Oka Crisis. 20th Anniversary
The summer of 1990, I stopped being a boy. I put away childish things. When the documentary by Alanis Ombomsawin came out and screened at the Museum of Anthropology in Hull (Gatineau) during the mid 90s, I was literally shaking in my seat. I realized sitting there watching all that footage that played out on screens cross country that 1990 was the year I became a man.
Shortly after my cousin and I went to Oka, only to find the tall pines swaying and creeking in the wind. Yet there was still a tension as the SQ were watching every single person who stopped to look at the site where the blockade was situated.
It was hard to believe such a small area had the country riveted for a whole summer.
It was 20 years ago today. I was visiting family in the North when suddenly on the news I saw images of Mohawks and Police clashing. Soon the police were replaced by the actual Military, and that famous image seen below:
I went from being a carefree 13 year old to suddenly thrust into a summer of tension and drama beyond anything I could imagine.
I am on the other side of the country from the Mohawks, but the images of them banding together and actually physically taking action against authorities was bold, and it united First Nations people cross country and inspired the youth to stop feeling shame about who they were. Of course there were those that disapproved, much how you hear about the Irish being divided between Loyalists and supporters of the IRA.
As a native youth you get accustomed to seeing politicians and bureaucrats sitting around talking for hours on end until nobody can stand to hear them anymore. Well this was a slap to the face, and embarrassing to them.
When I arrived in Vancouver my mom picked me up at the airport and said “Welcome to the war zone”. I wasn’t sure what she meant, but after a few days I understood as non-native sentiments were boiling over and suddenly people who had a slight dislike of anything Aboriginal suddenly found liscence and freedom to voice their opinion. For me, being half and looking more Latin most tend to check around before saying what they really thought of Natives. Since they assumed I was Philipino or Latin I got some major insight into what people say when Natives are not around, and it taught me a lot about who your friends truly are.
There were blockades across country to show support of the Mohawks, including a few not too far from Vancouver. We went up to a place called Mt Currie which is about an hour past Whistler. The Lil’Wats set up a blockade preventing tourists from using a shortcut that went through the reserve. Most of the people were understanding and would turn their cars around. But the fine citizens of Pemberton BC decided to cause a stir by threatening to raid the blockade and shoot any Indian on site. Pemberton had a large quantity of White Supremacists who were rumoured to be KKK affiliates. Well a few of them decided to start a “posse” of some sort and kill some Indians. The blockade was different than Oka, as the Lil’Wats decided to do it peacefully and not have any weapons on site. But they were ready to stand their ground and use rocks if needed.
I spent that night on this blockade paranoid that any minute some guy was going to mow me down with a hunting rifle while I sat by the fire. The age of 13 I sat there thinking that there was a slight possibility I could die or be witness to some horrible things. We all stayed up the whole night talking under the stars, arguing or laughing and stopping occasionally to watch the road for any signs of an attack. When the dawn finally came we realized it was just an empty threat, but after previous run ins with violent racists in interior BC you have to take precautions.
I remember looking into the creek and seeing giant blue plastic barrels on a small island in the stream. When I asked what it was the Lil’Wats said that trucks come in the middle of the night to dump toxic waste on the reserve then drive away. When they would check the barrels to see if there were any company markings it would be blank, just toxic warning symbols. They left them there as evidence for an investigation yet nothing was happening. To this day there is no info.
They said that this was a regular occurrence, and one of the reasons they were blocking the road. It was then I realized the sheer madness of the situation cross country, and this was only on one tiny reserve.
I only lasted the one night as the next day my mother and I went back to Vancouver, but a few weeks later I saw on the news the Police set dogs loose on the very people that I sat around the fire with that strange night. I saw them running down the road and being dragged to their knees by fierce German Shepherds, much like you see from news footage in the 60s. I’ll never forget that image, and it haunts me to this day.
After that summer, when school began again I walked into class only to hear the other kids mocking not just the Mohawks but Natives in general, and it almost became a daily occurrence. At times even violent. I was witness to a lot of harassment and sheer ridicule of a cultural part of me, and it gave me the impression people were almost glad Oka happened so they could finally get these opinions off their chest. All the pride I felt was suddenly crushed when I saw the reaction of all the other kids from ALL cultures ganging up on who I was. In the whole school out of 1200 kids maybe 12 were of Aboriginal descent, and those were the visible ones. If you were only half like I was you kept it yourself.
When I told my mother how it was at school and the shame I felt of who I was, she could only shake her head and tell me how ironic it was that she went through the same thing in her youth.
From that summer on, I could not look at people in this country the same, and it taught me a lot about human nature when things get to a boiling point. For that I am grateful to the Mohawks, because like the toxic waste being anonymously dumped in Mt Currie, some people still get away with horrible things under the nose of the population. Then they’ll turn that population against the demograph they’re targeting to distract everyone from the initial problems to begin with.
My only hope someday people will see that, and maybe then people won’t see the need to blockade to bring issues to the forefront. But I can see why they did what they did.