Oka Could Happen Again Amid Pipeline Battles, First Nation Leaders Say

25 years after the historic dispute, Indigenous leaders say tensions are rising again.

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Jul 21 2015, 3:55pm

Canadian soldier Patrick Cloutier and Indigenous man Brad Laroque come face to face in a tense standoff at the Kanehsatà:ke reserve in Oka, Que., Saturday September 1, 1990. Photo courtesy The Canadian Press/Shaney Komulainen

Twenty-five years after the Oka land dispute in Quebec turned deadly, Indigenous leaders from coast to coast tell VICE it could easily happen again.

In the middle of the hot summer of 1990, Quebec police tried to enforce a court injunction to remove a Mohawk blockade so the construction of a golf course and 60 luxury condos could proceed on top of disputed territory that included an Indigenous burial site.

Tensions escalated, and on July 11 of that year negotiations went sour. Both sides opened fire, and a police officer, Marcell Lemay, was shot dead by a bullet of unknown origin. And the day the dispute ended, on Sept. 26, 1990, a soldier stabbed a Mohawk teenager, Waneek Horn-Miller, with a bayonet, nearly killing her.

Today, three Indigenous leaders who are battling three separate pipeline projects tell VICE the same tension exists at the front lines of the Energy East, Trans Mountain, and Line 9 proposals. They say the federal government is attempting to push the projects through the energy regulator without consulting First Nations communities.

Myeengun Henry outside court for the appeal of the National Energy Board Line 9 decision. Photo by the author

Myeengun Henry, band councillor for the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation that is currently fighting the National Energy Board's approval of Enbridge's Line 9 pipeline expansion in their Southern Ontario territory, told VICE an Oka-like land conflict could "easily, very easily" flare up again.

"We're on a tinder-box across the country now," he told VICE over the phone last week. "These pipelines could be something that could strike that again."

Across the country, First Nations have told VICE the Crown is not fulfilling its duty to consult with them on pipeline projects that run through their land.

Last month, Henry and other Chippewas of the Thames members asked an Ontario court to overturn the NEB decision, which they say was made without any consultation with the First Nation. The community says oil spills could threaten their land and water.

Signs outside the Unist'ot'en camp, set up to stop pipeline construction on unceded Indigenous territory. Photo via VICE Canada Reports: No Pipelines

In New Brunswick, the Wolustuk Grand Council has spoken out against TransCanada's Energy East pipeline for the same reason.

"We strongly oppose the Energy East pipeline because of the fact that it will cross our main river, the Wolustuk river, and tributaries numerous times, and the possibility of spillage into the rivers, lakes, streams is really high because of the past historical events through Canada and the US that pipelines do leak and do burst," Ron Tremblay, member of the Wolustuk Grand Council, told VICE in May.

When I called up Tremblay a week ago to ask whether he saw parallels between the Oka land dispute and his community's fight against the Energy East pipeline proposal, he said he had recently thought of writing about exactly that.

"We have not been consulted or even asked to sit at the table when they're discussing the pipeline," he said over the phone. "The parallels are that, again, the government is bullying and pushing through whatever initiative they're putting forward."

A national day of action against pipelines in Kanehsatà:ke, in 2013. Photo via Flickr user Howl Arts Collective

That's exactly how the Mohawk community of Kanehsatà:ke viewed the government's response to their Oka blockade in 1990.

According to their narrative, they first blocked the Mercier Bridge and later erected a second barricade on a dirt road to stop bulldozers from clearing the way for construction on land they believed was theirs, and which included a sacred burial ground. According to CBC, the graveyard held the body of an Indigenous man who fought against the development of a railroad through the land in 1911.

The municipality of Oka and the community of Kanehsatà:ke disagreed on whose land it was, and on July 11, 1990, on orders from Oka's mayor, about 100 Quebec police with tear gas, grenades, and rifles showed up at the blockade to enforce a court-ordered injunction. Negotiations broke down, and Kanehsatà:ke says police opened fire on them "without provocation." Both sides fired guns, and police officer Lemay was shot dead. No one has ever been charged with his death.

At that time, Tremblay travelled with a busload of people to Oka and camped just outside the blockade. What he saw changed him. Before, he considered himself "Joe Canadian" and a proud New Brunswicker. After the Oka crisis, he told reporters he would tell his kids not to stand for the national anthem because the country wasn't respecting Indigenous rights.

Today, Tremblay believes a similar situation could happen again, but it might not be as extreme. "There's been a lot of Okas since then," he told VICE.

He was at the anti-fracking blockade in Elsipogtog, New Brunswick in the summer and fall of 2013, and he remembers it had the same tone and feeling as the Oka protest. The Mi'kmaq people in Elsipogtog blocked hydraulic fracturing trucks and machinery from entering their territory due to concerns fracking could pollute their land and water.

But Rueben George, member of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation outside Vancouver, British Columbia, believes Oka couldn't happen again in the same way because First Nations like his have public support and legal backing.

Police form a line at a Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline protest. Photo via Flickr user Mark Klotz

Tsleil-Waututh is battling Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline project because a report they commissioned concluded a worst-case oil spill could pollute the Burrard Inlet, kill as many as 500,000 birds and make one million locals sick.

"When we have a cultural, spiritual connection to what we love, we're going to protect it," George said. "Just like everybody has a love for their children, and they'll do anything to protect their children, that's the same way we feel about our lands and our waters."

That's what's happened on the Oka territory, he said.

"For a conflict to happen like Oka, I don't think it would," he said of the Tsleil-Waututh pipeline dispute. "...How it happened in Oka, it wouldn't happen here. With our legal strength of our Canadian Constitution defending our legal rights, we're winning, and I believe we'll win that way."

In 2014, a historic Supreme Court of Canada ruling upheld the Tsilhqot'in First Nation's title rights to 1,700 square kilometres of land in British Columbia. The decision is expected to have legal implications for First Nations from coast to coast.

Oka was one of the darkest moments between the federal government and First Nations in a long time, Tremblay told VICE. He says Canada still needs to learn to honour its treaties with Indigenous communities.

The Oka dispute ended in September of 1990 with the Mohawks surrendering to the Canadian army, which was brought in when the Quebec police couldn't resolve the dispute. The federal government bought the disputed land to prevent the condo and golf course development, but the land was never transferred to the Mohawks.

"What I want Canada to learn, especially on the east coast, is to honour the treaties," Tremblay said. "...We just want the treaties honoured, and we want to get some sort of payback for the land and resources that's been stolen from us."

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