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The Long Shadow of the Oka Crisis on the Children Who Were There

How one of the worst civil strifes in Canada's modern history shaped a generation.

by Brigitte Noël
Aug 18 2015, 9:32pm

Two-year-old Justin Darrow plays in front of Kanesatake barricades in a 1990 edition of crime journal Allô Police!

The newspaper clipping has been on the living room wall for decades: a photo of a doe-eyed toddler framed and displayed by proud parents. But Justin Darrow's childhood memento is not a snapshot of a day at the park or of a children's birthday party—it's a souvenir of wartime.

"I'm playing in front of a barricade, a couple cars flipped on top of one another," Darrow explains. "Growing up, it never seemed really that strange: I was a kid, into army stuff and trucks. I had no knowledge of why they were there, and it didn't scare me." It probably should have: built out of police cars, the barricade's purpose was to keep the army off the reserve and protect residents against erstwhile gunfire.

These are not ancient memories of a foreign conflict: Darrow is now 27 years old, and grew up on a Mohawk reserve one hour north of Montreal.

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When the administration of Oka, QC tried to build luxury condos and a golf course on ancestral land long claimed by the residents of Kanesatake, they encountered unyielding opposition from the Mohawk Nation. The ensuing standoff during the summer of 1990 lasted nearly three months and resulted in the death of one police officer and one Mohawk elder.

During the conflict's 78 days, Mohawk Warriors squared off against the Canadian army, both sides wielding assault rifles, neither relenting. Roads were blocked, families were separated, and multiple arrests were made. The tensions also spurred egregious displays of racism in neighbouring communities, and at one point residents of Châteauguay burned hanging effigies of Mohawk Warriors.

The standoff ended on September 26, 1990, and has since been considered a victory for Aboriginal people, a watershed moment that inspired First Nations across the country—and the world—to fight for their rights. The groundswell of empowerment has led to an increase in resistance movements, the most recent of which consist of efforts to block pipeline projects (a country-wide battle that has also evoked the possibility of another Oka Crisis).

Yet for those who took part in the standoff, the "triumph" came at a heavy cost. Many Kanesatake residents subsequently struggled with depression, substance abuse, and suicide. In the years following the events, stories of organized crime, drug trafficking and police raids kept Kanesatake in the news, a downward spiral difficult to dissociate from that summer's events.

A 2005 research paper on the aftermath of the conflict found that the crisis has had "immeasurable psychological, behavioural, physical and emotional effects on all community members, including children."

In their findings, Gloria Nelson and Joyce Bonspiel-Nelson said that while causation is difficult to establish, healthcare professionals in Kanesatake witnessed an uptick in "children expressing their feelings in negative ways, such as acting out of violence, abusing alcohol and drugs, contemplating and attempting suicide, self-mutilation, racism, bullying, dropping out of school, post-traumatic stress disorder and teenage pregnancy."

Darrow, who was two at the time, has few memories of the events and says his family tried to keep its distance from the conflict. Still, he says he's witnessed the community's ongoing struggle with a past many would rather forget. "It's a tough subject, especially for the ones who are older, hard for them to go back and recollect," Darrow says. "It was traumatizing."

Justin Darrow doing a fakie heelflip at Valleyfield Skatepark. Photo courtesy Damien and Olivier Sellier

Darrow found salvation in skateboarding. The young athlete, who recently competed in the Skateboarding World Cup, is now the ambassador of an organisation that uses the sport to help underprivileged children. But without the sport, he says, he'd be "out doing gang-related stuff, or dead in a ditch."

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While the conflict resonated in First Nations communities across the country, perhaps the most closely involved was the Kahnawake Mohawk reserve, located on Montreal's south shore. The community sent its men to Kanesatake as reinforcement, and hosted the warriors who came in from other regions to take part in the resistance movement. In solidarity, Kahnawake residents also blocked access to the Honoré-Mercier Bridge, one of the main arteries connecting Montreal Island to the mainland.

Kahnawake resident Roxann Whitebean was six and a half years old when the tanks started rolling into her community. Now 31, she still has vivid memories of the events, and describes how impressed she had been with the presence of both military and media. "I thought it was awesome," she says. "Then I realized, after a period of time, that we weren't allowed to leave and that people were screaming at us."

Watching the news, she realized the armoured vehicles weren't there to protect her and her family. "They were there because we did something wrong. And that was very confusing to me, because usually when I saw the army on TV, they were the good guys, they were the ones saving everyone."

"It was a very confusing time for so many young people."

With food running short, Whitebean and her sister were eventually smuggled out of the community on a boat, leaving behind their grandmother who refused to abandon her home.

Whitebean says that for her and for many of the people she grew up with, the conflict's social impact would reverberate for years. "After 1990, a lot of young people were angry about what happened," she says. "They didn't really understand, and [they] acted out."

"They were uncontrollable and fearless because when you're that young and you're surrounded by the army, you know, it changes your mentality."

In her adult years, Whitebean began working at an elementary school, where she realized how little the younger generation knew about what had happened. "They were so curious, I found out they were discussing it in the schoolyard," she says. "But they thought it was something that took place 200 years ago."

Feeling a need to tell her story, Whitebean catalogued and fictionalized her recollections in a short film, her first, which recently premiered at the Montreal First Peoples Festival. Legend of the Storm tells the story of the Oka crisis as seen through the eyes of a child; a perspective Whitebean felt had been neglected. "I made it for our people as a whole so that we can share our stories and show what goes on in the minds of children when they're faced with extreme circumstances," Whitebean explains.

Both Darrow and Whitebean say that, despite the adversity they faced, the generation who grew up during and after the standoff inherited a unique perspective on what it means to be Mohawk, and how important it is to preserve the cultural heritage and the land.

"Our people are very strong, we have healed from many things," says Whitebean, echoing one of her film's most poignant lines. "I think we're moving along quite nicely, considering that the last [residential school] closed in 1996."

In their findings, Nelson and Bonspiel-Nelson say the historical context is important to keep in mind in treating those affected by Oka. "The challenge is to address not only the crisis in front of us but the ones behind us, too, because our children and our young people ahead of us are depending on us to hand down our strength, love and wisdom, not our grief and trauma," they wrote.

For Whitebean, this is a matter of communication. "As Onkwehonwe people, we're able to share our stories more, there's an open communication now whereas before no one came to the reserve, we didn't really like to leave the reserve," she says. "I think that we're opening up and that we're healing."

Preserving the fighting spirit is also part of the healing process, and Kanesatake's leadership has vowed to block TransCanada's pipeline, which would cross the northern part of its territory. "We stood up for something, we're still standing up for something," Darrow says. "There's so much history here, we don't need catastrophes that would escalate tensions between First Nations and Canada."

"If we were peaceful before, we have to be even more peaceful now."

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