Twenty Years of Struggle: A Retrospective on the “Oka Crisis”
Twenty years ago, the people of Kanehsatake and Kahna-wake rose up in defense of their ancestral lands, facing off against government officials, the police, and the Canadian Army. Kanienkehaka (Mohawk) communities have been on the forefront of resistance to colonialism in Canada, and the events at Kanehsatake and Kahnawake were a crucial landmark in the history of Indigenous resistance to colonialism.
In doing these interviews with frontline Indigenous activists and non-Indigenous allies who were active during the events of 1990, we wanted above all to remember and celebrate the legacy of the Kanienkehaka women and men who took on the Canadian state and inspired resistance across occupied Turtle Island. But we also wanted to ground this celebration by recognizing the contemporary realities of the people of Kanehsatake and Kahnawake.
Twenty years later, the words of Joe Deom and Laura Norton of Kahnawake and Walter David from Kanehsatake show that these communities remain engaged in ongoing struggles against a colonial government bent on undermining their autonomy. Corporate developers (like Niocan, a Montréal-based firm whose proposed niobium mine would have devastating impacts on both Kanehsatake and the surrounding non-Native residents) are determined to exploit and destroy Indigenous territory, and play off of internal divisions.
Finally, we wanted to take this opportunity to think about what lessons have been learned about Indigenous solidarity work since 1990. Carole Boucher of the Montréal-based and recently re-formed Coalition for Solidarity with Native Peoples [Regroupement de solidarité avec les autochtones] talks here about the successes and setbacks of two decades of solidarity organizing in Montréal. The interview with Boucher was conducted in March 2010 with Fred, Cleve and Sarita from the Indigenous Solidarity Committee of the People’s Global Action bloc in Montréal.
Joe Deom is a member of the Bear Clan and a member of the Longhouse in Kahnawake. He was a negotiator on behalf of Mohawks during the events of 1990.
Laura Norton is a member of the Longhouse in Kahnawake. As a clan mother she was behind the barricades during the events of 1990.
Walter David is a Mohawk traditionalist living in Kanehsatake who was active in the 1990 Oka crisis. He loves what the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples affirms and stands for.
Carole Boucher is a Montréal-based activist. Over the past 30 years she’s worked on Canadian social justice issues related to poverty reduction, illiteracy, and the rights of First Nations.
Joe Deom and Laura Norton
Tell us about your involvement in 1990.
Joe: Laura and I were appointed by the longhouse to go to Kanehsatake to find out what was going on and help as much as we could. We would go to Kanehsatake, take part in meetings with Québec Native Affairs Minister John Ciaccia and report back to the longhouse. Ciaccia agreed that, if our people laid down our weapons and opened the bridge, nobody from Kahnawake would get prosecuted and there would be ongoing talks about the land issue. They wanted us to turn our weapons in as a precondition to negotiation. But that was a non-starter for us. So that stopped the deal and Ciaccia left.
After a while, the negotiators switched from talking with us to talking with the opposition within Kanehsatake and the Grand Council. At the time, the Council did not support us because of conflicts over the cigarette trade and the so-called warrior’s society. The government was happy to negotiate with them because they were the moderates, the peaceful ones. But that broke down too.
On September 25, we got a call from the army again and they said, “we’ll have buses that you can get on to leave, nobody will be arrested. And on the bus there will be a member of the clergy to see that nobody is harassed or beaten up.” All we had to do was walk out, get on the buses, and be processed. The Bishop of Montréal volunteered to be one of the clergy to accompany us. The next day, we show up and the Bishop is there talking to the soldiers in French. And then he tells us that the soldiers “don’t know anything” about the arrangement. So Mike calls Bob Antone on the inside and tells him “it’s a double cross. Get the hell out as best you can.” So that’s when they all came out from the treatment center, and that’s when all hell broke loose.
Laura: The Army told us to go straight and Bob said, “Turn right!” So we all turned right and went over a fence. They weren’t ready for us. Our guys knew it was a double cross, but they wanted to make sure the women and children got out. So we went out over the fence and the fight started. I know at least four guys who got down to the bottom of the hill and came back up. They went to the bottom and said, “oh, there’s a fight up there” and they came back up.
They didn’t bother our two elders, Madjap and Shirley Scott.But they sure as hell beat up Lasagna, Dennis, and Atonwa. They really beat them up, so I beat up one of the soldiers myself! And then I got bayoneted on my hand, and I couldn’t believe I had blood on my hand. I said “son of a bitch” but, in retrospect, I felt sorry for them. The Army had sent these very young guys – they looked like they were 18 or 19 years old. I can remember Shirley saying, “Does your mother know you have a gun?” And the poor guy, his eyes were so big. Some of them were hardened soldiers but most of them seemed like they were new recruits.
We went down, and the women were hand-cuffed too. But some of the women were very thin and were able to take their handcuffs off. Afterward, they took us on this jolly bus ride that by nightfall had brought us to Farnham, a town about 50 kilometers South-east of Montréal. We went to bed. The next morning, the Sûreté du Québec was there and they were trying to intimidate everybody. One of them asked me if I had ever been in Joliette. Something about Joliette and a bank robbery, and I just started laughing. The guy got mad at me. I said, “are you watching television, are you watching a movie? What’s your problem?” It was just intimidation.
We ended up in St. Jerome court and, of course, we’re all handcuffed. So we all plead “not guilty,” and then they have this fiasco in court. I’ve never seen so many lawyers in my life. We had a lawyer from New York who was a protégé of a radical lawyer, William Kuntsler. Other people had their own lawyers and they were all arguing about the law. So we sat there and watched. It was like a comedy. Everybody had a law book and the judge was saying something and the lawyers were saying something else, and they would go on and on and on. Finally, after a while the women got released.
We came home and our people were all waiting for us. For myself, I just wanted to come home and have a cup of tea. A week later, the men came out. But as one of the women who was in there – I was named by women from the longhouse to go – I reported back after everything that had gone on was over.
What kind of support did you receive?
Laura: We had people who were calling us from the US, Indian people saying they couldn’t get over the border. The minute they said they were Indian, they couldn’t get over. They wanted to know, “where do we send things? Because we know you may need food.” There was a whole network of people in the Montréal area who were headed up by what we called “the sausage smugglers,” and they just collected food for us and people in Kanehsatake. They spent hours and hours moving food. One night at around 3 am, the guys came upstairs to get us because they said the food was coming in. We went downstairs and saw two big salmon that had been sent down from James Bay. Although they had been frozen solid, they were now completely defrosted. We had to clean the fish and cook them because we couldn’t refreeze them.
My cousin has friends on the other side and she said they used to shop for us in Vaudreuil. And the store-owner said “just come in the back, I’ll sell you the food but nobody on the outside should see you taking that much food out of the IGA.” There are all kinds of stories like that that people don’t know about.
My neighbour was then maybe in her mid 70s. She told me it was the best summer she’d ever had. She said there was no traffic on the roads; she said people actually walked and talked to people on the street, and she said it was like it was when she was a child and everyone cooked together. She said “thank you very much for a nice summer.”
Could you talk about the role of non-native supporters?
Joe: I have to say I’m not aware of specific stories, but I know that we had a lot of non-Indians that were supporting us, and who were bringing in food at their peril. And we really appreciated that. I don’t see that there was any mistake made on their part; the problem they faced was their people. Police and protestors were whipped into a frenzy by the Ku Klux Klan; they were all racists that sprung up. The true nature of the Québecois – how racist they are – came out. We knew that. I knew that from childhood, and we all were subject to that. For us it’s like water off a duck’s back. But when they started throwing rocks and trying to kill us, that was another story. So that welled up a lot of anger in all of us. We were in the treatment centre at the time the stoning occurred. It was a real mistake for people to believe the government and the police. They guaranteed safe passage for anyone who wanted to leave; but they wanted to have all the moderates off the reserve so that only the hardcore were left.
Laura: I think that Canadians need to be more active in their own politics. I mean, there’s Indian politics. But your own politics: you have to be active in it. And if people are elected, they have to be made accountable to their people.
As far as helping out Aboriginal people is concerned, I think the best thing to do is to ask them what they want. If you say “look, I want to help” and they say “we don’t need your help at this time but we can call on you,” you have to say, “ok.” They may have a plan and you’re not going to be part of it, or you may be gumming up the works, and so you have to listen. But if they say, “now I really need you, could you just sit down and write these letters that we want you to write,” then you do it.
In our case, we had food coming in and I don’t know who organized it. I found out later on that the Native Friendship Centre did a lot of work organizing food and people. People actually came to the Friendship Centre and asked: “What can we do?” And the Friendship Centre organized them, which was wonderful.
People would come in to see us. But because we were looking down the barrel of a gun, it made things a little bit different, and it put the people who were coming in a different situation too. A lot of times, the Army wouldn’t let them in, or they only wanted to let in people that would convince us to leave.
Joe: At one point, 18 or 20 members of the clergy – all different denominations – came in and said they wanted to help. But really what they wanted was to proselytize because they thought we were all heathens.
Laura: Well, we are, but that’s another story. Nothing wrong with being a heathen.
Joe: They thought we were all godless, without spirituality, so we told them, “gee thanks for the offer, but if you want to help, this is what you can do: bring your own food and your own sleeping bags. We want you to be on the front lines, we want you to be cannon fodder, because if the white clergy is visible, they’re not going to shoot us. We don’t want you talk to anybody, and we don’t want you to try and convert us. If you want to help, this is where we need the help.” Well, they all took off. Only two or three from an Anglican church in Montréal decided to stay. They said: “we agree to do as you ask. We’re going home to get our stuff.” They came back the next day.
Laura: Yeah, I’ll tip my hat to the Anglican church. And I don’t tip my hat to churches that often.
Joe:I really respected those guys for doing what they did. And they stayed for about a week. Although they got to talk to some people, they realized they weren’t going to make any headway. It was an interesting situation. A Buddhist monk also came. He started beating at his drum, singing, and chanting at 5 am and continued almost all day long. We had a good time with him.
Laura: The Buddhists have always come to things that involve the Haudenosaunee. They were at Moss Lake and they go to the Grand Council. They’re not trying to convert you; all they want to do is sit and pray in peace. It didn’t bother anybody. At 4:30 in the morning, you’d go: “Oh, he’s here.” And I was on the 4:30 shift so it was all right with me – I was up cooking. The monk stayed a week. It was good, because he was very good at manipulating your back. Everybody took advantage of that. He snapped my neck, and I was like, “oh god, that feels better.” He was very, very nice. He had a little bag of whatever it was, and he wanted it boiled in water. I guess it was a kind of soup. That’s all he ate. And he prayed from 4:30 in the morning until 4:30 at night, chanting constantly. They can chant the longest I’ve ever heard. When he left, it was a different kind of quiet, because we got used to the low hum.
What were the positive or negative aspects of 1990?
Joe: There was a reawakening of native spirituality. We received calls from across North America, South America, New Zealand, and Australia: they called to tell us that they were praying – not from a Christian point of view, but from their own spiritual traditions. After 1990, we did some traveling across Canada and we saw a reawakening of native-ness, if you want to coin a phrase. People saw what we did and said, “holy shit, we’ve been sleeping.” And until this day, we remain notorious all over.
At the same time, the government started to throw money at a lot of other native groups, and Kahnawake was left out. The elected council took advantage of this largess and said, “well if you don’t do such and such, we’re going to call in the warriors.” They had no control over the warriors; they had nothing to do with them. Nevertheless, they used us a bargaining chip when they talked to the government.
Over the last 20 years, a huge amount of money has been thrown at Kahnawake. As I see it, they’ve ruined the economy. The biggest part of the workforce is working for the elected council at hugely inflated salaries. Now, if the council wants to demand stuff from the government, there’s too much at stake. The band council has created a big problem for our people without really knowing it.
We’ve always been a frugal people, I mean, all of the income – all of our way of life – has been generated from our own enterprise, our own ambition, off our own backs. The iron working trade, and now the cigarette trade – we started that. Longhouse people started that. 1990 killed it for us. Now, all of those Christians who were against us for the cigarette trade are in it and are keeping the money for themselves. Before, with the longhouse running it, the money went into a central pot and was supposed to be used to support the community. We never got to that point because of 1990.
Describe one incident that, for you, symbolizes the struggle of 1990.
We stopped the expansion of the golf course into our cemetery, and we stopped the high-end homes that were supposed to surround it. We stopped all that, but it hasn’t stopped them from encroaching. I’d say the crisis helped others across Canada. When our roadblocks went up on the 11th of July, people understood what it was for – and not just our people! Non-natives, said: “Wow, they want to make a golf course over a cemetery?” A lot of people knew it was wrong, and they understood what we were going through. And then we were shot at by the Sûreté du Québec. If it can happen to us, it can happen to anyone across Canada. That’s why the struggle struck a chord, you know?
How did some of the immediate negative and positive impacts express themselves in your community?
We got to see who was determined to defend the land, the people, and the rights, and we got to see who could be bought off by the government. Some of the people who worked against us in 1990 and who testified against us seemed to land right on their feet after the crisis. What the government did in 1990 to dispossess us of our lands gives a small indication of what they’ve done to us over several centuries. So, in a way, we were happy to see who was real and who wasn’t, who could be bought off and who couldn’t be.
If these people are so weak and confused that they need that money from the government, then let them go ahead – but they’ll have to answer to the Creator; and the Creator will deal with them. And He’s not nice when it comes to that. I can sleep at night because I never did that and I hope I never have to. We went through some realtough times here, really tough times! It’s amazing, after the crisis, during the crisis, and before the crisis. Just being longhouse traditionalists, it was tough. Since the crisis, we’ve had the magnifying glass on us because we were determined to try to preserve something for the next generations.
The Progressive Conservates (PCs) were in power back in 1990. Now they’re back with Harper and we can see the genocide commencing again! We can see it, we can smell it, and we can taste it. Right across Canada, the people are feeling it. Back in 1990, people right across Canada felt the PCgovernment. But the government also received a black eye for its treatment of Native people. This also affects the non-natives, because how we’re treated now will affect others in the future.
What was the role of solidarity groups?
Solidarity groups played a very important role in 1990 because they were voters and taxpayers, and because their sons and daughters would eventually end up in government positions. Seeing what was going on first hand helped them in their decision-making later on. They were also very helpful in gathering the food that was necessary during the crisis. We were locked out of food, supplies for babies, and medicines. Human rights activists were also abused. If it wasn’t for solidarity groups bearing witness to these atrocities, I think it would have been worse. They played an important role. It’s good they were here.
What economic transformations have occurred over the last 20 years with respect to the cigarette trade, gambling, and other things?
I don’t care for gambling, but the cigarette trade is part of our culture, it’s part of us. But the wealth isn’t widely shared; it’s not controlled the way it should be. The Confederacy thought it shouldn’t get out of hand. Instead, you now have all these pocket millionaires while our people live in paper shacks. It isn’t right. The wealth from the cigarette trade should be widely shared.
Nevertheless, the economic impact in the community has been significant. Now, some of the people who are doing the cigarettes are very generous to causes or hockey groups, lacrosse groups, and the youth. They’re very generous, and they’ve changed their lives from being dirt poor to being very comfortable. Some people are just happy to make what they make. Some people make $20 a day, and they’re happy making that $20 a day. It’s more than they made before.
The cigarette trade isn’t just benefiting the Natives. Non-natives have come in, welfare people, who can now put a loaf, milk, and a steak on their table. On their welfare system, they couldn’t do it. When the natives started doing their own tobacco, they didn’t put additives in the cigarettes to keep people addicted like Big Tobacco does. Consequently, a lot of people were quitting, which was amazing! It was good that they were saying, “Hey, I don’t smoke as much,” and it was even on radio in Montréal, on the French channel. People were smoking less, gagging less, throwing up less, and it cost less. So a lot of people on these phone-ins were very happy, and I even had some people tell me, “you know, I quit smoking after 30 years!” And I said, “way to go.”
What are some of the current issues that you are engaged in right now?
One of the main struggles taking place right now is with the Niocan mine and with other developments around our land. If the mine goes ahead, it will poison the ground waters so, if you bathe, you may glow a little bit. If you drink the water, look out, your life span may be shortened drastically. But we also think about the non-native farmers over there. Even though it’s our indigenous land, these people are making a living and feeding a lot of people. They farm that land and they’ve been doing it for thirty, forty, fifty years. Now, it’s going to be poisoned and ruined by the Niocan mine. We can’t allow that to happen. We’ve got to start looking at preserving the food chain. And these housing developments taking over land all around us – they’re just taking up farmland like crazy. Many farmers nowadays are just getting out of it. They don’t want to do it anymore. But the farmers around the proposed mine want to continue, so you don’t spoil their land and try to buy them off. We should try to help them and keep them going. At least that’s my feeling, and the feeling of a lot of our people.
How were you involved in 1990?
In 1990, a group of activists founded the Coalition for Solidarity with Native Peoples. The majority of us were not Indigenous. During the Oka Crisis, we organized many demonstrations to support the Mohawks. We marched in solidarity in Kanehsatake and Kahnawake on several occasions and continued our work throughout the trial of the Mohawks. Although it was a long trial, there was always a member of the Coalition present at every hearing. We even produced a book about the trial, entitled Not Guilty.
Following that, the Coalition also supported the Cree and Mathew Mukash against the Grand-Baleine hydroelectric project. We also worked with the Innu of Maliotenam, who were struggling against the Ste-Marguerite hydroelectric project, and the Algonquins of Barriere Lake, who we supported in their struggle against clear-cutting on their land. We also got involved in the campaign to help the Lubicon Cree recover the territory that was taken from them to mine the tar sands.
We organized around several indigenous issues over a period of about ten years. The Coalition had just over 400 members. Many people helped with the publication of a monthly journal. We organized several conferences, including some with Indigenous people from South America. We participated in the march to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Oka Crisis with many members of the Kanehsatake community. After that, we lost a bit of energy. Many people were ready to give money, but not to invest time. So we stopped.
How was the decision to form the Coalition made?
It was a spontaneous decision made by a small group of activists. We were already aware of the situation in Kanehsatake. Well before July 11 1990, the Mohawks had taken action to protect their lands, including the Pines and cemetery that were threatened by the expansion of the municipal golf course. That spring, many people came from Montréal to support them in a demonstration. Upon hearing what had happened between the police and the Mohawks on July 11, Philippe Duhamel – who was with l’Alliance Pour Une Action Non-violente – gathered several activists together. I wasn’t at that first meeting, but my partner was. A demonstration in support of the Mohawks was organized for July 12 and I was there.
The decision to form the coalition wasn’t made at the request of the Mohawks and it was a little difficult at the beginning. There was an enormous amount of mistrust on the part of the Native people and a lot of mutual distrust. We didn’t know anyone in Kahnawake or Kanehsatake, so it took a bit of time to get things off the ground. We persisted because we found it abnormal that non-Natives weren’t saying they supported the Mohawks. Eventually, we established contacts with certain Indigenous people. In Kahnawake, it was easier: Billy Two Rivers, Kahntineta Horn, Joe Deom, Andrew Delisle. The Davids from Kanehsatake, those who were not in the Pines at that moment, came to Montréal several times and we were able to establish contacts.
Is there a moment that symbolizes the struggle for you?
One moment that pushed us to keep doing solidarity work as a coalition of non-Natives was when the people from Kahnawake were attacked by settlers throwing stones. And there were also the terrible gatherings in Chateauguay where they burned effigies of indigenous people.
That really affected us. We discovered that there was a lot of racism in a society that supposedly respected Indigenous people. It was quite difficult to see, and for the indigenous people, too. Our support became even more interesting, because we were reassuring them that not all non-natives were against their actions and their presence. When people threw stones at the Mohawks, they were saying that if they assimilated completely there would be no problem but, if they didn’t, they would have no place here. That’s a pretty terrible message. It had a big impact on me and other members of the Coalition.
Was anyone from the Coalition behind the barricades?
No. Behind the barricades, there were maybe some non-Natives, but certainly not many. They wanted to protect themselves and we weren’t well known. But there was a camp not far away, the Peace Camp. Many people made the trip there several times. Others stayed the whole time to keep an eye on police actions. It’s there that we made connections with the local population.
How did you get food through the barricades and the police lines?
There were some people who spontaneously brought food. Others served as go-betweens for food, blankets, and the rest. There was no central organization; everyone managed to bring aid by their own means. There were police barricades on Highway 138. We were stopped and searched by the police. There were a lot of cops. And the Army, too. It could take a long time to get to Kahnawake. Even when we were going by bus to a demonstration, we were forced to stop for a long time.
Were the impacts of the crisis positive or negative?
It’s a bit strange, because the positive impacts did not affect Kanehsatake. We could see afterward that not much had changed for the community. There were internal conflicts, some of which still continue. These conflicts maybe slowed down the process of recovering the land. For other indigenous communities that we met later, though, the crisis had a very positive impact.
Certain communities – the Algonquins of Barrier Lake, for example – began to feel that they had a certain strength and that they could win things. They could be proud to be Indigenous and they had the right to make demands. Because of all the assimilation that had gone on, they had lost sight of their rights. From then on, many struggles – some successful – taken up by Indigenous communities have shown traces of this new sensibility. We’ve also heard of positive repercussions in other communities in Canada, not only in Québec. The Mohawk struggle gave pride. It showed an example that something can be done, that things can be changed.
The Innu of the Cote Norddidn’t really support the struggle in Kanehsatake – probably because they were focused on their own struggles, but also because the question of violence bothered them a little. Nevertheless, the struggle really helped them afterward in their fight against the Ste-Marguerite dam.
In terms of our governments, I can’t say if the impacts were positive or negative. As soon as a community starts to push a little, the Government tries to buy them out. Governments are walking on eggshells. They know they can’t ignore Indigenous communities, but nothing has changed at the root. They are, however, a little more cautious. Recently, there were events in Kanehsatake, again around a housing development and close to the golf course. As soon as 20 or 30 people from Kanehsatake went to the site, the developer stopped everything. Nothing was solved, but they stopped the construction. I don’t know if the project has begun again. I haven’t heard any news but, according to Ellen Gabriel, who was spokesperson for the longhouse and the community in Khanesatake during the Oka Crisis, the project has been halted.
For the people of Kanehsatake, the impact was negative. It really divided the community. There were also problems with the Council. By supporting a fragile Band Council and giving it more power, the Canadian Government sought to divide the community. They prevented connections from being made so that the people would be as divided as possible. For the people of Kanehsatake, I don’t know if we can speak about a positive experience. You’d have to ask them.
It seems like there was a lot of trauma, both for individuals and for the community.
It’s true. According to Ellen Gabriel, one of the reasons there was an event – including a march – on July 11, 2010 was to remember those moments with pride. Gabriel’s impression is that, at a basic level, the community is not very proud of those events. She thinks they should draw a certain pride from them and, ideally, this strength will persevere. For the community, absolutely nothing was won. With the niobium mine, the territory is going to be effected again. Ellen speaks of a territory that was protected but that remains very small when compared to the overall demands of the Mohawks. In the end, I think the impact was generally negative for the community.
From today’s vantage point, how did the events of 1990 affect the struggle for Indigenous rights?
I think it changed the strategy of governments, but it didn’t change anything fundamentally. There’s still work to be done. There’s not enough support for the rights of Indigenous peoples on their lands. And unfortunately there is a lot of work being done to buy off the Band Councils. Often, the Indigenous population is okay with this, thinking it will help them. We can’t reproach them, it’s normal. As with anybody, it’s the present moment that counts. They’re thinking of their children and about unemployment on the reserve. They think development will be a panacea but, at the end of the day, it’s not.
The events of 1990 didn’t change anything. Canada is one of three countries that has yet to sign the UNResolution on Indigenous Peoples. Attempts were made to get Québec to put pressure on the federal government and to sign a declaration itself – maybe not the one from the UNbecause it’s only a province – but that didn’t work either. This means that, at all levels of government, there haven’t been many changes. Moreover, the UNResolution isn’t very constraining. It could maybe have important impacts if we followed it to its endpoint. But our governments deny any right to Indigenous peoples. The Indian Act is still in place. It has not been changed, or almost not at all. They’re talking about reforming it, but I don’t think the reforms are going to be positive. The idea has always been to dispossess Indigenous people of their culture and their land. I think if they change anything, it’s going to be in that direction. It’s a bit discouraging.
After Oka, you worked on Grand Baleine, the Innu, Barrier Lake, and the tar sands. Twenty years later, we continue to be engaged in the same struggles.
Yes, and it’s often the same people in the communities who are working on them. There are people who don’t give up. But that’s because not a whole lot has advanced. One of the things that discouraged me – and others in the Coalition as well – was the environmental movement. It’s started to gain a lot of momentum, which is great, but it’s often run the risk of denigrating Indigenous rights. For them, it’s more about the rights of Nature than the rights of Indigenous peoples. We have sometimes been in conflict with these groups, because both aspects need to be worked on at a time. Working with environmental groups could have been a way to rally more people to Indigenous struggles, but that didn’t turn out to be the case.
What lessons have you learned through solidarity work?
When we go into communities, we need to realize that there are different ways of doing things. It takes time to get to know them and to understand them. It’s normal, and I would even say necessary, that it doesn’t happen quickly.
Our way of doing things on the Left – our process, analysis and methodology – you have to sort of forget it. We have to change our methods. It’s not just because they’re Indigenous that they’re on the left and necessarily combative.
In the Oka Crisis, it was fast. We didn’t have any choice. It was a two-month crash-course in Mohawk 101. When we look at the list of our Native guest speekers, we realize that we invited some odd people. Billy TwoRivers was one of those. When you know his values, he was maybe not the best person to invite. He sure had the image. There we were, a gang of non-Natives protesting in front of Hydro Québec. Many people were asking who we were. Billy TwoRivers was with us and gave an amazing speech. It gave us credibility. But sometimes, it’s best to avoid celebrated personalities.
One of the reasons the Coalition chose to halt its activities was because it’s necessary to go into the communities. It’s not possible to work from Montréal. Before 2000, Marc, a active member of the Coalition, went into the communities and had a lot of good connections. Without Marc, we could content ourselves with having contact with Mathew Mukash, who would sometimes come to Montréal. Or with Gilbert Pilot. But we were only talking to the leaders.
It’s similar to doing international solidarity work. The people who come here are all right, but they’re the leaders, not the base. It takes time; you have to go and see. When we stopped doing that, we didn’t know what was really going on in the communities anymore.
Sometimes groups within a community will use the fact that they have the support of non-Natives to legitimatize their point of view in internal debates. Did you ever feel used by certain people?
We always are a bit. It’s something we have to pay attention to. That’s why it’s important to know the people and the culture. Who is that person in the community? Are they listening to their community? In the case of Gilbert Pilot, at a given moment he lost the support of the community. He came back, because he’s a person of great capacity, but I think he was sent packing because he had abused his ability to go draw on support, to parade around everywhere.
What political work is the Coalition doing now?
This summer the Coalition was supporting Ellen Gabriel’s group, which was working on an event to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Oka Crisis with an exhibit, speeches, a book launch, and a march.
One of the positive impacts of the Oka Crisis is that the media became interested in Indigenous people. We always followed the news and we collected many newspaper articles about the struggles going on in Indigenous communities. Today, there’s almost no coverage. We would like to call attention to the fact that Indigenous people have not disappeared. Even if they’re not being talked about in the media, they still exist.