***A quick note on historical sources before I begin. There is at least some confusion amongst the main sources I’m using (Harry Swain Oka: A Political Crisis and its Legacy, Geoffrey York & Loreen Pindera’s People of the Pines: The Warriors and the Legacy of Oka, and Timothy Winegard’s Oka: A Convergence of Cultures and the CF as my three main sources) as to the status of the one (or two) .50-cal Heavy Machine Guns that were (might have been) at Oka. The issue is that there is some controversy over whether these weapons actually existed, or whether they were mock-ups as some of the Warriors later claimed.
Further complicating the matters is that the two non-military sources (Swain, York & Pindera) insist that a .50-cal machine gun was seized at the Long House raid, whereas Winegard insists that this was a .50 calibre sniper rifle.1 (Swain also asserts in a separate part of his memoir (pg.113) that no .50-cal machine gun was ever found). Winegard speculates that perhaps some Warriors were not fully aware of the extend of their own arsenal. Since Winegard’s work is most closely focussed on the military dimension of the Crisis, I’m going to side with his assessment.
The point I’m trying to get at here, is that there’s a fair bit of confusion over what the real threat was at Oka. However, this post is dealing with the perceived threat that existed, and why the army had to respond to it. So while the question of whether the .50-cal existed is a legitimate one, this post deals with what this threat meant to the CAF, and I think my argument stands regardless of the reality of the situation.***
Two of the uglier confrontations between the CAF and the Mohawks at Oka were the Longhouse Raid (03 Sept) and the Tekakwitha Island raid (18 Sept). Both of these raids were hastily planned, involved some poor coordination between the SQ and the RCR troops supporting them, and resulted in unnecessary casualties for relatively little benefit.
The thing is, one of the reasons for these repeated raids was the fact that the Mohawks had apparently brought a .50 cal machine gun to the Oka standoff.
For those who don’t know, the M2 .50-cal heavy machine gun is this monstrosity here:
The original design for this beast dates back to 1918, and the fact that it remains in service today makes it one of the most venerable weapon designs in history. Sharp-eyed civilian readers will probably notice that pretty much every one of the CAF Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs) has one of these things mounted in a turret. This is because, in the world of mechanized warfare that the RCR and R22eR were training for, the .50 was considered a standard light weapon.
Understand this. The .50-cal is classified as an anti-armour weapon. At close range (only 800m) it could shred the armour plating of the APCs we see throughout Obomsawin’s film, and against ‘soft targets’ (that is, to say, us squishy human beings) it was considered to have a casualty producing range of upwards of 7,000m.2 That’s right. This thing could cause potentially fatal injury out to seven kilometres.
The first time I ever fired one of these things, it was mounted on a tripod that had to have its feet spiked into the ground and weighed down with sandbags to reduce the risk of it lurching back from the recoil and smashing out my teeth. At a range of over a kilometer, I could actually hear the difference from when my bullets were tearing up the ground to when they were hitting the rusted out car on ‘Old Baldy’ that we were using as a target.
And the Mohawk Warriors from Kahnawake deployed one these beasts out on the Mercier Bridge.
The Warriors originally claimed the gun was real, but as the Crisis proceeded they would change their story to claim it was a mock up intended to scare the police and military. The truth of the matter was never conclusively determined as the gun (real or fake) was never seized, and the only non-Warrior witnesses were limited to police and military who saw it at a distance. The reality of the matter is that it didn’t matter. The fact that the Mohawk Warriors had brought an anti-armour weapon to the standoff and pointed it in the direction of the City of Montreal was not going to be ignored. The possible existence of a .50-cal machine gun in the Mohawk arsenal became the driving force behind several raids, most notably the Longhouse Raid on 3 Sept.
In simple terms, the presence of a weapon system like a .50-cal was a game changer, much more so than anything else (allegedly) in the Warriors’ arsenal. Weapons like the M-72 anti-armour missile (called the SRAAW(L) in Canada, and the LAW in the US) are disposable one-use weapons that are, ironically, safer to use in proximity of a city as the rocket motor will actually burn out a lot sooner than a bullet will run out of velocity. Explosives (of which there was quite a bit although there were very few instances of them actually being used) are incredibly dangerous, but take a lot longer than than most people think to deploy3, making their use a lot easier to anticipate.
A system like the M2 .50-cal can provide sustained fire and, in the hands of a competent crew, can be relocated relatively quickly.4 Any move in or around Kahnawake had to take the gun’s existence into account, and any situation in which there may have been a confrontation (such as at the Mercier Bridge) had to also consider the risk to any civilians within the gun’s casualty producing range.
Now there’s a lot of arguments to be made against launching the various weapons raids (particularly the one at the Long House in Kahnawake): Weapons can be easily hidden and easily moved, meaning that unless the raid achieves complete surprise, there’s a good chance that nothing will be found.5 Worse, even when weapons are seized, they are often easily replaced, making the risk vs reward calculation very unfavourable.
The argument on the other side of the equation went simply like this: ‘.50-cal! It’s a fucking .50-cal!’
A few days prior to the Long House raid, the Mercier Bridge barricades had been handed over, and the Warriors had withdrawn back into Kahanawake. But on 3 Sept, as the army was busy clearing (what proved to be fake) explosives planted on the bridge, a group of Warriors attempt to re-take the bridge, and the .50-cal was spotted at this new barricade. The army responded in force, rolling out with a half dozen APCs and a lot of troops, and the Warriors (who barely numbered a dozen or so) retreated back into the Reserve. Their movements were tracked by helicopter to the Long House, and the presence of this weapon in this building was seen as justification to actually enter the Kahnawake Reserve and search it.
The Long House raid had serious repercussions, angering both the Kahnawake Mohawks and the holdouts in the Treatment Centre. It was this act that provoked Ronald ‘Lasagna’ Cross’s famous outburst at the wire that led to Oka’s second face-to-face moment, and (likely) burned away a lot of the CAF’s goodwill with the Indigenous protestors across the region. A loss of credibility is something that can have real consequences in an Aid to Civil Power, and in this case was likely a major factor in the violence seen at Tekakwitha Island and the rioting that occurred when the people at the Treatment Centre finally walked out.
There were a lot of things driving the actions of the CAF during the Oka Crisis. A lot of reasons why good and bad decisions were made. But if York & Pindera were right and the majority of the Mohawk heavy arsenal was fake, then a lot of these bad reasons were driven by the psychological operations of the Warriors themselves. Bringing out a .50-cal was the equivalent of making a bomb joke at the airport. It was an action that had to trigger a response.
This tactical deployment of (possibly fake) weapons drove the army’s strategic response.
Now, as depressing as it is to turn from these exhaustively researched histories to Douglas Bland’s Uprising…let’s take a look at Douglas Bland’s Uprising!
In Bland’s novel, the NPA is explicitly stated to have stolen Carl-Gs and Blowpipe missiles. Medium anti-armour and shoulder fired anti-aircraft weapons. This should have the effect of triggering alarms at all levels of the Canadian security apparatus. From Int Operators ensconced in the bowels of NDHQ to the average police officer rolling through a rough neighbourhood in their patrol car; across the country eyes should be peeled for any hint, any mention of one of these weapons making an appearance.
More than anything else in the CAF’s arsenal, weapons like these are carefully tracked. Not just the weapons themselves but the ammunition, through their lot numbers. Meaning that (based on what’s missing) there should be a very definite list of what the NPA has stolen. As the native rebellion breaks out, reports of sightings of these weapons should instantly flash up the chain of command to the very highest levels, causing commanders to frantically re-evaluate their plans and wonder if they’re about to send their troops into a trap.
Bombings, barricades, shootouts with Warriors armed with military-style firearms…these are all pretty straightforward things. Taken in isolation the police themselves would be enough to deal with these. Suddenly having the power to bring down aircraft or punch holes in light armoured vehicles? That is literally a game changer.
I’ll give you three guesses as to whether or not Bland treats these threats accordingly…
…yeah, a lot of future posts are going to be linking back to this one.
***Statistics regarding the M2 .50-cal Heavy Machine Gun taken from the 1991 edition of the CAF manual The Machine Gun, .50 Cal M2 B-GL-317-014/PT-001 ***
1 A closer reading of York & Pindera suggest that Winegard is right. In People of the Pines, they describe the .50-cal machine gun found at the Long House as being semi-automatic and only having a 5-round clip. York & Pindera do offer a possibility for the confusion over the nature of the actual .50-cal machine gun spotted on the Mercier Bridge, pointing out that a gun which made an appearance at a 1988 incident was an old WW II relic with a barrel full of cement that was little more than a museum piece.
2 The official CAF .50-cal manual lists the max anti-personnel range as being 1,200m as this is the range that the tracer rounds will burn out, making aiming more difficult. However, a spotter with a decent pair of binoculars can easily pick out the ‘beaten zone’ where the rounds are landing, and order corrections to the gunner. Realistically speaking, a competent gun crew can threaten soft targets to around 2,000m at least, possibly more with good visibility and/or optics.
3 Yes. Movies have lied to you. Again. Setting up a basic 1kg C-4 charge can be done in 5-10 minutes, but wiring up something bigger (like an IED powerful enough to blow an APC) takes a lot longer. Rigging an entire bridge to explode takes hours. There are short cuts, such as building pre-fabricated charges (like bangalore torpedoes and satchel charges) but even then you will still have a delay while planting them when you have to connect the detonators/blasting caps to the explosive train.
4 The entire gun with tripod weighs in a 58 kg, but can be taken apart for “easier” transport by a standard crew of three. In real life, bring a bigger crew. Each 100-round belt weighs 16 kg.
5 According to Winegard, many of the weapons seized during the raid were actually found in a car in which two Warriors were trying to flee the area, hinting that such an evacuation was in progress.