assured the people there that it would not. When word of the unprovoked raid, which resulted mostly in cases of beer being taken out via military helicopter, reached Oka any feelings of betrayal were quickly forgotten and it promoted angry confrontations (like the one above) as some of the warriors present were from the Kahnawà:ke community.

On the 25th of September, the final engagement of the crisis took place when a lone warrior walked around the perimeter with a long stick, setting off the flares the army had set up to warn them of any attempts to flee the area. The army turned a high-pressure hose on the man, but the hose lacked enough pressure to disperse a crowd. The warriors then taunted the soldiers and began to throw condoms full of water at them. In one quadrant there was also angry goading by many of the warriors towards the soldiers, taunting them as cowards and that they should open fire.

Disengagement and Afterwards

We were a small number of people, but the quality of the people who were there was just outstanding – Ellen Gabriel, Oka participant and negotiator

On September 26, at the Treatment Centre where the warriors were making their last stand, the warriors ceremonially dismantled their guns and threw them onto a fire, burned and smoked tobacco and then walked out of the pines and back to the reserve, during which they were rushed and arrested by the armed forces. There were never more than 30 warriors in the TC, 1 spiritual leader, 1 traditional chief, 19 women, and 7 children. While they were there, they drew strength from the ancient traditions and ceremonies of their people.

As they walked out of the TC many of them were arrested and beaten by the SQ and armed forces, along with their families who had been present with them, and a fourteen year old girl protecting her four year old sibling was bayoneted in the chest. Of the 30 warriors present at Oka, by 1992 27 of them had been acquitted of all charges.

With regards to the court proceedings, there was a continuation of resistance to kanadian-québécois colonialism, albeit in a more subtle form. One of the women who was present, Kahentiiosta, refused to go to court using anything but her traditional Kanien’kehá:ka name, and would not give a white, christian name to the courts, something that the colonial courts did not recognise as valid. As a result, she was held captive by the colonial state longer than any of the other woman who had been involved in the resistance.

The Uprising lasted seventy-eight days. Jean Ouellette was re-elected Mayor of Oka in 1991. Both Richard Nicholas, who stood atop the overturned car (second picture), and Tom Hanson, the Canadian Press photographer who took his picture, died on the same day in March 10, 2009 in separate incidents. Both were 41 years of age.

The golf course expansion and condominium development, which had originally triggered the resistance by the people of Kanehsatà:ke, was cancelled.

From the Forests of South Western Ontario on the Traditional Territories of the Attawandaron, Anishinaabek and Rotinonshón:ni Peoples!


Ena͞emaehkiw Wākecānāpaew Kesīqnaeh – Ka͞eyes-Mamāceqtawak Nation

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