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Voices ᐋ ᐄᔮᔨᐧᒫᓂᐧᐃᒡ

Oka Crisis déjà vu

BY Will Nicholls Aug 2, 2019

Many, many moons ago (around 377 or 29 years) problems began for Kanesatake Mohawks. Land that they held for generation upon generation had been claimed by the Catholic Church and sold to developers. They wanted to extend a golf course on what Mohawks considered sacred land that contained a burial ground used for centuries by Mohawks.

The response was swift as their land was encroached upon – Mohawk men, women and children occupied the area in protest. Police moved in and the stand-off expanded as other communities, Mohawk and other First Nations joined in.

There were some Cree connections too. During that time, my brother Robie Nicholls tried to organize a food smuggling team as there were problems with food getting into the communities.

Eventually, the Indian Conan – as we all called him – took over and gathered a group of guys who were seen as druggies or alcoholics to smuggle food into the Mohawk warriors. His one rule was that the people delivering food had to stop using while doing so. And they did stop because now they had a purpose which meant more than a drink or drug.

The racism was as evident then as it seems to be now. One group of anti-Mohawks showed up in front of Hydro-Québec’s headquarters in downtown Montreal and drove off Mohawk supporters. I was there that day. One part of the more sobering moments of that scene was when a flatbed truck with a crane stopped by. A man threw down a red jacket and said it represented the Mohawks. Then the crane opened up its claws and came down on the jacket.

The crowd erupted into cheers as I fought back tears.

Now today a developer wants to give that land back. In total over 200 hectares would be given to Kanesatake. But there’s a problem as nearby Oka mayor Pascal Quevillon is concerned his community would be “surrounded” if the Mohawks were to get the land. Well, the Mohawks have been surrounded for a few hundred years and are just trying to get some to their traditional land back.

It’s not as if Mohawks will build golf courses or housing on the land. It’s a sacred place to them and one they fought for during the Oka Crisis that was also started by a mayor of Oka.

Yet the lessons of the past have not taken root. Quevillon says he fears the encroachment of Mohawks so close to his community will lead to another Oka Crisis but with a twist. This time it will be the non-Natives of Oka rising up against the Mohawks. Almost seems like this could be cultural appropriation in a way.

An interesting question would be if the SQ would respond to the Kanesatake Chief and council’s request to remove the Oka residents? And will it be in the same manner as in the past.

Jeremy Teiawenniserate Tomlinson, who was nine years old during the Oka Crisis, said he feels there are similarities between then and what’s happening now. “The village of Oka is going against the community of Kanesatake and openly trying to mobilize efforts against what we are doing with our land – it’s not too far from what was happening in 1990.”

It shows that in 29 years no real efforts have been made to fix that adversarial relationship and that “fear of the stranger” still rules the land. And that, my friends, is why we have an Oka Crisis déjà vu on our hands instead of a rational response to solving a long-standing problem.

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Will Nicholls is a Cree from Mistissini. He started his career off in radio and is still one of the youngest radio DJ’s in Canadian history, having a regular show on CFS Moosonee at the age of 12. Will was one of the founding members of the Nation, and has been its only Editor-in-Chief.