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July 11 2010 marks the 20th anniversary of the Oka Crisis.  The Quebec crisis pitted the Mohawk community of Kanesatake against the Francophone community of Oka over the expansion of a municipal golf course onto Mohawk burial grounds.

After a year of unsuccessful attempts at reaching resolution through the courts, the Mohawk set up barricades and occupied the burial grounds.  The conflict that arose resulted in a 78 day stand-off between the Mohawk, the Sûreté du Québec and the Canadian military.  On July 11th riot police stormed the occupation, resulting in the death of police officer Marcel Lemay.

Remembering this event provides an important opportunity to reflect on how Canada, Canadians and Aboriginal people engage with each other and each other’s past.

CBC Radio’s C’est La Vie, which focuses on life in French-speaking Canada, ran a powerful documentary on the Oka Crisis three weeks ago.  The short twenty minute piece focuses of Francine Lemay, sister of the slain officer, and her efforts over the past two decades to learn, understand and reconcile the issues that led to her brother’s death.

In addition to Lemay’s story, the documentary also emphasizes the important role community history plays in helping to balance the silences in more official narratives of the past.  Her story highlights the need for understanding the historical context of Aboriginal land claims and the tensions that can develop when the desires of the present are taken into account without due consideration to past relationships and context.

History and historians have an important role during these conflicts.  Few land claims are new and, much to my surprise when I started researching the eighteenth-century history of another Aboriginal community along the St. Lawrence, many of these claims have been made more-or-less consistently for over a century (in many cases two or three!).

Alanis Obomsawim’s Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance tells some of the broader stories of the Oka Crisis.  Her documentary helps to contextualize the tensions of the conflict and illustrate the long and complicated history of the Kanesatake Mohawk.

The history in Obomsawim’s film shares many similarities with the history of other First Nation communities along the St. Lawrence River.  Kahnawaké began to complain of settler encroachment on its land in the 1750s, during the French Regime.  They had their claims acknowledged by the British in the 1760s, but continued to be challenged by illegal settlement on their land.  Similar issues developed in Odenak (also known as Saint-Francois) and Wendaké (formerly known as Jeune-Lorette or Nouvelle-Lorette) in the late-1760s and 1770s; they continued throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  Many of these early claims resonate with the issues that sparked Oka (and continue to be an issue there).

Although discussing another province, Christopher Moore’s recent essay on the Six Nation’s land claim in Caledonia, Ontario serves as an important model for how historians can contribute to this discussion.  Moore’s argument draws together the local situation in Caledonia, the history of Six Nation land claims in Ontario, and the more recent history of land claims in British Columbia to suggest that following B.C.’s lead could be beneficial for all of the parties involved in Ontario.

J.R. Miller’s recent Compact, Contract, Covenant: Aboriginal Treaty-Making in Canada also makes a significant contribution.  This book helps to situate events like the Oka Crisis in the national context of Canadian-Aboriginal relations.  Miller distinguishes between the differing ways in which Europeans and Aboriginal people engaged with each other across Canada.  Most importantly, he demonstrates how the treaties and agreements negotiated over the past three centuries form a critical foundation for the development of the Canadian state.  His discussion of Kanesatake (pp. 241-244) also shows how particular conceptions of the Canadian state shaped Canada’s approach to First Nations people.

The tensions that sparked the Oka Crisis in 1990, and how it has been interpreted, were deeply rooted in the past.  July 11 provides an opportunity for reflection.  It is not only an appropriate time to think about the events that transpired during the summer of 1990, but also why it happened.  Recent events have demonstrated that there are important lessons to be learned from this dark chapter in Canadian history.

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