Why the 1990 Oka Crisis is being evoked amid the Wet’suwet’en pipeline dispute

Protests across the country in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have led to politicians and advocates evoking the Oka Crisis of 1990.

The crisis, also known as the Mohawk Resistance, involved a nearly three-month standoff between Mohawk protesters, Quebec police and eventually the Canadian army. The issue began with proposed construction projects over a Mohawk burial ground.

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It’s a part of the past both politicians and Indigenous leaders say they want to avoid repeating.

Here’s a closer look at the crisis, and what’s being said about it now amid the current disagreement over pipeline construction on Wet’suwet’en territory.

A closer look at the Oka Crisis

The standoff began in Oka, Que. in July 1990, when Mohawk claimed land that was slotted for an expansion of a gulf course and the construction of a condominium building.  Mohawk of the Kanesatake reserve, known as the Pines, urged the government to cancel the projects.

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When that did not happen, blockades began springing up and Quebec’s provincial police, Sûreté du Québec (SQ), was called in.

The crisis escalated when an SQ officer died during a raid in 1990 after Mohawks south of Montreal blocked the Mercier Bridge.

First Nations leaders say blockades should come to ‘peaceful end’ if guarantees met

First Nations leaders say blockades should come to ‘peaceful end’ if guarantees met

Indigenous groups and allies began protesting across the country. Meanwhile, the RCMP and Canadian Armed Forces were asked to assist Quebec police.

The two construction projects were eventually cancelled.

Lessons from the crisis

Now, nearly 30 years later, the Oka Crisis is being cited as construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline forges ahead in British Columbia through unceded Wet’suwet’en territory, despite the opposition of hereditary chiefs.

While appearing on Global News’ The West Block on Sunday, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said the federal government hopes to exercise some of the lessons learned from the Oka Crisis while dealing with the current situation.

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Miller met with representatives of the Mohawk First Nation near Belleville, Ont., where a rail blockade has shut down train service across much of Eastern Canada over the weekend.

“Do we repeat the errors of the past? Thirty years ago, police went in guns blazing in Oka and someone died. So that shouldn’t be lost on anyone that’s telling us to go in there and impose law and order,” he said.

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Indigenous Services minister says solving rail blockades must be done ‘the right way’

“These situations have all started with injunctions and court orders, and you can take whatever view you want on … those particular injunctions that are enforced, but we also have to look at ourselves as Canadians and say, ‘do we use every peaceful method to resolve this situation?’

“And that’s the path that I prefer.”

Miller also referred to similar lessons learned from the Ipperwash crisis in 1995. In that incident, an Ontario Provincial Police officer shot and killed protester Dudley George during a standoff over a land claim by Chippewa protesters outside Ipperwash Provincial Park.

The federal minister wasn’t the only one who brought up Oka and Ipperwash.

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During a press conference Tuesday, Joseph Norton of the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake also mentioned the crises while advocating for peaceful talks.

“To those people who are quick to come down or demand that harsh things be done, you know, it’s 30 years ago since what they called the Oka Crisis. It’s not that long ago with camp Ipperwash and the death of Dudley George. People quote that and use that as a reminder to themselves, we should use restraint,” Norton said.

“Nobody wants to see that again.”

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Land issues still present

Lori Campbell, director of the Waterloo Indigenous Student Centre at St. Paul’s University College, described the Oka Crisis as a “worst case scenario” that all sides are trying to avoid.

However, Campbell said the difference in response from the government is also a sign that what was acceptable three decades ago will no longer pass.

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“Our ability to mobilize is a lot quicker and our solidarity and the underlying issue around land sovereignty is pretty unified,” she said.

“There are more people in Canada who are interested in having a different Canada and a Canada that recognizes Indigenous rights, Indigenous sovereignty.”

Campbell noted the use of police force, or the deployment of the military, is not as acceptable as it was 30 years ago.

She said that politicians citing the Oka Crisis and wanting to avoid a similar situation is encouraging, but there are lessons still to be learned on how to handle Indigenous sovereignty.

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Trudeau says Scheer ‘disqualified himself’ from leaders discussion on blockades with ‘unacceptable speech’

“It was never really about the golf course in particular for the Mohawk, it was about the invasion of that territory,” Campbell said.

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“It could have been a pipeline, it could have been a golf course, it could have been a highway.”

With the Wet’suwet’en, she said the case is the same — the nation sees itself as a “caretaker” of the land and is trying to maintain its aboriginal title.

“Their job, their inter-generational responsibility is to make sure that [the land] is preserved for future generations.”

— With files from The Canadian Press

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