by Thomas King
• The year is 1717. Voltaire is sent to the Bastille because his rather edgy writing makes powerful people uncomfortable, a massive earthquake strikes Antigua, Guatemala, and France gives a portion of land along the Ottawa River to the Sulpician Missionary Society. France doesn’t own the land, but for the French Crown, such matters are neither here nor there.
The gift did not sit well with the Mohawk since the land in the French grant was their land and for the next 151 years, this piece of real estate would be a thorn in the side of Mohawk and Sulpician relations.
In 1868, a year after Confederation had overtaken Canada, Joseph Onasakenrat, a chief of the Mohawk, wrote a letter to the Sulpicians demanding the return of the land within eight days. The Sulpicians ignored the warning and Onasakenrat led a march on the Sulpician seminary, weapons in hand. After a short and rather unpleasant confrontation, local authorities arrived and forced the Mohawk to retreat. Then, in 1936, the Sulpicians sold the property and left the area. The Mohawk protested the sale and again the protest fell on deaf ears.
Twenty-three years later in 1959, a nine-hole golf course, Club de golf d’Oka, was built on the land, right next to the band’s cemetery. This time, the Mohawk launched a legal protest, hoping that the courts would provide them with some relief from White encroachment. The authorities and the courts dillied back and dallied forth, and in the meantime, the developers went ahead with the construction of the course and happy golfers began roaming up and down the fairways in their little carts.
Finally, in 1977, the Mohawk filed an official land claim with the federal Office of Native Claims in an attempt to recapture the land. Nine years later, the claim was rejected because it failed to meet certain legal criteria. Which was a fancy way of saying that the Mohawk couldn’t prove that they owned the land, at least not in the way that Whites recognized ownership.
For the next eleven years, relations between the town of Oka and the Mohawk were spotty. Then, in 1989, the mayor of Oka, Jean Ouellette, announced the exciting news that the old golf course was going to be expanded into an 18-hole course and that 60 luxury condominiums would also be built. In order to manage this expansion, the town prepared to move on the Mohawk, taking more of their land, levelling a forest known among the Mohawk as “the Pines” and building new fairways and condominiums on top of the band cemetery.
That did it. After 270-odd years of dealing with European arrogance and indifference, after trying every legal avenue available, the Mohawk had had enough. On March 10, 1990, Natives began occupying the Pines, protecting their trees and their graveyard. Their land.
Five months later, in the heat of July, the confrontation became a shooting war. Neither the provincial government nor the federal government wanted to deal with the situation. Jean Ouellette had no intention of talking with the Mohawk and said so on television. Instead, he insisted that the province send in the Sûreté du Québec and in they came, storming the barricades that the Mohawk had erected with tear gas and flash-bang grenades. Shots were fired. No one knows who fired first. Not that it would have made much difference. And when the smoke cleared, Corporal Marcel Lemay had been mortally wounded and a Mohawk elder, Joe Armstrong, had suffered what would be a fatal heart attack trying to escape an angry mob.
So began the Oka Crisis.
Excerpted from The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King (Doubleday Canada). Reprinted with permission.