A cemetery or a pinegrove: the Oka crisis

When we go to a cemetery we normally see a fenced off area where there are plenty of gravestones and crosses, a place where we bury our dead, in a well-organized area where we can come and place flowers or gifts on the graves of our fallen family members. This isn’t the same for the Mohawk Indians who live near Oka Quebec. For hundreds of years they have buried their dead in a special wooded area outside the community. In this graveyard many Mohawks warriors are buried including one of their legendary chiefs. This area wasn’t built like any of our cemeteries are. The Mohawks buried their dead in a Pinegrove. This special burial site wasn’t fenced off or well maintained or repaired like our cemeteries are today. There are no crosses just rock piles or cairns. These symbolized where a person is buried. This area is very important for this Mohawk community and for their culture.

This cultural difference was at the root of the Oka Crisis; over the years the Mohawk people have tried to obtain title to the property upon which this graveyard is located. Each time the Mohawks attempted to gain title, they would be turned down by the government. The government, and the local municipality of Oka Quebec, had decided that there was not enough evidence to give the Mohawks the title to the property. With there being no evidence of graves, the Municipality of Oka built a golf course on some of the land near the Pinegrove. The Mohawk people once again tried to stop the land from being destroyed, but the government turned down their application for the area to become part of the reserve they lived on. Tensions were getting very high in the area and it was only a matter of time before something ignited the fuse and the tensions exploded.

On July 11, 1990 this happened when the municipality of Oka Quebec, decided to add another nine holes to the golf course and build condos on the Pinegrove. This would have resulted in the Pinegrove being cut down and the graves being desecrated. The very next day there was a violent confrontation in which Corporal Marcel Lemay of the Quebec Provincial Police was killed. An armed standoff resulted and the Canadian military was called in to restore order. The armed standoff lasted all summer long, only ending on September 26, 1990.

The tensions spread to other Mohawk communities, and soon people were worrying if there was going to be more shootings. In solidarity, Mohawks on a reserve near Montreal blocked the Mercier bridge, a major commuter link to the island city. which ran through their community. Mohawk women, children and the elderly where stoned by local residents when they attempted to leave this contested area.

At the end of the crisis, the Mohawks burned there firearms and went back to the reserve. Many were arrested, receiving a range of prison sentences, but ultimately nobody was charged with the death of Corporal Lemay.The land where the Pinegrove stands on was purchased by the Canadian government and plans for the golf course expansion were cancelled. The Mohawk people, however, were not satisfied as the land was not given to them. This shows how in today’s society natives in Canada can still not have all their ancient places that are culturally important to them respected. In Canada, unequal treatment towards First Nations still continues.

— Steven Higdon

For further information consult these sources.

John Ciaccia. The Oka crisis: a mirror of the soul. Dorval: Maren Publications, 2000.
Rick J. Ponting. “Internationalization: Perspectives on an emerging direction in aboriginal affairs.” Canadian Ethnic Studies 22, no. 3 (October 1990): 85-110.
Nadya Repin. “Somewhere beyond the barricade: explaining indigenous protest in Canada.” Canadian Journal Of Native Studies 32, no. 1 (June 2012): 143-171.

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