I think I first became aware of the 1990 standoff between Mohawk people and authorities in Oka, Quebec, not through U.S. media, but through Steve Earle, who spoke of the confrontation in concerts and interviews. Ol’ Steve was a terrible mess back then, but he did have a heart for the underdog, a large and passionate fan base in Canada and fans and friends among the Mohawks.
The Mohawk Super Bingo Hall website notes that:
Steve Earle performed two shows here on July 30, 1990, during the height of the Oka Crisis. He had to be smuggled through the barricades, and since his band was not able to get in as well, he played acoustic sets accompanied by Kahnawake musicians.
Bryan Deer recalls:
“Since we started, K103 always played a certain song, Copperhead Road by Steve Earle. That’s because he dedicated that to the men who stood up and to the community, he did a concert during 1990 at the Bingo Hall. He dedicated that song to us and played it at a concert a week later when he was in Buffalo,” Deer said.
I’m embarrassed to say that most of what I know about the Oka Crisis revolves around Steve Earle’s tangential involvement. That really needed to be unassed.
There’s a new feature movie titled Beans by Mohawk filmmaker Tracey Deer that is set during the conflict.
Twelve-year-old Beans is on the edge: torn between innocent childhood and reckless adolescence; forced to grow up fast and become the tough Mohawk warrior she needs to be during the Oka Crisis, the turbulent Indigenous uprising that tore Quebec and Canada apart for 78 tense days in the summer of 1990.
This project goes back a long way for me. I was Beans. I was twelve-years-old when I lived through an armed stand-off between my people and the Quebec and Canadian governments known as The Oka Crisis. The Mohawk Nation of Kanesatake and Kahnawà:ke stood up to a formidable bully — and won. That summer I knew I wanted to become a filmmaker and vowed to one day tell this story.
I figured I ought to know more about the incident than I do, so I went out on the hunt and found an award-winning documentary from 1993.
In July 1990, a dispute over a proposed golf course to be built on Kanien’kéhaka (Mohawk) lands in Oka, Quebec, set the stage for a historic confrontation that would grab international headlines and sear itself into the Canadian consciousness. Director Alanis Obomsawin—at times with a small crew, at times alone—spent 78 days behind Kanien’kéhaka lines filming the armed standoff between protestors, the Quebec police and the Canadian army. Released in 1993, this landmark documentary has been seen around the world, winning over a dozen international awards and making history at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it became the first documentary ever to win the Best Canadian Feature award. Jesse Wente, Director of Canada’s Indigenous Screen Office, has called it a “watershed film in the history of First Peoples cinema.”
One man was killed in the standoff, on the first day of armed confrontation.The death of provincial police officer Cpl. Marcel Lemay raised the stakes and was nothing but a tragedy. By all accounts, he was a good man, who left a young family. He was killed enacting a policy he did not create.
Coroner Guy Gilbert determined that a Mohawk rifleman killed the officer. His report stated that:
“…the AK-47 assault rifle that fired the shot which killed Cpl. Marcel Lemay, July 11, 1990 was held by a Mohawk Warrior whose intention was to kill. The round could in no way have come from the officer’s own weapon or from another officer’s gun. At least six warriors in the woods that day had weapons that could have fired the shot, but the coroner was unable to identify the shooter.”
Ms. Lemay, who is married and the mother of two grown children, says that at times she is overcome with sadness — especially for her brother’s two daughters, Catherine and Claudia, who grew up without their father. Catherine was two years old when her father was killed. Claudia was born after he died.
“Sometimes the whole thing overwhelms me,” Ms. Lemay said at her dining room table, covered with documents recalling the Oka crisis, including a scrapbook brimming with newspaper clippings on a standoff that kept a nation holding its breath during the long, hot summer of 1990.
“But you have to hold out your hand. You have to move on,” she says. “It’s the only way to hold hope in the future.”