***A couple of points before I begin, this post is a difficult one to write, not only because of the subject matter (which includes PTSD, drug abuse and self-harm) but the fact that a lot of the details surrounding the events are not officially know. As such, I am going to speculating somewhat. For civilian readers, dealing with psychiatric casualties is something the army’s been wrestling with for years, and the 1990s were an especially bad period, one that came to be known as ‘the Decade of Darkness.’ It was a time period which combined major cutbacks to manpower and training along with a major increase in particularly dangerous missions in the Balkans and Africa. As a result, a lot of soldiers came out of this time period seriously hurting.***
One of the notable omissions from the documentary Kanehsetake: 270 Years of Resistance is any discussion of the famous face-to-face photo featured above. In it, RCR soldier Pte Patrick Cloutier stands face-to-face with Warrior Brad ‘Freddy Kruger’ Laroque.
To be sure, filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin was not present when the photo was taken. It was shot at Kanehsetake on 1 Sept when the army re-opened the Mercier Bridge and the major roads running around/through the Reserves, and Ms Obomsawin and her film crew were at the time being pushed back into the Treatment Centre at Oka. But she did chose to include a lot of other footage (especially newsreel footage) taken when she wasn’t present. So why did she exclude this photo?
I’m not sure about her personal motivations, but as a non-native I was surprised to learn that there was a serious difference of opinion about the meaning of the famous picture. A good starting point is this brief but interesting discussion about this photo on CBC’s Unreserved (‘With everybody’s favourite cousin, Rosanna Dearchild!’), where she interviews Shaney Komulainen (the photographer) and Prof Rima Wilkes (a University of British Columbia) discuss the hidden story behind the photograph. They note-correctly-that the photo captures an extremely colonial point of view.
The short version is that, as much as the camera captures what is in front of it honestly, the direction it gets pointed in is the choice of the photographer. The photographer is human, ergo the image has the potential to carry the photographer’s conscious and unconscious biases. On Unreserved, Komulainen notes how the image captures a deeply colonial narrative:
In the image, the Warrior Brad Laroque appears bigger than Pte Cloutier, and while both men are armed, Cloutier’s rifle isn’t visible. There is a second Warrior in the background, making Cloutier appear outnumbered. The effect is that Laroque is more powerful, as well as the aggressor. The reality was that both men were armed, with Pte Cloutier having the further advantage of body armour and a helmet. On top of this is what’s not shown in the photo. The picture was taken on 1 Sept when the army advanced in force to clear most of the Mohawk barricades. At the moment when this image was captured, Pte Cloutier’s RCR comrades outnumbered the Warriors, and there were several APCs nearby with mounted machine guns that made the advantage decisive.
As diminutive as he may appear, Pte Cloutier has the advantage in this photo.
This is an interesting thing to consider, since those of us who would fall into the category of ‘colonizers’ aren’t usually aware of the perspective we hold (see also: male gaze). But I want to focus on a different hidden story, and the dimensions that it reveals about the army’s perspective.
One of the things that doesn’t get discussed much on the civilian side of the conversation is the long term outcome for Pte Cloutier. I’m not going to get into details (if you absolutely have to know, you can look them up yourself) but in the aftermath of the Oka Crisis Pte Cloutier – who had become a minor celebrity because of the photo – became a serious discipline case. He was charge repeatedly for a number of drug offences and DUIs, relationships fell apart, and he engaged in a number of other self-destructive and debasing behaviours that eventually led to him being released from the service.
And since he’d become famous thanks to Komulainen’s photo, leading to him being treated with contempt rather than sympathy.
This is where I need to be careful, because I don’t have the in-depth details of this man’s history. But look at the timeline of events: Intense, high-stress deployment, unexpected attention coming from the photograph, followed by increasing drug use, AWOL, and various acts that appear to be self-harm.
I’m not an expert, and as far as I know Pte Cloutier never received a formal psychiatric diagnosis, but this seriously sounds like he was having a PTSD breakdown.
The thing that civilians don’t always understand is that trauma doesn’t work on an objective scale. Some people will suffer through an absolute nightmare and somehow come through relatively unscathed. Others will break down completely without any rhyme or reason as to who falls into which camp. And sometimes, the traumatic event is something that’s seemingly minor, but just happens to hit the right person the wrong way.
Now as I said, I don’t think Pte Cloutier was ever formally diagnosed while he was in the service. So that we’re clear, this is basically speculation on my part. It’s entirely possible he was a junk soldier from the beginning and his post-Oka behaviour was just the man he was. But then, according to Wikipedia he apparently cleaned up his act a few years back and then joined the Coast Guard. So maybe not. What I am going to say is that if a guy came back from an operational deployment and started exhibiting these sorts of behaviours, I’d be talking to the Chain of Command and the Padre to see what we could get for them in terms of counselling or medication.
It’s important not to let hindsight blind us to the tremendous stress and trauma that all parties were under during the Crisis. Today we know that the worst was over, that there would be no further fatalities and that the shooting war everyone feared would not come to pass. For those who were on the ground at the time (especially on 1 Sept) that fear was urgent and immediate, and while the army had the decisive advantage, that didn’t necessarily mean a lot to the average soldier on the front line, one of whom would have to eat a bullet before they would be allowed to fire back.
Towards the end of Obomsawin’s film, there’s a real sense that the soldiers were really starting to feel the effects of the stress. For me one of the tells comes late in the standoff at the Treatment Centre perimeter when a couple of the Mohawks pelt the Van Doos guarding the wire with eggs. It’s a minor, petty incident and as far as we can tell (the event itself wasn’t actually filmed) the eggs don’t do much more than splatter along the side of the Van Doos’ Bison APC. However, the soldiers become furious, shouting angrily at the Mohawks and later vandalizing one of the food shipments brought into the wire. Maj Tremblay goes so far as to complain to the media who largely treat the matter as a joke.
This is one of those things that should be seen as a red flag for anyone worried about their troops and their stress levels. Losing your shit over something stupid and trivial is a bad sign. When the stress builds, your ability to cope is degraded and at a certain point it will fail altogether. Suddenly some random stupid gesture that would barely justify a raised middle finger in better times turns into the last straw. The one thing that cannot be let go.
The stress on the Mohawk side is visibly growing too, especially after the Long House raid when the Oka Crisis saw it’s other face-to-face moment when Ronald ‘Lasagna’ Cross and another, younger Warrior named Adoah[sic?] stormed down to the wire to confront the soldiers there. In the case of Adoah in particular…
…I’m not saying I can read this guy like a book, but the nineteen year olds I’ve known who spend that much time on their personal cam paint so they could go out and pick a fight with everybody are usually the guys ruled by passion. They’re awesome kids who will commit themselves body and soul to a cause, but that same whole-heartedness makes them the canary in the coal mine when it comes to stress. They’ll feel it first and feel it worse.
Now here’s the thing that really hit me in the film:
Towards the end, we see the Warriors, including Lasagna and Adoah receiving help from older members of the Treatment Centre holdouts, including spiritual ceremonies like sweat lodges and smudging ceremonies. Older members of the holdouts at TC are seen counselling them and helping them to calm down. They’re seen playing with some of the children there while Obomsawin comments about their need to let go of their anger and become changed men.
It’s not clear how specifically these ceremonies might have been tailored to deal with PTSD, but several of the holdouts were themselves ex-servicemen and within the Mohawk communities that summer there were numerous AIM members, and veterans of Viet Nam, Korea, and even WW II. Even those who had never seen military service likely had a great deal of experience dealing with anger and the young men so often ruled by it.
One of the things that drew me to a novel like ‘The Break’ was Vermette’s depiction of people who are living in the aftermath of trauma. While the characters run the spectrum from good to cruel, all of them have something bad in their history and are dealing with it in different ways. By the end of the novel some stuff has been confronted, a few things have been fixed but there’s other bad things on the horizon. And whatever else happens, even the best possible outcomes doesn’t make everything better, because healing doesn’t mean all the bad things go away. It just means you can live with having been through it.
￼Like I said, I don’t have any of the details about Pte Cloutier’s breakdown. I don’t know if anyone tried to reach out to him, if professional help was made available. It’s possible that he was an asshole who rejected every attempt to help him. But a lot soldiers from his time period were hurting badly, and as the 90s rolled on, it was only going to get worsse. A lot of these troops never got help they needed.
That’s the other story behind the face-to-face picture. The hidden story behind the hidden story. For all of his firepower advantage, Pte Cloutier might have had a lot less support than Brad Larocque.
 Yeah, I know. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was surprised.
 The entire Unreserved episode is worth listening to, but the discussion of the Photo begins around 25 minutes in to the show.
 And yes, I’ve had one of these moments myself, where I literally found myself in a screaming match with another (much younger) troop over (I kid you not) oil changes for the MLVW. He was wrong-and an arrogant little shit on top of that-while I was right, which made the whole thing that much more stupid on my part. The thing is, even as things got heated to the point where other troops had to separate us a small part of my brain was recoiling in disbelief that I was losing my mind over this.
 Just to be clear, the egg throwing incident was minor and petty, the Long House raid was not. That having been said, losing your shit completely and trying to start a fight with the army is a dangerously unhealthy response.