***Around a decade following the Oka Crisis, First Nations filmmaker Alanis Obomwasin revisited to subject with two further documentaries. Rocks at Whiskey Trench, and Spudwrench – Kahnawake Man which can be seen at the National Film Board website here, and at the NFB’s Youtube channel. Due to the technological limitations of my laptop, all still frames in this post come from the Youtube version.***
Terrain will dictate.
Unless you happen to be very lucky, you probably have to commute some distance to get to work or school every day. Whether it’s by bus or car, modern cities in the west are seldom designed so that people can live near where they work or play. The morning and afternoon commute is pretty much a universal experience for all of us, and we’ve all had that experience of being late just as the traffic brings us to a maddeningly halt.
Murphy’s Law, good times and all that.
Now if you commute regularly enough, you’ll notice that the traffic always seems to happen at the same place. A badly managed intersection, a place where two or more major routes merge or separate, something along those lines turns a smoothly flowing line of traffic into bumper to bumper rage fuel.
I know with the younger generation, a lot of people don’t listen to the radio much anymore. If you don’t, that’s fine. But give it a try for a few days this upcoming week. Listen to the morning or (drive-home) show on your local station for a couple of days in a row somewhere in the 0600-0800 hrs block. Odds are, any local radio station worth its salt is going to have a regular traffic report advising their listeners about road conditions and accidents. Depending on the station, this could be as elaborate as the station owning its own traffic copter (like the Simpson’s Arnie in the Sky), or maintaining a network of callers or Twitter users to keep up on what’s happening.
A lot of the traffic reporters develop a kind of on-air personality, but what’s neat to see is that so do the regular traffic jams.
This is one of those things that becomes really neat once you start thinking about it from a logistics point of view. No matter how well designed, every city has weak spots when it comes to traffic. Maybe the highway was big enough to handle the traffic twenty years ago, but that was before the suburbs exploded. Maybe the one off ramp and intersection was fine before the Company moved in and employed four hundred people who all need to exit there every morning. No city is built perfectly, and every city’s infrastructure lags behind its own real-time growth and development. As a result, every city develops her personal set of traffic congestion points that frustrates her citizens as they go about their daily lives.
In Ottawa, coming from Orleans and the south-east, we got ‘the Split,’ where Highway 417 merges with the 174. If you’re coming into the city at the wrong time in the morning, the Split will stop you cold.
So what does this have to do with Uprising? And why are we talking about another one of Alanis Obomsawin’s documentaries about the Oka Crisis? Well, it all comes back to the first three words of this post: Terrain will dictate.
Just as the traffic jams in any given city always happen at the same places, warfare in city will (all other things being equal) eventually zero in on some common features. Certain roads and intersections, certain key buildings that dominate the area, key intersections or squares. You can drop a thousand soldiers into some random part of the suburbs, and they could be contained and swept up while the rest of the city chugged along unconcerned. But a hundred soldiers holding one key intersection and the surrounding buildings cold bring a million inhabitants to a screeching halt.
During the Oka Crisis, the Warriors of Kahnawake blocked the Mercier Bridge leading south out of Montreal in an act of solidarity with the protestors/Warriors at Oka. This was a vital piece of ground since thousands of residents used the bridge every day to commute, but it wasn’t the vital piece of ground since there were other ways to get in or out of the city. It just took a lot longer to get around the barricades.
Now the Mohawks could block this road easily since it literally ran through their Reserve. Meanwhile, if the police wanted to surround this barricade, they would have to enter the Reserve to do so. This would mean establishing a double-cordon: one surrounding the barricade that faced inwards, one surrounding that cordon that faced outwards. Basically, if they weren’t prepared to fight the entire Reserve, that barricade was untouchable.
But this begs the question: If it’s hard to get in, what does that mean when you want to get out?
The first half of ‘Rocks at Whiskey Trench’ deals with just this problem. On 28 August, a month and a half into the standoff army intervention became immanent. A convoy of women, children and elderly Mohawks sought to leave the Reserve before this happened. The problem was that there was really only one way out of Kahnawake (that led to safety, at least), and that was via the same bridge they’d been blockading for the last six weeks. This would lead to a violent confrontation with the local Québec residents who were not in a mood to let them go quietly.
***It’s necessary to mention here that the documentary makes the accusation that the police (a mix of SQ and RCMP, none of whom had riot gear) deliberately stood aside and allowed the mob to attack the convoy. This appears to be supported by the film where officers are seen failing to confront the gathering crowd. With regards to motivation, it does need to be said that the SQ and RCMP had, by this time, already experienced several violent confrontations with angry ‘white’ Quebec mobs that had landed several of their members in the hospital. That having been said, there is footage in the film where a lone cop can be seen confronting the crowd while his comrades stand clear. The crowd parts around the officer, only to flow back in as he tries to single handedly to hold back the tide. Long story short, while they had reasons to be leery of a confrontation, the police probably could have dispersed the crowd safely that day.***
The result was that the convoy had to run the gauntlet past the stone throwing mobs occupying the raised shoulders of the overpass by ‘whiskey trench’ (the road running past the Seagram’s Distillery). Not only did the terrain force them into a single, predictable escape route, but it gave their attackers the advantage of an overwatch position from which they could bombard them with rocks at one of the few places where the cars had almost no room in which to maneuver.
Terrain dictates. It’s also neutral, in that it will screw both sides equally.
The second half of the documentary deals with the SQ’s raid at Tekakwitha Island, and the violent confrontation between Mohawk protestors/Warriors and 2 RCR who were covering the SQ’s operations. We’ve already talked about how this has been a source of bitterness for RCR troops (both past and present) towards the SQ. But the event also demonstrated how not understanding terrain can prove disastrous.
When the RCR hit the ground at Tekakwitha, they believed the description which called the place an island. They didn’t realize that this island was connected to the mainland by a causeway that allowed residents to storm across to confront the army. Outnumbered and caught off guard, the RCR were overwhelmed by the crowd and several of their people were badly beaten.
***Obomsawin makes the point that, during the brawl, RCR troops threw a Mohawk woman off of the causeway, causing her a broken hip. This happened. All I can say to this is that, by this point there were multiple Royals with life threatening injuries, and the Battalion Adjutant had rushed out every last body he could find from the RCR camp to reinforce the troops already on the island. Cooks, drivers, quartermasters, and other support personnel to reinforce the troops out on the island. During the course of the fighting, two C7 rifles were seized by the Warriors from injured Royals. In total the fighting at Tekakwitha should be seen as a counter-intuitive moment when the army was literally fighting for its life while trying to avoid killing anyone.***
Tekakwitha Island is another example of how fast terrain can suddenly shift the dynamics of a confrontation. 2 RCR landed enough troops to handle whatever protestors might reach the island during the SQ raid…but that was based on the assumption that the only way to reach the island was by boat or chopper. When several hundred people suddenly crossed the previously unknown causeway…well things went south pretty goddam quick. Based on their SOPs, it’s safe to assume that 2 RCR would have deployed more troops and included more non-lethal options like shields, batons and pepper spray to supplement the brute force and tear gas they eventually had to use.
So lets bring this back around to where we were in Uprising. Douglas Bland describes Mohawks from Kanesetake and Kahnawake entering Montreal as well as other NPA fighters entering Quebec City (it’s not clear if these guys are all Mohawks or from other First Nations communities) to effectively block off key traffic routes. They aren’t actively threatening anybody, although police have spotted weapons in the crowds(?) so they’re not intervening.
Every city has its vital points. Occupy those and you paralyze the city. But every vital point is surrounded by…well at the Mercier Bridge it was the Kahnawake Reserve but most of the time it’s nothing at all, just more city. If somebody grabbed the Split in Ottawa, they’d be boxed in by the St Laurent and Blair road commercial areas, Ogilvie and Innes road on three sides, and the open highway leading east on the fourth. In other words, they’d be trapped even as they brought the city to its knees.
Terrain dictates, and sometimes the message it’s dictating is: You’re fucked.
 And those lazy fucks who always wait until the last minute before changing lanes! You know who you are! You know what you’re doing!
 Especially when those screaming ass-clowns decide to race to the front in the off-ramp lane, then merge over in the last minute! You bums! I see what you’re doing! You’re not fooling anyone!
 These riots, and the over dozen police casualties that resulted, would be the reason the army was ultimately called in to take over the during the standoff.
 Cooler heads prevailed and one of the Mohawk leaders convinced the Warriors to hand the rifles back over. What wasn’t known at the time was that 2RCR’s sniper section (deployed in secret before the raid began) were tracking these Warriors, and had orders to kill them if the weapons were aimed in the direction of the soldiers.