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Oka, Ipperwash, Caledonia — Canada’s tense history with Indigenous blockades

Oka, Ipperwash, Caledonia — Canada’s tense history with Indigenous blockades
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OTTAWA—At the main camp beside the railroad tracks in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory this week, it was a marvel to consider how a cluster of parked vehicles and tents could wreak so much economic and political consternation. Canada’s largest railway is shutting down half its network, and its largest passenger carrier cancelled service nationwide.

Meanwhile, the police — armed since last week with a court injunction to clear the way for train traffic — were barely noticeable, parked in a few cruisers several hundred yards back from the Mohawk blockade.

Now, as the federal government takes steps to address the protest movement that has spread across Canada in support of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs opposing a natural gas pipeline in northern British Columbia, Transport Minister Marc Garneau says there is a reason officials are stressing dialogue over forceful intervention.

History.

“Remember they have to take into account some history here,” Garneau told reporters in Toronto Friday, when asked why provincial authorities haven’t enforced the court injunction to clear the blockade.

“We’re talking about what happened at Ipperwash or Caledonia,” he said. “But the injunctions have to be respected because we are a country of the rule of law.”

The government is in a situation with some precedent, in other words — how to uphold a touchstone of modern democracy when a group of people consider its imposition unjustified, even illegitimate. As Cree pipe-carrier Jocelyn Wabano-Iahtail put it this week at the Tyendinaga blockade: “These invaders are coming to us and speaking to us about colonial rule of law. Those are your laws…Those colonial laws have been imposed on us.”

Here is a look at incidents in Canada’s recent history when this tension flared into conflict — sometimes with deadly consequences.

Oka, 1990

For 78 days in the summer of 1990, the small Quebec town of Oka was the scene of a tense and tragic standoff.

The immediate disagreement involved the Kanesatake Mohawk and the town leadership that wanted to expand a nine-hole golf course and build condos on a tract of disputed land. But the roots of the conflict ran all the way back to the 18th century, when the French government unilaterally awarded a stretch of territory along the Ottawa River to a missionary society.

The golf course was built in 1961, over the objections of local Mohawk who filed an official land claim in 1977. Twelve years later, in 1989, the mayor of Oka announced the course would expand to 18 holes and 60 condominiums by clearing a forest known as “The Pines” and constructing on land that included the Mohawk cemetery.

Beginning in March 1990, a group of Mohawk Warriors from the Kanesatake reserve barricaded the area and were soon joined by others from the Mohawk reserves in Kahnawake and Akwesasne. The mayor of Oka, Jean Ouellette, eventually asked the provincial police force, the Sûreté du Québec, to intervene and clear the protest camp. On July 11, police stormed the barricades with tear gas and concussion grenades. Shots were fired and police Corp. Marcel Lemay was killed.

The skirmish prompted more Indigenous supporters to join the blockade, which spread as police cordoned off roads in the area and nearby Mohawk blocked a major bridge on the Island of Montreal. By the time the standoff ended that September, 2,500 army troops were on standby as hundreds of soldiers took over from provincial police to face down the protesters at the barricades.

Quoted in Maclean’s just days before the standoff ended, George Erasmus, then national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said “This is not the last stand… This could be the first stand.”
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