The Oka Crisis

The Oka Crisis was a violent land dispute between the Mohawk nation of Kanesatake and the town of Oka.

The crisis began on July 11, 1990, and lasted until September 26, 1990. According to the record, in 1717, the governor of New France granted the lands encompassing the cemetery and the pines to a Catholic seminary.

The Mohawk have always claimed that this grant was illegal. In 1936, the seminary sold the territory and vacated the area. In 1961, a nine-hole golf course, the Club de golf d'Oka, was built on a portion of the land. The Mohawk launched a legal protest against its construction. After many years of claims and research, in 1976, the claim was finally rejected for failing to meet key criteria.

The tensions and prejudices would thus lead to the outbreak of the Oka Crisis. In 1989, the mayor of Oka, Jean Ouelette, announced that the members-only golf club course was to be expanded to eighteen holes. Besides, sixty luxury condominiums were planned to be built.

As the Office of Native Claims had rejected the Mohawk claim on the land three years earlier, the plans were made without consultation with the Mohawks.

A group of members of the Mohawk community erected a barricade blocking access to the area in question. Mayor Ouellette of the town of Oka demanded compliance with the court order, but the protestors refused. On July 11 the mayor asked the Surete du Québec (Quebec Provincial Police) to intervene with the Mohawk protest, claiming that criminal activity had been practised around the barricade. A police emergency response team attacked the barricade deploying tear gas canisters and flash bang grenades. It is unclear whether the police or Mohawks opened fire with gunshots first. A 31-year-old policeman Marcel Lemay was shot in the face and died a short while later.

The situation escalated as the local Mohawks were joined by natives from across Canada and the United States. Other Mohawks blockaded the Mercier Bridge between the Island of Montreal and the South Shore suburbs. The Canadian federal government agreed to spend $5.3 million to purchase the land where the expansion of the golf course was to take place, but the offer was rejected by the Mohawks.

When the Surete du Québec had lost control of the situation, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were brought in on August 14. They were prohibited from using force and were soon overwhelmed by the Mohawks and mobs created by the blocked traffic. Ten constables were hospitalized.

Finally, on August 29 the Mohawks blocking the Mercier Bridge negotiated an end to their protest with Lieutenant Colonel Robin Gagnon, commander responsible for monitoring the blockades along the south shore of the St. Lawrence River west of Montreal. This resulted in the resolution of the siege on the Kahnawake reserve.

The Mohawks at Oka felt betrayed. The Quebec government rejected all further negotiations. On September 25, the final engagement of the crisis took place. Mohawks taunted the soldiers and then started throwing water balloons at them. The next day, the Mohawks dismantled their guns and threw them in a fire, ceremonially burned tobacco and then walked back to the reserve. Many were detained by the Canadian Forces and arrested by the SQ.

The Oka Crisis lasted seventy-eight days and resulted in the death of one man, Corporal Marcel Lemay. The golf-course expansion, which had originally triggered the situation, was cancelled.

The Oka Crisis eventually precipitated the development of Canada's First Nations Policing Policy. Jean Ouellette was re-elected Mayor of Oka by acclamation in 1991. Mohawk are natives of the Iroquois family and members of the Iroquois Confederation.

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