The world as we knew it turned upside down 30 years ago this past weekend. For weeks and months leading up to Wednesday, July 11, 1990, the people of Kanehsatake had been peacefully trying to stop a golf course expansion and condominium development on land in their community just west of Montreal. The development would have bulldozed a majestic forest known as the Pines, and the community’s Pine Hill Cemetery – not an ancient burial ground as many would have you believe.
After months of rising tensions between Kanehsata’kehró:non and the Municipality of Oka, Québec, Mayor Jean Ouellette obtained a court injunction and called in the Sureté du Québec (SQ, the provincial police force) to clear the Mohawk barricade. On the morning of July 11, the SQ tactical team conducted a pre-dawn raid on the Mohawk barricade on a small dirt road in the Pines.
The police operation didn’t go as planned. After a brief firefight between the SQ tactical unit and members of the Mohawk Warriors, the SQ quickly retreated down Highway 344 into Oka. The SQ abandoned its patrol cars and the heavy machinery they had brought up to destroy the Mohawk barricade. These vehicles were used to help fortify a larger barricade on Highway 344 in front of the Oka Golf Club.
A SQ officer, Corporal Marcel Lemay, was shot and killed in the melee.
As the SQ was regrouping at the bottom of the hill in Oka, the people of the Mohawk community of Kahnawake barricaded the Honoré Mercier Bridge, a major artery connecting the Island of Montreal to the south shore of the St. Lawrence River that runs into Mohawk territory, to discourage a second attack on Kanehsatake. Soon, barricades closed all the entrances to both Kahnawake and Kanehsatake.
The situation settled into a tense standoff between the Mohawk Warriors and the SQ and Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Then, on August 7, Quebec premier Robert Bourassa invoked the National Defense Act, and called on the Canadian Army to relieve the police forces at the barricades. The presence of the military only heightened tensions, and the standoff entered a dangerous new phase.
On August 20 a company of the Royal 22nd Regiment – an elite unit known as the Vandoos – advanced and dismantled three barricades in Kanehsatake, forcing the group of men, women, elders and children to withdraw to a fortified position at the community’s Onentó:kon Treatment Center.
After more than a week of rising tensions, Canadian officials and Mohawk activists negotiated an end to the blockade of the Mercier Bridge on August 29, though military checkpoints remained at key entrances to Kahnawake for months after.
The Army’s subsequent tactics only escalated the situation. On September 3, 1990, the Army raided the Kahnawake Longhouse on Route 207, claiming it was searching for weapons. A group of Mohawk women confronted the soldiers and fought back. Two weeks later, on September 18, a military assault force descended on Tekakwitha Island while the SQ conducted a search of the Kahnawake Marina.
It was a show of force meant to demonstrate to Canada and the world that the Army had conquered Kahnawake; they wanted to march through our streets. Yet, as the military helicopters landed, the community came out en-masse to face the invading force. Unarmed men and women fought the soldiers off with bare fists and stopped the advance. After an eight-hour standoff, helicopters began to airlift the soldiers out of Kahnawake.
On September 26, 1990, the last remaining Warriors and supporters walked out of the Treatment Center in Kanehsatake. The standoff was over.
Yet, the summer of 1990 forever changed how Canadian governments deal with Indigenous issues. The crisis led to the creation of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples which, in turn, paved the way for processes like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Perhaps, the biggest lesson that our community learned that summer 30 years ago is that, united, we can accomplish anything – including stopping one of the world’s biggest countries dead in its tracks.