Oka: A Political Crisis and its Legacy

by Harry Swain, Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver/Toronto 2010

Book Review by Zig Zag, March 2011, WarriorPublications.wordpress.com

What more could be said about the 1990 ‘Oka Crisis’ thirty years after the fact? Quite a bit apparently, at least if you were one of the Queen’s henchmen. Harry Swain was a long-time government bureaucrat with the Department of Indian Affairs, and from 1987 to 1992 was deputy minister of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC, the current version of DIA). While there are many accounts of that summer’s standoff, most have been written by journalists. Swain is the first senior government official closely involved in managing the dispute to write an account from the state’s perspective.

Swain is fairly well informed on many aspects of Indigenous people’s histories and social conditions, at least compared to such fools as The Globe and Mail’s Christie Blatchford. Swain’s got the most current spellings for tribal nations and some understanding of, for example, Haudenosaunee forms of decision-making and social organization. At times he’s even sympathetic to the injustices suffered by Indigenous peoples and their view of the state as an oppressive institution (he frequently refers to the Surete du Quebec police as a prime example of this). But it’s very clear that Swain is writing from the perspective of state power, one engaged in an armed conflict with Indigenous peoples during the summer months of 1990 (he has great praise for the Canadian Forces, for example, while continually slandering the Warriors and dismissing ideas of Indigenous sovereignty as outlandish).

Following a brief historical introduction to the Haudenosaunee-British-Canada relations and the land at Kahnesatake/Oka, the action really begins with Chapter 4: “Anarchy at Akwesasne,” where community factions warred over the presence of casinos and tobacco smuggling. Located on the borders of Ontario, Quebec, and New York, Akwesasne is ideally situated for exploiting the state borders for economic gain. It is also, ironically, policed by at least five different law enforcement agencies. As deputy minister of DIA at the time, Swain provides some insight into the level of military force mobilized for Akwesasne and the role of DIA in such situations:

“On April 26 [1990], the prime minister formally instructed the Canadian Forces to prepare to assist the three Canadian police forces: the Ontario Provincial Police, the Surete du Quebec and the RCMP. The critical assumptions regarding the role of the forces were that they would assit the law enforcement agencies with equipment and logistics… Two DIAND officers, Gordon Shanks and Mike Phillips, had been on the spot since 1:45 that morning, helping to coordinate assistance among the federal agencies and Akwesasne Mohawks” (Oka, pp. 58-59).

At this time also, according to Swain, soldiers from the 2nd Combat Engineer Regiment wearing civilian clothing began reconnaissance of Akwesasne for possible military deployment. The Canadian Forces also increased their aerial surveillance of Kahnawake and Kanesatake, “incorporating these communities into their contingency planning.”

Swain also states that the military were tracking the situation at Kanesatake when it was still in a protest phase because of the situation in Akwesasne:

“From then on, they had kept a close eye on Kanesatake, and from July 11 on they had been actively, though quietly, providing equipment to the SQ. By the time the formal requisition [for military assistance] came from the Quebec government,a good deal of planning and forethought had already gone into the exercise…” (Oka, p. 132).

In regards to Oka, Swain gives an indication of the level of involvement DIAND/INAC has in counter-insurgency operations as a tremendous source of intelligence on Indigenous communities and individuals:

“In brief, we knew from both DIAND and police sources that Kanesatake had seen an infiltration of Warriors, mostly from Akwesasne, but in some cases from Kahnawake and Tyendinaga… The department also knew the history of the land dispute at Kanesatake, the fractiousness of the community, and its inability to make decisions, the nature of the several governance systems operating simultaneously in the community, and the key players. The RCMP was the principal source of intelligence about the arms, boats and communications gear of the Warriors. The identities of the masked and nicknamed warriors were initially unknown to us, but that did not last for long” (Oka, p. 112).

Aside from intelligence, another aspect of INAC not often appreciated is its role in government propaganda regarding Indigenous peoples:

“Throughout the process, both DND [Department of National Defence] and DIAND communications staff worked hard to tell the story as best they knew it… We supported  several of our ministers and Defence with factual background briefs, most of which were promptly made public.  DIAND’s job… was to tell the government’s side of the story all across the country… For both departments, there was a constraint not operating on the Warrior side: the need to stick to the truth—at least more or less. Countering misinformation, indeed disinformation… was a constant issue” (Oka, p. 194).

Swain reveals other interesting facts about the military deployment itself. According to Swain, Leopard tanks were brought in by the military in order to clear obstacles and barricades (though they were not used). In addition, 500 troops were stationed in the Montreal area as a ‘rapid reaction force’ after the end of the standoff on September 27, 1990, at the request of the provincial government.  Quebec did not formally withdraw the requisition until May 1991, meaning units were retained on standby until that time.

Swain’s strongest bias is against the Warriors.  He reveals how he was the main source of the media story that the Mohawk Warriors were a criminal organization, and a central theme of his book is that many of the Warriors from Akwesasne went to Kanehsatake following gun battles and a police occupation in the Spring of 1990 (the ‘civil war’ between pro and anti-gambling factions, which left two Mohawks dead). At Kanehsatake, they hi-jacked the struggle for the defence of land and turned it into an armed confrontation, according to Swain.

“When the crisis at Akwesasne ended in blood, tears and a substantial police occupation,a number of Warriors found it expedient to answer a call to defend Mohawk land rights some distance away. Suddenly a pulse of well-armed young men with little local knowledge but a substantial political agenda began filtering into Kanehsatake” (Oka, pp. 75-76).

Another example of the cheap shots Swain uses:

“The Mohawks who had seized the Mercier Bridge at Kahnawake that morning were joined by Warriors from Kahnawake, in an apparent case of “I must hasten after them, for I am their leader” (Oka, pp. 86-86).

If the Warriors were simple criminal opportunists seeking to escape the ‘wrath of the law’, it seems illogical that they would travel to another community and engage in a siege in which they would be immediately surrounded, facing even greater fire-power than was deployed during police operations in Akwesasne. In addition, fighters from Akwesasne were only one group, as others came from Ganienkeh, Kahnawake, Tyendinaga, and Six Nations (as well as Miq’maw from Nova Scotia, Anicinabe, Algonquin, etc.). The lack of material gain and the greater threat faced at Kanesatake by armed warriors itself contradicts the claims made by Swain (and others) that the Warriors were simply a criminal organization.

Swain, who claims to have attended a ceremony at Oneida and was then inspired to write the book, ends with a rather remarkable statement:

“It can be confidently predicted that similar long-standing disputes [as Oka]… will turn violent. In this post-9/11 world, there will be a temptation to brand the insurgents as terrorists. They are not. They are merely people who did not have the defences, military or microbial, to resist the European onslaught. Their collective grief will not be assuaged, but it can be respected, as can the letter of the historic promises” (Oka, p. 206).

It is remarkable because one of the main instigators of the slandering of the Warriors was Swain himself, as part of a state propaganda campaign that ultimately sought to legitimize the use of lethal force against them. On the other hand, it is not so remarkable as Swain maintains the paternalistic attitude that is characteristic of DIA as a whole: Natives are “merely people” who barely survived the European onslaught, please don’t mind the masks and assaults rifles… and when’s that next Royal Con-Mission?

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Posted on March 28, 2011, in Counter-Insurgency, Decolonization, Defending Territory, Review and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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