***Fair warning for any military readers! The documentary film Kanehsetake: 270 Years of Resistance by Ojibwe film maker Alanis Obomsawin is hard to watch. This is a film made by the people on the other side of the wire and they are not fans of the army or the Canadian government as a whole. This makes for a bit of a culture shock since it’s in the nature of film that we automatically associate ourselves with the protagonist/narrator/author, so it’s literally a view of ourselves through someone else’s eyes. I think this makes it a very important film to see, and whatever your opinion on the Oka Crisis and First Nations issues in general, an important perspective to consider. Just keep in mind, it’s hard to watch.***
The 1993 National Film Board documentary Kanehsetake: 270 Years of Resistance by Abenaki film maker Alanis Obomsawin is a genuinely stunning piece of work that covers the standoff between Indigenous Protestors and various levels of the Canadian government at a patch of land called the Pines near the community of Oka in 1990. Drawing off of over two hundred and fifty hours of footage, most of which she herself shot on location from inside the protest camp, it is an unparalleled look at one of the major events of Canadian and First Nations history, told by someone who was there for the duration.
There is a great deal written and filmed about the Oka crisis, but here’s a brief history to start: In the area around the city of Montreal, there are two Mohawk Reserves, Kanehsetake (to the west) and Kahnawake (to the south east). From the 1930s onwards, Kanehsetake had found itself in a slow-simmering land dispute with a neighbouring municipality of Oka over a patch of land originally known as ‘the commons.’ Oka had gradually pushed the Mohawks off this land, building houses and later a golf course on much of it. By the late 1980s the Mayor of Oka, Jean Ouellete had made plans to expand the golf course and build luxury condominiums on a further piece of land known as ‘the Pines’ which-among other things-was the site of a Mohawk cemetery. He ignored objections by the Kanehsetake Mohawks, as well as the Provincial and Federal Ministers for Indian Affairs (this was before the more politically correct name changes of those agencies).
In early 1990, a group of Mohawk Protestors set up a camp in the Pines and blocked the access road (a dirt track) so that construction crews couldn’t enter. As the months went on, they were joined by other Mohawks, Indigenous activists from across Canada, and also by members of the Mohawk Warrior Society. On 11 July 1990, the SQ (Surete du Quebec, the Quebec Provincial Police) arrived to clear the camp only to be confronted by a large, heavily armed group that had entrenched themselves in the Pines. A shootout ensued and one of the SQ officers (Cpl Lemay) was killed.
At the same time, Mohawks Warriors from Kanehsetake and Kahnawake responded by blocking roads and bridges passing near/through their Reserves. The most dramatic of these barricades went up on the Mercier Bridge leading south from Montreal that saw over sixty thousand cars pass over it every day. This led to an enormous police response (SQ & RCMP)that surround both Reserves and the Pines, and the mobilization of the CAF as a backup force if things turned into a shooting war. There was hope at first that negotiations could end the blockades, but a series of riots by Quebec residents in mid-August strained the police beyond their capabilities and the army was ordered to take over the operation.
Despite an intimidating presence, the CAF took over the perimeter from the police without any violence. Over the course of the next several weeks, they re-opened the highways and Mercier Bridge, and closed off the remaining Protestors and Warriors into a Treatment Centre in the Pines. As the standoff wound down, there were a number of nasty incidents of violence, including one where a Mohawk Warrior was badly beaten by CAF Soldiers. While the Crisis ultimately ended without shots being fired, a great deal of bitterness remained amongst those involved.
I have a lot of things I want to say about this film. There are a lot of different issues raised here to which I want to add a further perspective, or additional discussion. Since many of these are disconnected, I will be looking at Kanehsetake in multiple posts over the next few weeks. For now though, I just want to touch on a number of the events that are depicted in the film, and add either my own thoughts, or further information that was not known at the time of the Crisis. To supplement the film, I am drawing upon Geoffrey York & Laureen Pindera’s book ‘People of the Pines: The Warriors and the Legacy of Oka,’ Timothy C. Winegard’s ‘Oka: A Convergence of Culture and the CF,’ and Harry Swain’s ‘Oka: A Political Crisis and its Legacy.’
The 11 July Raid by the SQ: One important point though, is that Cpl Marcel Lemay, the SQ officer killed in the shootout at the Pines was likely killed by one of the Mohawk Warriors. It was (and remains) a popularly held belief that Cpl Lemay was hit by friendly fire from his fellow SQ officers when a group of them rushed a barricade. I believed this myself until I started researching the standoff in greater detail.
Nevertheless, for a long time this was seen as highly probable, given the poor planning behind the action, and the early-reported fact that the bullet that killed him was a 5.56mm (sometimes reported as .223 calibre) similar to the one used by the SQ themselves. The later inquiry into the raid confirmed that the bullet that struck and killed Cpl Lemay was an American-made 5.56mm bullet, not a CAF-manufactured C76 ball round that the police would have been carrying. At the time of the shootout (which lasted just under two minutes), a great deal of the Mohawk fire was coming from a position near a lacrosse field occupied by four Mohawk Warriors. Seconds after Cpl Lemay was hit, one of these Warriors was heard on the radio shouting “We got one! We got one!1” making it highly likely that one of these four was the one who fired the fatal shot. The exact identity of the shooter has never been identified, nor has the fatal weapon ever been found. Dennis Nicholas, a Warrior using the name ‘Psycho’ was identified in the inquiry as directing much of the Mohawks’ fire towards the SQ. ‘Psycho’ appears at 37:59 in the documentary.2
As the Army Deploys: There’s another Mohawk Warrior who identifies himself as “Three sixty one.” I can’t be sure, but it sounds to me like he’s a former CAF member who chose a name based on the last three of his old service number (361). I got no way of confirming if that’s true (three sixty one isn’t one of the names listed in any of the books I’ve read), but it rang true when I heard it and I think the CSM in the footage felt the same way.
The Army’s role in the crisis was initially relegated to a supporting role, much as it was in OP AKWESASNE (which was ongoing at this time). The police were intended to be front and centre as they were better equipped for dealing with legal/criminal issues, and less likely to be seen as a threat. A large force of Canadian Soldiers were mobilized and deployed to staging areas in the region as a precaution, but the hope was that the police presence (with military support) would be enough. The problem began on 12 August of the standoff when ‘white’ Quebec residents began protesting the closure of the Mercier Bridge and the fact that the Government and Red Cross were delivering food to the Reserves and the Protestors. This is seen in the film starting at ten minutes in where protestors burn an effigy of a Warrior while chanting ’sauvages’ and later at the 24 minute mark where a rioting mob burns food shipments in Chateauguay and clashed with police. A later incident (on 28 August), where a convoy of Mohawk civilians evacuating Kahnawake were attacked by a stone throwing mob, resulting in the death of a 71-year old Mohawk man, Joe Armstrong (a WW II vet, incidentally). The rioting put over a dozen police officers in the hospital. It was at this point (according to Harry Swain and Timothy Winegard’s histories) that the RCMP declared that they couldn’t handle the situation, and formally requested that the army take over. This is an important point, and one that I think Alanis Obomsawin missed: The army only took over because the police couldn’t handle the rioting ‘white’ people.
While the main reason for deploying the army was in response to ‘white’ Quebec violence, mobilizing the army and having them in staging areas was a response to direct threats made by Mohawk Warriors. Although the Pines, Kanehsetake and Kanawake contained the full spectrum of people with all degrees of beliefs, the Warrior Society of the time was highly motivated, heavily armed and contained more than a few violent individuals. The barricades at Mercier Bridge and other major routes wasn’t just a handful of locals with their hunting rifles dragging a few logs across the roads. These were military style defensive positions with multi-layered barricades covered by entrenched firing positions that were supported by (what we would now call) IEDs and heavy weapons. Beyond the M-16s, AK-47s and SKSs seen during the doc itself, the Warriors claimed to have various types of anti-tank weapons, large quantities of grenades and other explosives, and even a .50 cal machine gun. While it may have been the Honkies’ rioting that eventually gave the army the green light, there was always going to be some kind of military presence at least on standby simply because of the potential threat level.
Maneuvers & Confrontation: A lot of military viewers will notice that, every time the Van Doos advanced to close the perimeter, their senior officers were front and centre. In the maneuver that re-opened Route 344 road at 54:06 Maj Tremblay-the OC of C Company-is literally in the front of the advance, right in the line of fire when Protestor Jenny Jacks physically stopped several Warriors from opening fire on the army. This is surprising since Company Commanders are supposed to be further back in the advance, usually towards the centre of the formation so they can command effectively without getting caught up in any shootout that might pin down a leading section.
The reason for this odd formation is because the rules of engagement, or more specifically the lack thereof. Starting with the fairly basic ‘the army will not fire the first shot’ then-CDS Gen de Chastalein stated that the CAF would not just hold back from firing the first shot, but would not retaliate unless they suffered casualties. In other words, the soldiers in that advance could not shoot back unless one of them caught a bullet. Current interpretation of the law now states that orders such as these are unlawful, and that soldiers cannot be ordered NOT to defend themselves when attacked with deadly force. That having been said, these were the orders at the time. When faced with these realities, several of the Van Doo officers and NCOs decided to move up to the front and place themselves directly into harm’s way as an act of solidarity with their troops. I want to emphasize this since, as one of the more prominent officers featured in the documentary, Maj Tremblay the commander of C-Company 2nd Battalion R22eR, ends up coming across as stiff and a bit clueless. Whatever the viewer’s assessment, please include the fact that, when his troops were faced with potentially walking into a bullet, he made sure to plant himself front and centre to accept equal risk with the leading troops.
Most of the troops deployed to Oka had never had any formal training in Crowd Confrontation Operations or any of the other finer points of Aid to Civil Power. As a result of changing priorities, a great deal of that training had been stricken from the CAF training curriculum in 1985. This meant the younger soldiers present had the least amount of applicable training, even though they were the ones most likely to be on the front lines facing the Mohawks. Some of the only CAF personnel with extensive experience in Aid to Civil Power and Crowd Confrontation operations were either senior officers and NCOs who had been in the army during the FLQ crisis of 1970, or a handful of officers who had served on exchange tours with the British Army, and had seen deployment to Northern Ireland.
Interestingly, Winegard mentions CAF Northern Ireland veterans as having cautioned against such actions as the Long House Raid (1:05:30) based on their experiences while attached to the British Army. By the late 70s, weapons raids were viewed as ‘high risk/low reward’ activities that were unlikely to yield results that could make them worthwhile. Meanwhile the risk of a confrontation that could spiral out of control would be present any time the army entered one of the Reserves. This concern was born out both in the Long House Raid and the later Tekakwitha Island raid at 1:32:00 where a mob crossed over to the Island by a causeway to surprise an RCR force that was covering the SQ. Several Royals were badly injured and one of them (a Capt McAdam, not seen in the documentary) was blindsided by a rock, seriously injured and had to be evacuated.
Wineguard describes many CAF units developing a degree of animosity for the SQ arising from this and other (less dramatic) incidents. I can’t find any other sources to back this, but I have met a couple of RCR Oka veterans who bitterly refer to this incident as ‘the SQ beer run.’
In addition to being unprepared for riot control operations, there was a serious lack of training with regards to media relations, while at the same time there was a lack of experience within the media in dealing with the military. This led to a great deal of mutual animosity and even unlawful actions on both sides. At 1:30:15 soldiers can be seem apparently confiscating a reporter’s film. In general, the army’s attitude towards the press is openly contemptuous. On the media’s side, one of the more surreal episodes involved a Globe & Mail journalist who actually snuck inside the Treatment Centre perimeter only to have the batteries die on his cell phone (this was back when cell phones were huge and used disposable batteries). He then proceeded to demand that the army supply him with fresh batteries, and when they didn’t, finally left the Treatment Centre and sued the CAF for violating his civil rights.3
One of the uglier incidents of the entire crisis came on the night of 7-8 Sept when a patrol of Soldiers found a sleeping Mohawk sentry (Randy Horne, ‘Spudwrench’) and beat him viciously. While the patrol insisted that Spudwrench had attacked them (and one member did sustain knife injuries), this does not change the fact that a) the units on the Treatment Centre perimeter were not supposed to cross the wire without orders, and b) Spudwrench was beaten badly enough to need hospitalization.
There’s not a lot for me to add to this, except that there was no reason whatsoever for this attack to have happened. At this point negotiations were drawing to a close and it was expected that the remaining people in the Treatment Centre would leave soon enough. This was specifically a time to de-escalate the situation on the perimeter, to avoid provoking an incident with the end of the standoff so close at hand. Furthermore, discovering a sleeping sentry is cause to leave them alone. If orders had suddenly come down to the Van Doos to storm the Treatment Centre, they would want the sentries to be as complacent as possible. The only other thing I can say to this is: this is why it’s a bad idea to have the Army handle complex civil emergencies like Oka. I love the army but we’re an entity designed for a very specific role: To destroy an enemy with maximum speed, violence, and aggression. Like many tools, you can employ us in roles other than what we were meant for, but it won’t be an optimal fit.
And this is largely what happened during the final night of the standoff, when the last group of Protestors and Warriors left the Treatment Centre. Due to a number of issues, their departure was delayed for several hours, meaning that they left at sunset rather than in the early afternoon. They also arrived at a different spot in the wire then originally expected, leading to confusion with the CAF soldiers on the other side.
That doesn’t change the fact that the result was an incoherent brawl between soldiers and Mohawks that left many of the latter badly injured.4 In one of the more harrowing episodes, Waneek Horn-Miller (then 14 years old) was stabbed with a bayonet during the melee. You can listen to Waneek (now an adult) recall that night in an interview on the CBC here. It does sound like she got caught up in the pushing and shoving and was (I hope) only stabbed by accident. That doesn’t change the fact that having bayonets fixed at all during a situation like this is a mind-bogglingly bad idea.5 I’ll have a few more things to say about the overall mental state of the Soldiers at the time of the Oka Crisis, but there’s no getting around the fact that what should have been a straightforward process of escorting of the people down to the police lines so they could be peacefully detained turned into a bloody mess.
So after all of this, one thing that does need to be emphasized (especially for any civilian readers) is that the CAF’s handling of the Oka Crisis is rightly considered a success. Despite the nastiness seen in the film, the army was deployed specifically because the standoff had gone beyond the police forces’ ability to control. They came in without a the training and equipment necessary for the job, and with a operating doctrine completely at odds with the peaceful resolution to an Aid to Civil Power emergency. Every simple misunderstanding had the potential for a Canadian Bloody Sunday on a massive level and had there been an actual shootout between the Warriors and the Army, the results would have been catastrophic. But military discipline held (mostly) and the disaster that by all rights should have been inevitable was averted.
For military readers, the main takeaway here comes from the other half of that coin, the Indigenous people themselves. Had it not been for the heroic efforts of people like Robert ‘Mad Jap’ Skidders, Jenny Jack, and Loran Thompson within the wire at the Treatment Centre, it’s unlikely that cooler heads would have prevailed. Beyond that, the various negotiators, elders, spiritual leaders and even the Kahnawake Band Police all walked a fine line between calling for calm while at the same time pushing for their peoples’ rights in the face of a full blown military standoff. At any point a frustrated, angry, or even malicious Warrior could have fired that fatal shot that would have set the disaster in motion, military discipline be damned. The fact is, for all it’s firepower, the army did not have the capacity to calm that proverbial ‘young hot-head with a gun.’ That these hot heads were calmed and restrained is a testament to the ‘better angels of [their] nature’ within the Mohawk Nation.
1 Although the CAF had no direct role in the raid, the SQ had asked for and received a fair bit of logistic support (including the provision of C7 rifles for their officers) and a great deal of communication support. At the time (and throughout the Crisis) the CAF had substantial Electronic Warfare assets deployed in the area, intercepting a lot of the radio conversations among the Warriors.
2 At the time most of the footage in the documentary was shot, the general consensus among the Protestors was that Cpl Lemay was killed by friendly fire. Other than the four Warriors at the lacrosse field, it’s not clear how many of the Mohawks knew of or suspected their responsibility, and it’s possible that even the shooter didn’t know for sure. As such, it’s not clear whether their statements film were a deliberate attempt to lie or an expression of a hope that it wasn’t a Mohawk bullet that killed a police officer. In my own opinion, the latter is more the more likely case.
3 He wound up not only losing the lawsuit, but on the very morning after the last holdouts at the Treatment Centre marched out. To add insult to injury, the journalist and his counsel were subjected to a blistering lecture by the presiding judge as he handed down his judgement. (From an interview with Gen De Chastelain, quoted in Harry Swain’s memoir pg 145).
4 Although the fight was pretty one-sided, a few of the Warriors got the chance to hit back. According to witnesses interviewed by Winegard, Robert ‘Mad Jap’ Skidders and Maj Tremblay actually wound up in a toe to toe fist fight with each man gripping the other’s jacket while hurling hard rights like it was a hockey game.
5 The main guiding principle for Prisoner/Detainee handling is that anyone physically touching the prisoner should not have any weapons on their person, to avoid the risk of the detainee trying to grab it. In Ottawa, the Ceremonial Guard (the guys in red jackets and fur hats up on Parliament Hill) regularly have a couple of minor injuries every summer due to bayonets, and in 2015 they had a serious one when a soldier slipped on a manhole cover and stabbed the man in front of him. And these are situations where the movement of everybody involved is supposed to be controlled right down to the last step.