***It’s worth noting that, while Swain’s memoirs are both well written and valuable as an historical resource, it’s fair to mention that he does come with his share of bias.  Just as the more passionate Indigenous activists are uncomfortable admitting the close ties between the Mohawk Warriors and organized crime (specifically cigarette smuggling and casino/bingo based gambling), a lot of government officials have trouble looking beyond the criminal ties to see that there was a legitimately patriotic drive behind the Warrior movement.  Swain tends to fall into the latter camp, although not so much that his work should be dismissed out of hand.***

I’ve already mentioned Harry Swain’s excellent memoir about the Oka Crisis several times here in this blog. It’s still excellent, well written and researched, and an essential source for anyone interested in this time period and these events.

I figured I’d do a deeper dive into Swain’s work today, for one very particular reason: Harry Swain was the Deputy Minister of what was then called DIAND (Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development) during the Oka Crisis.  He was quite literally what used to be called a Mandarin: a long serving public servant with a broad depth and scope of knowledge and experience.

He is the voice (one of many) that we’ve been missing from the table during Gen Bishop’s briefing to Jim Riley!

While you might not think that the memoirs of a career bureaucrat could make for gripping reading, Swain actually does manage quite the page-turner throughout most of the book.  Among other things he very succinctly summarizes the events and their significance, and how they were viewed from the perspective of his Ministry.

It’s especially significant since, as I’ve said before, Bland writes almost exclusively from the perspective of the Headquarters, and almost never from the average soldier in the field.  As a literary framing device, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this (the cold war films Fail Safe, and Dr. Strangelove both use a ‘war room’ as their main setting), but to make it work you need some a) an interesting cast of characters and b) you need to convey the full weight and drama of what’s happening outside those four walls.  The Headquarters itself is not going to carry the drama.

In the early months of 1990, DIAND’s focus was largely on the Akwesasne reserve rather than the Pines and Kanesetake.  Akwesasne had been experiencing a frightening upswing in criminal violence that was being exacerbated by a divided Band leadership, and a Mohawk Warrior Society that was hitting a peak in terms of motivation and energy.  Unlike Bland’s NPA, the Mohawk Warrior Society had very much been on the government’s radar for years, although there was a limit in terms of what could be done.  Suspicious members could be tracked (to a point), information could be gathered and disseminated, and speculation could take place.  But (and this is key) until actual crimes were committed there was a limit to the actions that could be taken.

Take a look at this passage here, as Swain describes the flurry of activity and rumours that served to raise the alarm about Akwesasne, and the growing radicalization of Mohawk youths:

‘By the fall of 1987, staff in the Department of Indian Affairs had begun to hear stories about smuggling and gambling at Akwesasne. Gambling was confined to St. Regis, the U.S. half, and was not our direct concern.  But gambling had divided the community and rendered ineffective the authority of the band council on the Canadian side.  DIAND was worried that gambling and smuggling involved some of the same people and that the rapid accumulation of tens of millions of dollars in the hands of a few U.S.-based entrepreneurs might have a divisive and radicalizing effect on the community.  Stories of the circular trade in Canadian cigarettes and the rise of gambling entrepreneurs came from Mohawks in the affected communities who were aghast at what they saw as the corruption of their young men and the rise of powerful criminal organizations in their communities.  These stories were relayed to us by field officers in both the Ontario and the Quebec regions of the department, and occasionally recounted directly to senior officers.  It is no secret that most Indian people are strongly conflicted in what they think of the Department of Indian Affairs….people who would never talk to the police sometimes talk to the department….

…The persistence, detail and multiple sources of these stories were worrisome.  They were mixed with stories of the rise of the Mohawk Warriors, an organization of militant but underemployed young men, some with training in the U.S. armed forces, who had acquired guns, ammunition, and a deep belief in the continuing independence of the Mohawk nation and their duty to defend it.  Some of these young men were working as mules smuggling cigarettes across the river; others, protected the casinos in St Regis from the incursion of “foreign” New York State police.  In 1987 DIAND had also been told of a 1979 raid on a Army National Guard armoury in Ohio that resulted in the theft of many M-16 rifles and large quantities of distinctive .223 “zipper” ammunition, though the storyu is still uncorroborated.  I discussed all of these rumours with the minister, Bill McKnight and with his successor, Pierre Cadieux. 

Around the same time, [Associate Deputy Minister] Fred Drummie and I decided we ought to make the acquaintance of the newly appointed commissioner of the RCMP, Norman Inkster.  Given the uncertainties of the day, we thought it would be useful to have some sort of personal relation with the head of Canada’s national police force.  So, through his office, we invited Inkster to lunch at a downtown Ottawa restaurant.  No agenda, we said, just a chance to get acquainted.  Relations between cops and bureaucrats are traditionally distant and infrequent, and neither Inkster nor any of his people knew us.  Somewhat suspicious, he turned up for what we had intended as an under-the-radar lunch in full blue uniform.  As he was well over six feet, with a military moustache under the brim of his polished visor, Inkster made quite an impression on the quiet little Queen Street eatery.

Compare and contrast this with Bland’s portrayal of Akwesasne as a wretched hive of scum and villainy utterly impenetrable to the eyes of white men, and the bewildering broad strokes used to describe the NPA which somehow doesn’t seem to go past the 2006 census.  Years before shots were actually fired at the Pines, a picture was being drawn on from multiple sources including Indigenous people who were genuinely afraid of what was happening!  They even had an military armoury break in that was way more realistic that the one Bland opened with[1] (and not just because it actually happened).  And rather than simply sit back and watch, Swain and his colleagues actually began reaching out to law enforcement, seeking to forge those personal contacts that might make all the difference should a crisis erupt.

Keep in mind that these paragraphs quoted above are a summary of what would have been months of separate reports and briefings, detailing very specific events and people. Even so it still has more specific information that our census-based panic of racial inadequacy. Instead of comparing broad population trends, Swain describes a much more specific situation:  In a localized area, a convergence of idealism and sketchy money was undermining the already divided band leadership and creating a serious problem for the rule of law[2].

Now consider these passages where Swain describes the initial reactions of the government in response to the disastrous SQ raid on the Pines.

‘July 12 [the day after the SQ raid] was a busy day, as reaction to the events of the day before set in.  The media were all over the story.  DIAND communications staff worked frenziedly to prepare backgrounders, set up a hot (not “war”) room, field media calls and explain that the minister was temporarily incommunicado in B.C.  Quietly, in the background, National Defence Headquarters ordered Mobile Command to prepare to provide vehicles, drivers, weapons and special equipment to the SQ.  Some troops were moved to CFB Longue Pointe on the northwest tip of Montreal Island, and an intelligence officer was sent to Montreal to liaise with the SQ and the RCMP….  

In Ottawa, the initial federal strategic position was developed at a meeting on Thursday morning, July 12 at PCO [ Privy Council’s Office]…The position, as recorded in Drummie’s notes, boiled down to six points:

1 – Whatever is done, the primary objective is no more deaths.  That is, all decisions are to be assessed as to their risk of a resumption in the shooting.

2 – The law and order and police issues are within the provinces’s jurisdiction and other than responding to requests from the provincial government or the Surete, the federal government should not insert itself into the situation.

3 – The federal government is willing to address all matters associated with land and is prepared to purchase land to satisfy the needs at Kanesetake. 

4 – The federal government will not negotiate or address the land matters while the blockades are up and guns are present.  “We will not negotiate with a gun to our head.”

5 – There are to be no negotiations behind the barricades for fear of a hostage taking.

6 – Federal ministers and officials will support provincial ministers and officials in their efforts and will attempt to use influence rather than direct intervention.  

[several days later, when Swain sat down for a detailed press conference]

…Late that afternoon, accompanied by Richard Van Loon, the senior assistant deputy minister for Indian Self-government, I went to the National Press Gallery and talked at some length about the 170 years of the land dispute, the recent provocations by the Oka town council and the several sources of governance in the Mohawk communities.  The Warriors, who had recently begun to stiffen the occupation of the Pines, were young men, I said, often with weapons experience, who were also involved in smuggling cigarettes across the St. Lawrence. 

My comments ignited a flood of questions.  How did I know these things?  What did I mean, Indian “criminal gangs”?  I dug myself in deeper with some more factual information, then ended the session.  I could see Rick Van Loon holding his head in his hands…

[the day after]

The next few days produced a wave of denunciations from people who did not understand, or would not accept, the intermingling of patriotic and criminal elements among the Kanienkehaka.  These were followed by more thoughtful commentaries that recognized that the Warriors’ interests in smuggling and the gambling closely aligned pecuniary gain with Indian nationalism.  

Shots are fired, people react.  Key people (or their deputies, if they happen to be away) meet to hammer out an initial plan.  Provisions are made to respond to media questions (some of which would go over better than others), and the military quietly begins putting troops on alert and positioning liaison officers for future coordination.

This is what it looks like when a government responds to an armed confrontation in real life.  Now the argument could be made that they were reacting too slowly (Swain notes that many of the key people including the Prime Minister were away from Ottawa at the time of the SQ raid), but there is no denying that the guiding principle here was a desire to return to peace, order & good government.

An event like the Oka Crisis would automatically draw a ‘whole of government’ response, with multiple agencies and personalities weighing in.  As we can see from the above passages, their first priorities were to ensure the re-establishment of law and freedom of movement, with the avoidance of further bloodshed being an overall guiding principle.

Now Bland could try to advance the argument that a responsible government, blinded by the assumption that their opponents were reasonable and guided by enlightened self-interest could be ill-suited to confront a movement as utterly hostile and malignant as his fictional NPA.  However, this would require him to portray his hated left-wing government as inherently reasonable and decent; unable to appreciate just how awful and duplicitous these fictional natives really are.

As we will see shortly when we meet the Prime Minister, this is something Bland simply cannot do.

He could also try to advance the argument that Federal bureaucracy is too slow and clumsy to react effectively to an aggressive and nimble organization like the NPA.  This runs into a number of problems:  First he would have to portray the NPA as a convincingly effective guerilla movement.  Second, he would still have to envision a government (or at least a Federal bureaucracy) of essentially decent people making reasonable decisions.  Third, he would have to convincingly portray the failure of such reasonable actions in the face of his convincing insurgency.

Such a work would have to be meticulously researched and filled with convincing three-dimensional characters that were believable even if they were extreme and unpleasant.  In other words, something completely different from what we have in Uprising.

So we will have to accept that, in Bland’s Canada, the ‘whole government’ response will consist of a blank-faced Minister of National Defence and a Prime Minister who essentially reads like a right-wing acid dream instead of a human.  There is no room for further input, since the 2006 census covers everything they care about.  There will be no need for a dissenting opinion since anyone who dissents is a craven liberal anyway.  There won’t even be an agreement on some guiding principles going forward.  The General already seems to have decided on the outcome.

INAC will have no input into Gen Bishop’s plans.  There won’t even be an ‘under the radar’ luncheon at an Ottawa eatery for him to show up to in full DEU 1As.

D'Arcy McGee's view
The table is set at D’Arcy McGee’s, and with such a view!



[1] We’ve already discussed how Bland’s notion about carrying out every plot contrivance weapon his novel would need on the backs of a dismounted fighting patrol is more than a little bit impractical.  What apparently happened in Ohio seems to be a lot more realistic: a one time security breech results in the theft of several automatic weapons, and a whole bunch of ammo.  Nasty enough if you’re on the receiving end, but not entirely a game changer.

[2] It’s worth emphasizing (again) that the crisis in Akwesasne may have been stopped by (outside) police intervention and military support, but an actual resolution only came when moderate leaders were re-elected to the local government, and the Band Police were able to patrol once again.  In other words, the long-term solution was a Mohawk one.  At Oka, the exercise of police and eventually military power would be most characterised by a reluctance to used it.

6 thoughts on “Supplemental Reading: Oka: A Political Crisis and its Legacy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s