The legacy of ‘Oka’ and the future of Indigenous resistance

In dialogue with Ellen Gabriel

Photo by Ellen Gabriel

In the summer of 1990, Ellen Gabriel (Katsi’tsakwas) was chosen by the People of the Longhouse and her community of Kanehsatà:ke to be their spokesperson during the infamous “Oka Crisis,” a 78-day standoff to protect ancestral Kanien’kéha:ka (Mohawk) land in Québec. Mohawks had erected a small barricade on a dirt road in the spring to protest the Club de golf d’Oka’s attempts to expand a 9-hole golf course and construct luxury condominiums on traditional territory, including a burial ground. In response, the municipality of Oka, the government of Québec, and the government of Canada coordinated a siege on the Mohawks between July 11 and September 26, 1990, that saw the deployment of 2,5000 members of the Canadian Armed Forces.

Though many Canadians saw the events of that summer as a “crisis,” to the Mohawks, “Oka” was just the most recent event in an almost 300-year struggle to protect their land from colonial and capitalist development. That struggle continues today.

With the 30th anniversary of Oka on the horizon, and new struggles by Indigenous land defenders making headlines across the country, including in Kanehsatà:ke, I recently had the honour to speak with Ellen about the legacy of Oka and the future of Indigenous resistance.

Photo by Alan Lissner


Canadian Dimension: What do you remember most about the Kanehsatà:ke standoff?

Ellen Gabriel: I was surprised how quickly our small stand sparked a global solidarity movement. There were a lot of protests outside of Kanehsatà:ke, even internationally, and that was heartening. In fact, we were later told by the people of Chiapas, the Zapatistas, that they were inspired by our resistance.

I think what sticks out for me most was realizing how important it was for us to be protecting our land, as many generations of Mohawks had done before. In taking our stand, we were simultaneously honouring the ancestors and fighting for future generations. As we went about our daily business, I kept thinking about the ancestors and the fact that, in expanding the golf course, they would be digging up my family to extend a parking lot. I just found that very arrogant and insulting. It strengthened my resolve to resist. It was the right thing to do. I still feel that way. We need to fight to protect our lands and waters.

CD: A lot of Canadians will recall images of male warriors, like the famous “face-to-face” photograph of warrior Brad Larocque confronting soldier Patrick Cloutier. But what was the specific role of women in the standoff?

EG: The media chooses a sexy image to depict what they think is going on: there’s these really macho guys fighting it out in cameo gear. I think the image of a masked Indigenous man with a gun scared a lot of Canadians, and the government used that fear to justify using the military to crack down on us.

Women were really in the lead. The men listened to the women, but that does not make for a sexy image. But women are title holders to the land, so we are in charge of the land and the men are in charge of protecting the community. So, what that narrative did, that image did, was ignore the important role that women defending the land played in this resistance. It was a very strong role.

CD: With the 30th anniversary of Oka coming up, what do you think has been the legacy of that summer. Was the standoff successful?

EG: I think it was successful for other people, but not for us. Our land issue was not resolved in the end — and is still not resolved — but our stand had a number of important ripple effects. The government created the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996), which brought to light a lot of the damage from residential schooling that cleared the path for the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2015). But our land issue is not resolved. As a result, new development on that land continues … and so does our struggle.

CD: Can you explain what’s been happening in Kanehsatà:ke since 1990?

EG: In 1990, the government promised that they would address the longstanding issue we have regarding our land not being recognized. This was done in front of international observers. What ended up happening, however, is the government just went back to its usual ways once the cameras left. We are still stuck in a position where the municipality of Oka has more rights than we do on our land and they continue to hand out permits for developers to build new homes on our territory. It’s just like 1990. Nothing has changed.

We are still in the same situation where a lot of land that could be used by our people today or for future generations is in the hands of the mayor of Oka and the government of Québec, with the federal government saying, “we can’t interfere.” That’s the craziness of colonialism. And the band council is just accepting this. Our leader is out west protesting Kinder Morgan but refuses to support community protests against development at home.

Everything is backward. It’s like what we see in the environment, everything is off balance, and deep down this is essentially what we are talking about: how do we protect the biodiversity, how do we protect the land from exploitation and contamination and all of those things, because we rely on the land for our medicines. We are supposed to be protecting the land for all of our relations like the birds and animals that live in the forest, and the water, which is being contaminated.

We are really far from resolving anything. We got news from the most recent home developer who has promised that he won’t be building anymore and that he wants the land to come back to this community. I’m not sure how that is going to happen. There is still a long way to go before we have any solutions, but any progress we have seen in this community has been because we have protested.

CD: Arthur Manuel, before he died, talked about how Canada suffers from a base case of colonialism. This sounds a lot like what you are describing.

EG: It’s a sickness. The corporations that are pushing governments have a lot more power and rights in this colonial and capitalist system. Officials have resources to buy people. It’s an unlevel playing field. We live to survive, but we have these corporations and billionaires who are coming in and trying to just take whatever they can from the land, and not leave it in a way that is useable for new generations. We have to push back.

CD: This fight against colonial and capitalist development is playing out clearly in western Canada right now with pipeline politics. What lessons does Oka hold for land defenders today?

EG: Don’t be fooled by money. If you have a clear goal, it’s easier to stay grounded. You won’t be swayed by cash offers for consent. The land does not have a price.

I don’t think Canada has learned; they have only doubled-down on their strategies of oppression, to be honest with you. We do not have our freedom on our homelands. We have some bureaucrat deciding whether we can go on our traditional lands. We have the police called on us frequently. Colonization continues daily for us.

CD: How did Oka shape your activism beyond 1990? What keeps you going and hopeful for radical change?

EG: I was really fortunate to have good teachers and good support around me during that time. When you go through something as traumatic as being shot at, being a target of the army and police on a daily basis, being in the crosshairs, and seeing the kind of violence that was condoned by the state, it’s an awakening. All of the things the older generation talks about are manifesting in front of you, in your day, in your time. As a result of my experiences during the standoff, I became more passionate. I became more determined to defend our land and fight this battle. I love the land. I love being on it. I love the energy that it brings me. I think that is reason enough to keep fighting. I want to see future generations develop a similar connection and live a good life and not have to do what we had to do in 1990. That’s my motivation. For me, this has been going on 300 years too long.

Ellen Gabriel (Katsi’tsakwas) is a Mohawk activist and artist from Kanehsatà:ke Nation - Turtle Clan, known for her involvement as the official spokesperson, chosen by the People of the Longhouse, during the 1990 “Oka Crisis.” She is the recipient of the Golden Eagle Award from the Native Women’s Association of Canada (2005) and the Jigonsaseh Women of Peace Award (2008).

Sean Carleton is a coordinating editor with Canadian Dimension.