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Barry Bonspille

JULY 7, 1999

Oka's real symbol is a simple grave

By Roy MacGregor
In Kanesatake,Que.

Up here on the hill, with only the high white pines for an umbrella, Leroy Gabriel has no idea that, in the end, he won.

His 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, wet day.

This 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.

Leroy 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.

It 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.

The 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 disputed territory.

Leroy 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.

There 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."

But 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.

"There 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 someone.

"We 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."

The 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 his home.

The 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.

The 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 of government.

"It's kind of ironic," says Mr. Bonspille, "but the thing we fought for in 1990 is last on the list of priorities."

There 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.

Mr. 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."

Many, 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.

"If they really believe it's not smuggling," chides Mr. Bonspille, "why do they hide it?"

Mr. 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.

But 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.

"Some people," he says, "just revel in it."

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.

Those 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.

There 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.

But 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.

"If people put something up," he says, "someone will just knock it down."

And 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 pines.

"This is a graveyard," Mr. Bonspille says. "No one will desecrate anything in here. "

No one would dare."

Montreal Gazette


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