DOUG GEORGE-KANENTIIO - To understand the Oka crisis of 1990, we need to see beyond the hype, distortions and lies that have become the great Oka myth.
To understand what happened at Oka-Kanehastake and Kahnawake, it is essential to know what took place at Akwesasne since the key players and the weapons, including the one that killed SQ officer Marcel Lemay, came from my home community.
In the spring of 1990, Akwesasne had become the fourth largest gambling centre in North America, with more than a dozen casinos operating without any government control. These outlaw gambling dens were raking in millions of dollars, none of which was accountable to any controlling agency. At the same time, large-scale human, drug and tobacco smuggling was taking place across Akwesasne territory.
None of the three Mohawk councils was able to stop any of these criminal activities that were protected by the "Mohawk Sovereignty Security Force" or the "warriors." Without formal training, para-military or otherwise, poorly-led, ill-disciplined but with many assault weapons, the warriors began a campaign to intimidate the Mohawk people into compliance with the gambling and smuggling cartels that involved not only Mohawks but organized crime groups from Montreal and New York City.
Despite numerous pleas for help, the Mohawks of Akwesasne were abandoned to this reign of terror by both Canada and the U.S., which dismissed the crisis as an internal problem. Without other recourse, Mohawks formed anti-casino blockades on March 30, 1990.
The blockades lasted for a month before the warriors destroyed them using arson, bulldozers, and machine gunfire. Hundreds of Mohawks sought refuge in nearby communities including Cornwall.
The warrior plan was to assume total control over Akwesasne by removing the existing leadership and establishing complete gangster rule. Only one small band of Mohawks stood in their way, a group of no more than a dozen men who refused to leave until the external police came to Akwesasne's assistance.
I was among that group. As the editor of the reservation newspaper, I had reported on the activities of the warriors, much to their anger. The result was the firebombing of my offices -not once but twice -followed by the firing of machine guns into my residence.
To my dismay, I concluded that our people were being dismissed by the cowards in the RCMP, SQ, FBI, and New York State Police. We were being left to die.
For four days, from April 27-May 1, we fought against the warriors in the most intense conflict since the second Louis Riel rebellion 110 years previously. Thousands of rounds were fired at us but they failed to dislodge us from our position in the Snye district of Akwesasne. During the early morning of May 1, two Mohawk men were ambushed and killed, both shot in the back. Only then did the external police arrive, turning Akwesasne into a military occupation zone. One of those officers was Marcel Lemay.
Frustrated and humiliated by their failure to come to Akwesasne's aid, the police were desperate to make an arrest for the May 1 murders. Acting on bad information from an informant within Akwesasne, the SQ arrested five people on May 13: myself, my brother, a close friend and two members of the Akwesasne Mohawk Police. All charges were dismissed against us during the preliminary hearing stage.
The warriors were embarrassed. They not only lost the gun battle but their plans to take control over Akwesasne collapsed and their casinos were closed, as were their smuggling operations.
They were desperate to repair a battered image and when they received a phone call from Kanehastake seeking help to man a land-claims barricade near a golf course, they responded. Without the approval of any Mohawk, council the warriors arrived in Oka with cars full of firearms. The Surete elected to strike at Oka because it did not want a repeat of what had happened at Akwesasneake. The warriors needed publicity and the Surete gave it to them. Lemay was shot in the face.
Just before the SQ entered the pine woods at Oka, a young Mohawk man decided on his own to block traffic on the Mercier Bridge. When the Mohawks of Kahnawake learned of the death of Lemay, they anticipated a strike by the SQ even though Kahnawake had nothing to do with the killing.
It is critical to know that the principals involved in the violence at Oka came from Akwesasne. It is vital that people understand the side road that was blocked at Oka was non-violent and peaceful until firearms were smuggled across the border by individuals from Akwesasne.
There were groups in all three Mohawk communities seeking an end to the conflict, conducting peace vigils and meeting with the warriors in an attempt to persuade them to leave. In the end, it was the work of three true representatives of the Iroquois Confederacy: John Mohawk (Seneca), Oren Lyons (Onondaga) and Paul Williams (Oshweken Onondaga) who worked with the peace advocates at Kahnawake and Kanehsatake to dismantle the barricades.
The warriors were pushed aside by the Mohawk people. They retreated to an alcohol treatment centre where, after considerable infighting, they surrendered.
Take a look at those who were arrested at the treatment centre and their actions after they were released. Almost all were arrested on various criminal charges ranging from personal acts of violence to smuggling operations. Their true legacy was to turn Kahnesatake into the largest hydroponic marijuana centre in eastern Canada. Their legacy was to turn Akwesasne into he largest smuggling region in North America. Their legacy is the grieving families of dozens of people who have lost their lives in the narco culture that took hold of our community. Their legacy was to destroy the dreams of the Mohawks of Akwesasne to live in a united community under a traditional government.
Hardly the stuff of "freedom fighters," but fuel for the Oka myths which have caused us enormous harm.
Doug George-Kanentiio, an Akwesasne Mohawk, is the former editor of Akwesasne Notes and a co-founder of the Native American Journalists Association. He is the author of books on Mohawk history and culture including Iroquois on Fire, about his experiences at Akwesasne in 1990.
As I saw it: the real Oka story
It was about a bunch of 'warriors' from outside the reserve launching a reign of terror