real symbol is a simple grave
here on the hill, with only the high white pines for an umbrella,
Leroy Gabriel has no idea that, in the end, he won.
grave lies on the very ground that once was to become a golf
course, but instead of a pin here there is an antler stuck
into the grass. From the antler hangs a small carved eagle,
symbol of wisdom, of knowledge, of truth -- and high above,
hammered into two of the magnificent white pines, two tattered
warrior flags swing softly in the eerie still of a muggy,
weekend, nine years to the day after the 78-day Oka standoff began
over this cemetery and the golf course that lies just beyond the
trees, a powwow will be held on the lush Mohawk land that lies to
the west of Montreal. They will call a special dawn ceremony to
remind each other of that 1990 battle that both captivated and terrified
the nation and still stirs the locals today.
Gabriel was a warrior, one who stood with "Lasagna" and "Spudwrench"
and several dozen others who kept their faces behind bandanas and
their weapons visible to all as they stared down this same hill
at the Canadian army for more than two months. It was as close to
civil war as this peaceful country has come in modern times.
began over a botched police raid to put an end to a blockade the
Mohawks had erected to keep the golf course bulldozers at bay. Before
July 11, 1990 was over, one Sûreté du Québec officer was dead, the
pines and nearby lacrosse box were riddled with bullets and police
cars were burning along Highway 344. It ended in exhaustion in late
September, with promises to fix what could be fixed and punish those
who should be punished. As with most such political promises, the
distance between cup and sip proved too great a distance, at times,
to bridge completely.
Mohawk held the ground that was to be turned into golf course as
sacred. For more than a hundred years, they claimed their people
had been buried there. The deep wood, back of the highway they argued,
was theirs for future burial, not the village of Oka's for a back
nine. Once the standoff was over, the government said it would move
as quickly as it could toward giving the Mohawks control of the
Gabriel, unfortunately, could not wait. He never recovered from
his weeks as a warrior. He drank far too much and, eventually, an
accident with a hunting rifle ended his pain before he'd reached
the age of 30. His friends, warriors and non-warriors, decided to
act without waiting for any government permission and they brought
him here, wrapped him in buckskin, and gave poor Leroy a traditional
Mohawk burial beneath the very pines he had fought for: victory
his, forever and ever.
are now 10 graves in the disputed area. The land has been handed
over to the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake for control, but never
in deed, much to the disappointment of many natives in the area.
The municipality of Oka received $230,000 for the property, even
though Mohawks still claim the land never belonged to Oka in the
first place and had no need to be "purchased."
it is theirs now, for keeps, and is now cleared, beautifully kept,
carefully gardened and passionately guarded. Woe be with the outsider
who dares enter without first asking permission. And even then visitors
are asked not to "get too close" to the gravesite of Leroy Gabriel,
hero to many, troublemaker to many -- for the winds of Oka have
never stopped blowing through this spectacular plot of land they
call the Pines.
are still growing pains," says Barry Bonspille, who works for the
Kanesatake Mohawk Roundtable and lives only a few houses from where
the battle took place. His home was virtually destroyed by vandals,
but has since been rebuilt and refurbished. Even so, hardly a day
goes by that the events of the summer of 1990 are not recalled by
get along fairly well with the town now," says Mr. Bonspille. "But
there's still a feeling that efforts were made to appease the town."
town got money for the land. Town businesses received some compensation.
A new ferry was put into service, the waterfront improved, and the
exquisite local park improved. Native businesses received nothing
for their losses. Mr. Bonspille paid out of his own pocket to repair
surface changes in Kanesatake have been vast, council is now elected
(James Gabriel, Leroy's cousin, is now grand chief), the policing
is all native and municipal employment has mushroomed since the
Mohawks moved into delivering their own programs, but the issues
raised by Oka are always simmering in the background.
Mohawk community counts some 1,800 members, yet only 500-600 live
in Kanesatake while the remainder are off-reserve, with full voting
privileges. Since the majority does not actually live there, the
political issues appear to be all about such matters as children's
education and taxation, yet those who do live there continue to
demand that land settlement be the priority. The fight over the
cemetery lands is only a small portion of a larger claim that involves
lands from Mirabel to Montreal itself, but that claim, like all
land claims, moves at a glacial pace through the various levels
kind of ironic," says Mr. Bonspille, "but the thing we fought for
in 1990 is last on the list of priorities."
are no bandanas in sight these days and no felled pines and burning
cars and raised rifles, but there are, indeed, still warriors about.
To many, they remain the great heroes of 1990; to many more, they
have become an unfortunate symbol that refuses to vanish.
Bonspille is no fan of them. "They think they're God's gift to the
people," he says. He resents the fact that so many of them were
not even from Kanesatake and came in 1990, he believes, because
it gave them a chance "to stick a gun in someone's face and get
away with it. The pretense was to defend the land, but they vandalized
the people's homes."
like Mr. Bonspille, believe some of today's warriors use their reputation
and their stated belief in the Great Law as "a front." While they
pretend to be interested mainly in protecting Mohawk land, the real
interest of this minority is in illegal activities, everything from
drugs to cigarette smuggling.
they really believe it's not smuggling," chides Mr. Bonspille, "why
do they hide it?"
Bonspille, a historian, believes that the people have chosen the
wrong heroes when they look to the 1990 warriors and the Oka standoff
for inspiration. He would prefer they study the earlier history
of this settlement and the work of Mohawk Joseph Swan, who was sent
to France to study for the priesthood and who returned to lead his
people in a revolution that involved larger skirmishes and far more
astounding issues. It was illegal in the 1860s, Mr. Bonspille points
out, for a Mohawk to gather firewood. The white villagers felt winter
warmth was their privilege, not the natives'. Mr. Swan gave them
back the right to winter warmth.
there are no photographs from those times, no television images,
no warriors still driving about with their cocky ways and powerful
rhetoric. He knows that it will be decades before the events of
1990 are ever seen in a more reflective, less passionate light.
people," he says, "just revel in it."
will happen again this weekend. There will be talk about the Oka
standoff and some will say it accomplished a great deal and others
will say it accomplished little. Those who believe it counted for
something significant will point to the extended graveyard and the
golf course that has been halted at nine holes and they will even
say that the events of Oka have caused the provincial government
to begin to accept, even if begrudgingly, an accused's right to
have his or her day in court in the language of his or her choice.
who say it counted for little will point to the continuing unemployment
and poverty, the lack of progress with the larger land issues and
the fact that other people remember only the warriors, not the elders
who spoke of the sacred ground or the children who wished to continue
playing something other than golf on it.
will be talk, once again, of erecting some memorial to this profound
moment in Canadian history. Some will say there should be a monument
in the pines. Some will say there needs to be a plaque along the
hill where the barricade went up.
Barry Bonspille expects nothing to come of such talk -- simply because
for every side that is strongly held around here, there is another
side equally strongly held.
people put something up," he says, "someone will just knock it down."
that's why, for those who know, the real symbol that matters is
Leroy Gabriel's final victory: the simple grave, the antler, the
carved eagle and the warrior flags blowing high above in the white
is a graveyard," Mr. Bonspille says. "No one will desecrate anything
in here. "
one would dare."