When I first started dating Kim she told me she was from Hudson, Québec. I didn’t know where that was. “It’s across the Lac des Deux Montagnes from Oka,” she told me, thinking I’d be aware of the popular tourist destination. Instead, I started singing,
“…This song’s not about some romantic account of history,
It’s not about martyrs or myths or heroes or burnings-in-effigy,
It’s about a native kid flipping her lid just trying to keep some self-respect intact.
It’s about an Oka the size of a fist in resistance and a will to fight back.”
It’s perhaps one of my favourite early Propagandhi songs, a song that, like life itself, ignores the arbitrary line between the personal and the political. In a way the Oka Rebellion does the same for me. I ended up living in Hudson for quite some time, a good fifteen years after the crisis had ended. When Kim and I were fighting I’d take my bike across the lake on the ferry and ride through the pine forests of the Kanesatake land. I’d see the Mohawk warrior flags strung up across the roads in the town and admire the anti SQ graffiti covering the walls. I’d cut through the golf course at the centre of the controversy and pedal through streets where, less than a generation ago, there had stood barricades. And, occasionally, some local would tell me to fuck off out of some area I shouldn’t have been biking through. The issue is, for me, so tangled up in all the emotion of that time that it’s difficult to write about.
This article, therefore, is perhaps not the best place to get an overview of the 78-day standoff. There’s an excellent book entitled People of the Pines by Geoffrey York and Loreen Pindera that gives a definitive account, and the archives at the CBC have a whole host of news clips from the time, for those of you to lazy to read a whole book. For those of you too lazy to even click on links, however, here’s a brief outline: in early 1990 the mayor of Oka wanted to extend the Oka golf course into Mohawk burial grounds. The Mohawk people protested and were duly ignored. The Mohawks then built barricades and armed themselves. The Sûreté du Québec were called in and shots were fired. A cop was killed. The SQ pulled back and the army was called in. Eventually the Mohawk warriors surrendered. A bunch of them were arrested and taken into SQ custody, but were released after a few days. A fact sheet on everything that the Ministry of Indian and Northern Affairs has done with the people of Kanesatake since is also available.
When she was going to school at McGill Kim wrote a paper on her experience of the Crisis. She wrote of the helicopters swirling around, media packs lining up to board the ferry, the floodlights and the fires burning through the night. She wrote that even with all this going on barely five hundred metres away, in a town that they’d skated across to when the lake froze in the winter, the issue was never mentioned in schools, as if students were too simple to understand the complex issues at stake. At night, she wrote, they sometimes snuck out and headed down to the beach, to watch the lights and try to make sense of what was happening for themselves. Eventually the local Hudson cops would drive by and move them along.
There’s an important distinction to be made there. Hudson had its own local police force. Up until around the time that I arrived in late 2004 they refused to let the SQ have jurisdiction. Eventually the town, under considerably provincial pressure, relented, but not until this singular point had been made: SQ cops are as racist as fuck. They’d even treat me like crap for not being able to speak French, until they found out I was Australian, when they’d begrudgingly let me off the hook. Hudson, as a majority Anglophone town in a majority Francophone province in a majority Anglophone country would have been constantly made victim of this kind of linguistic racism if it hadn’t been for the dual barrels of privilege: money and influence. Oka as a town and Kanesatake as a Mohawk-controlled Indian band had neither, was also majority English-speaking, and had the added stigma of being native. That early negotiations between the Province of Québec and the Mohawk people focussed on keeping the SQ out, and that the initial conflict was between Mohawks and the SQ, should have come as a surprise to no one.
While we’re on the topic of language I should briefly also point out a discrepancy in the nouns used to describe what occurred during those 78 days. The CBC tends to describe it as The Oka Crisis, whereas in York and Pindera’s book it is almost exclusively known as The Oka Rebellion. This deliberate use of language is so cliché that is should be embarrassing. I can understand the CBC not wanting to use descriptors that are romanticizing, but what happened in Oka was almost a dictionary definition of rebellion.
And this is perhaps why I feel the events in Oka so deeply, so much so that even now, eighteen years after the crisis took place, and almost two years since I left Hudson, I feel compelled to write this article. I wasn’t there, didn’t even hear about it until years after the fact, and haven’t ever talked to anyone who was directly involved. And yet driving across the lake at Vaudreuil for the last time, on my way to Trudeau airport to depart Quebec forever, I realized that living across the lake from Oka was the closest I had come to a genuine uprising against a government. Governments are universally oppressive, reviled the world over and protested against almost constantly, but rarely does a group of individuals take up arms and demand that their rights be respected. I grew up an hour or so from Ballarat, where the Eureka Rebellion took place, but let’s face it, that was ages ago, and now so broadly accepted by the powers that be that it is taught to students in primary schools. Oka was so new, still so raw, that the names of families involved still adorn houses in the town. This wasn’t privileged white kids exorcising their guilt by throwing some rocks at cops protecting some economic forum from the socialist alternative. This was a minority that has been fighting for their own right to dignity, self-determination and pride for over five hundred years finally telling the world that they were simply not going to take it any more.
The last few clips in the CBC archive show the ridiculous melee that the rebellion descended into as the army advanced and the Mohawks were taken into police custody. The sense of defeat on the faces of the Mohawk women interviewed is palpable – their tears are not merely because they have been kicked or choked by the SQ, but that they have been humiliated by institutions that have proven, once again, that they are more powerful. This always seems to be the case immediately after the barricades have been dismantled and the warriors forced back into acquiescence. It’s easy to see the resolution of the Oka Crisis as a loss to the people of Kanesatake. But that’s not really the case. Uprisings such as Oka irreversibly alter the way we think about our relationship to power, and remind us the forward march of history consists of seemingly spontaneous insurrections of people against the institutions that oppress them. We see the Mohawks of Kanesatake rise up, and begin to believe that maybe for a moment, we too could take an Oka the size of a fist in resistance and, eventually, find the will to fight back.