Friday, March 10, 2006

13. This Land Is Our Land: The Mohawk Revolt at Oka by Craig Maclaine and Michael Baxendale

Warriors pictureI found this book at a giant municipal book sale they have every year in Montreal. It's held in a hockey arena and is mostly old library books. It's a large format hardback by two of the journalists working the story of the standoff at Oka in 1991. There are quite a lot of photos and I have to credit Robert J. Galbraith who was the photographer (I didn't want to make the title of this post too long).

There are plenty of websites dedicated to the actual event and some of you may remember it from the news. Basically, the town of Oka, which is right next to the Mohawk reserve Kanesatake, wanted to expand it's golf course from 9 holes to 18. The new part of the golf course would be built on top of a pine grove that the indians considered sacred. They used it as a burial ground and a place of ceremony. From this book, it's not really clear who actually 'owned' the land. I guess it wasn't part of the reserve, from Canadian law. The town council approved of the development and when they went to tear up the land, the natives had set up a blockade. The town sent for the Sureté de Québec, which is the provincial police force, who quite quickly attacked the blockade (which was mostly women and children) with teargas. A firefight ensued and one cop was killed (though most of the bullets were fired into the air). After that, a standoff ensued that lasted several months. Another reserve, the Kahnawake to the south, blocked off a bunch of roads in sympathy, including a major commuter bridge into Montréal.

Eventually, after much negotiation, posturing and pressure (both militarily and political) the protesters were pushed into a smaller and smaller area. The Canadian army came in, replacing the SQ. The federal government bought the land from the town council (for millions of dollars, all of which came out of the Ministry of Indian Affairs' budget; i.e. was going to be used to help the natives). A few of the warriors (as they called themselves) were arrested. The provincial government were a bunch of pricks, the feds basically useless and the people of Kanesatake are still having the same social problems today.

The book follows the standoff from beginning to end, with lots of little asides, like interviews, small histories, quotations). It is clearly sympathetic to the native people, though they do make an effort to be objective. They point out that the natives were the most open with the media, inviting them to stay with them on their side of the blockade, being very free with information while the army and the quebec and canadian government kept them shut out.

The people who really come off bad in this book are the white people of Québec from the region. As soon as the bridge connecting them to Montreal was blocked off, local roughnecks came to the blockades, yelling racial slurs and throwing rocks at the natives. Early in the standoff, two people were dragged from a nearby grocery store and beaten because they were though to be natives (they were wearing camo pants and just had dark hair). For the SQ, the white protesters became almost more of a problem than the native blockades because they started to pelt the cops with rocks and bottles, angry that they hadn't cleared their precious commuter route.

It's very easy to get angry when reading a book like this. The greed and selfishness and utter disrespect (that word is way too mild and simplistic for the reality) given to the natives is just astounding. You're going to call in the provincial army because you can't build your little 9 hole golf course? When the SQ came in, the reason they first shot the tear gas was because nobody would represent themselves as a spokesperson for the natives. The Iroqouis tradition has always been a communal one and when the cop approached the group of natives (all women and children) they kept telling him that they all were the spokesperson and that he should talk with them. So he teargasses them.

Coming to Canada after living for almost 10 years in the States, I had a feeling of living in a relatively democratic country. But Democracy really is relative and if you're a native, you're basically fucked. The 5 nation confedaracy that welcomed Champlain to Canada considers that they allowed the white man to come and use their land. According to their system of laws, land is owned by the ancestors and is made available to anyone who needs it. They consider that we took advantage of that and are now claiming to own this unownable land. Obviously, it's untenable for them to cling to any realistic hope of the current system respecting their traditions. Even within the tenets of our system, we are screwing them. The hierarchical political system the Canadian government has imposed on their communities creates a tiny cadre who control all the money and usually just steal or waste it.

Kanesatake is no better off today. In the last year, the reserve almost disintegrated into civil war when one group burned down the chief's house. He had secretly ordered a new internal police force who I guess were outside officers. It's all so confusing and the information is so scattered. Everyone says everyone else is lying. The people still suffer. We Canadians should feel deep shame about the way the First Nations people are living inside our so-called democracy.

This Land Is Our Land gave me an excellent account of what actually happened during the standoff. I'd like to read some more external accounts that might explain in more depth the positions of all the parties involved. I would also like to understand better the infighting inside Kanesatake, though I doubt any book will explain that.


Jarrett said...

The Mohawk have been interesting for me for a while now, mostly because they are one of the Iroquois tribes.

To what extent does the book mention this, about the split in the Iroquois League in the F-I War and A. Revolution?

Was there ever an opportunity for the golf interests to lease the Mohawk land? Or was it just a land grab? What are the eminent domain laws like in Canada? Here they just eased them off such that a town can take private land for the business interests to use (in hopes that business will provide jobs and help the community).

Sounds interesting, and if I ever have the opportunity to teach Iroqouis I'll be looking at this book for the answer to the inevitable questions, "what happened to the iroqoius, and the five tribes, and do they exist today?"

Crumbolst said...

I remember when this was in the news. What a worthy topic to explore. And a damn good review.