The Oka Crisis


In selecting a Canadian “moment that matters” it was important to us that our chosen event had a global significance, was definitively Canadian, and had an impact upon the future of Canada. After gauging this selection criteria, we decided upon The Oka Crisis, which was a standoff between Mohawk protestors, the Quebec police force and the Canadian army. As laid out in the following post, The Oka Crisis, which occurred in Oka Quebec on July 11th, 1990, is a critical moment to examine as it highlighted relationships between aboriginals and government, brought awareness to Indigenous rights and their claims for land, and set forth future activist movements on both a local and international scale. Although the event only lasted three months, it’s impacts, both negative and positive, were long-term and influential. From those who were directly involved, to those who witnessed the events unfold on a television screen, the 1990 Oka Crisis is a moment that truly matters in Canadian history.


To understand the events that unfolded in the summer of 1990, it is necessary to examine the historical and contemporary relationship between the Mohawks, of what is now known as Montreal, and the European settlers. Tensions between these two groups began in the late 17th and early 18th century, as the Seminary of St. Sulpice, a French Roman Catholic order, was tasked by King Louis XV of France to relocate and evangelize Mohawk, Algonquin and Nipissing tribes that were occupying the lands of Montreal.[i] The relocation of these nations ultimately occurred in 1721 after lands near the Lake of Two-Mountains in Kanehsatake, now known as Oka, were granted to the St. Sulpice mission. The Mohawk accepted the relocation of their tribe on the assumption that they would be given ownership to their newly acquired territory, however the King of France ultimately gave land rights to the St. Sulpice mission who proceeded to sell the land to European settlers.[ii]

Continuous attempts were made by the Mohawk to gain legal land ownership during the pre-Confederation era, specifically in the years of 1794, 1802, 1818, 1828, and 1859, as well as in the post-Confederation era, in 1868, 1881, 1910 and 1975.[iii] Unfortunately, each of these attempts were met with disappointment as the settler-colonial government continuously stood by the claims that the land belonged to the St. Sulpice mission. In 1945, the remaining 1,556 acres were sold to the government, who claimed it would be held for the “…sole use and benefits of the Mohawks…”.[iv] However, the federal government did no such thing and continued to silence the voices of Mohawk contesters.[v]

The Mohawk Warrior Society Flag

Tensions between the Indigenous defendants and the Canadian government escalated very quickly in the late 20th century. In 1970, several Mohawks united to create the Mohawk Warrior Society whose “…objective was to repossess and protect Kanehsatake territories…”.[vi] In 1977, the Society’s efforts were rejected by the federal government who stated “…the claimants did not assert that they were the sole or even dominant people there [at Kanehsatake] at the time [in the 17th century] …”.[vii] One year later, members of the Mohawk Warrior Society confronted three police officers who were patrolling Kanehsatake. These policemen felt threatened and ultimately killed one of the warriors.[viii] Tensions were higher than ever before, and when the municipal government announced that they were expanding a Golf Club which would encroach drastically into the sacred pine forest where Indigenous burial grounds were located, the Mohawk community decided that they could no longer endure this maltreatment. Various individuals decided to unite and resist the government’s continuous repression. As one member of the Kanehsatake community states:

The whole village was built on Indian land. They used and enjoyed our forest land, too. We welcomed them. Then they wanted to add an extra nine holes to their private golf course by cutting down the sacred pine forest we planted, and where our Ancient burial grounds are located. This was too much to swallow and we refused to let our dead be disturbed or to let them use the hand for that selfish purpose.[ix]


To resist the expansion of the Pines Golf Course and the destruction of their burial grounds, the people of Kanesatake united with members of the Kahnawake and Akwesasne communities to construct a barricade which blocked access to this land.[x] As the protestors refused to move, despite various injunctions, the Sûreté du Québec (SQ) was ordered to intervene.[xi] This intervention immediately resulted in violence and aggression as the SQ threw tear gas and concussion grenades on the morning of July 11, 1990 to attack the protestors. It is unclear who fired first, but a gunfight occurred between both sides which resulted in the death of an SQ Corporal Marcel Lemay.[xii] This violence, aggression and loss of life only marked the beginning of the crisis.

The Oka Barricade

After this conflict, the Kanesatake protestors created more barricades by pushing abandoned police vehicles into place. However, these barricades were no longer only blocking the golf course, they now blocked Montreal’s main highway; the 344.[xiii] The Kahnawake protestors also blockaded the Mercier Bridge which cut off access between the Island of Montreal and the city’s heavily populated South Shore suburbs.[xiv] In response to the Mohawk’s growing defense, the SQ also built their own barricade on the same highway to restrict access to Oka and Kanesatake.[xv] It was these barricades that gained attention and created anger amongst the local population.

As their access to the roads and entire cities were blocked, the civilians of Oka grew frustrated and demanded action to be made. Approximately 1,400 local residents attended a meeting at the Châteauguay city council on August 7 and argued that security forces should be sent to reopen the blockaded Mercier Bridge.[xvi] When no satisfactory action was made, several angry civilians united to occupy the Saint-Louis-De-Gonzague Bridge in protest against the barricade on the Mercier Bridge.[xvii] Due to the public’s growing discontent and the Mohawk perseverance, on August 12, negotiations between Indigenous and government representatives occurred at the Trappist monastery in Oka.[xviii] However, despite the growing conversation and dialogue between both parties, the Canadian government brought in approximately 800 members of the Royal 22e Regiment to assume position only meters away from the Mohawk barricades.[xix] With the government’s imposition of the Canadian armed forces and their ultimate refusal of Mohawk sovereignty, tensions and frustration increased dramatically.

“Face to Face”

Several attacks began to be implemented by angry mobs of civilians against the Mohawk protestors on Mercier Bridge. The army continued to stand their ground and by August, reconnaissance aircrafts began to circle the protestors. It was on August 29, under these intense pressures, that the Kahnawake protestors agreed to dismantle their barricade on the Mercier Bridge.[xx] However, the Kanehsatake protestors at the Oka barricade continued to protest. At this site, they created a curtain to hide themselves behind, making it more difficult for the army to watch over them. As a response, the soldiers harassed the warriors by hosing them with high-pressured water.[xxi] On September 26, after a standoff that lasted 78 days, the people of Kanesatake stepped down, dismantled their guns and surrendered. As a consensus, the government agreed to purchase the Pines to prevent further development of the Golf course, however they did not give landownership to the Kanesatake community.[xxii] Instead, the government fined many of the Indigenous protestors, convicted five of criminal charges, and sentenced one individual to jail.[xxiii] By no means was this a victory for the Kanesatake Indigenous peoples.


The Oka Crisis, also known to some by its more empowering title, The Kenesatake Resistance, was not a static event. It opened a dialogue and sparked other movements. The Oka Crisis is significant to Canada’s current state of Indigenous relations and is even relevant globally.

The 78-day standoff brought much needed attention to the conditions of First Nations peoples in Canada. It started a real dialogue between Indigenous peoples and the Canadian Government about land claims. The crisis represented a turning point: First Nations people in Canada would no longer be silent; it was time for Indigenous issues to be addressed:

The Crisis marked a turning point in public awareness of First Nations, who went from being “vanishing people” to a political force to be reckoned with, said Sarah Henzi, a sessional instructor in First Nations studies at the University of British Columbia.[xxiv]

By no means were all issues of land claims and Indigenous people’s treatment resolved after Oka. There continues to be a great need for this dialogue. The current Grand Chief of Kanehsatake states that: “Oka is what happens when dialogue stops.”[xxv] But since The Oka Crisis of 1990, there has been an increase in legislation that protects First Nations resources and land like the 2002 Paix des Braves between the Quebec Government and the Grand Council of the Crees, which mandates resource sharing between the two parties.[xxvi]

Idle No More in Victoria, BC

Because it was so prominent in the media, The Oka Crisis inspired other movements in Canada and across the world. In Canada it sparked movements like Idle No More, a grassroots protest initiative, started by four women activists, Nina Wilson, Sheelah Mclean, Sylvia McAdam, and Jessica Gordon, to address Indigenous issues in Canada. Oka also inspired the demands for a federal inquiry into the missing and murdered aboriginal women in British Columbia. On a global scale, Professor Marcelo Saavedra-Vargas from the University of Ottawa states that “…the indigenous social movements in Bolivia, which ended up brining an indigenous person to the presidency, were also inspired by the Oka events…”.[xxvi]

Although many positive outcomes and progress have emerged from the events of Oka 1990, there is still a lot of trauma in the community from the crisis. It has taken an entire generation to recover from the events of Oka, and the community continues to be in a process of healing.


The 1990 Oka Crisis was not only representative of the modern conflicts between the Mohawks of Kanehsatake and the Canadian government, but also of their historical relationship. The Crisis embodies the difficult and tumultuous dynamic Indigenous individuals have endured with the non-Indigenous populations throughout time. The Oka Crisis vocalized this marginalization and illustrated that the socio-political system in place was not working. The aggression and violence of this event brought the public’s eye to the small Quebec region of Oka, but more importantly it created discourse regarding Canadian-Indigenous relations that were historically disregarded. This brief moment had deep seeded historical roots and has had a continuous impact. Together, the context, event, and significance of the 1990 Oka Crisis illustrate that the 78-day conflict is an important moment that matters in Canadian history.

End Notes

[i] “Oka Timeline: An Unresolved Land Claim Hundreds of Years in the Making,” CBC, last modified September 23, 2017,

[ii] Harry Swain, Oka: A Political Crisis and its Legacy (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2010), 17.

[iii] Émilie Guilbeault-Cayer, La Crise d’Oka: Au-Delà des Barricades (Québec: Éditions du Septentrion, 2013), 22.

[iv] Swain, 23.

[v] Swain, 23.

[vi] “Oka Timeline: An Unresolved Land Claim Hundreds of Years in the Making.”

[vii] Swain, 30.

[viii] “La Crise d’Oka: 11 Juillet 1990”, La Chaîne du Québec,, published on November 22 2013, accessed April 3 2018.

[ix] Craig MacLaine and Michael S. Baxendale, This Land is Our Land: The Mohawk Revolt at Oka (Montreal: Optimum Publishing International Inc., 1991), 26.

[x] Tabitha Marshall, “Oka Crisis,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, last modified July 15, 2014,

[xi] Marshal, Oka Crisis.

[xii] Swain, 82.

[xiii] Marshal, Oka Crisis.

[xiv] André Pichard, “Oka residents flee, fear battle looming,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto, ON), August 8, 1990.

[xv] Marshal, Oka Crisis.

[xvi] Pichard, “Oka residents flee, fear battle looming.”

[xvii] John Mahoney, “Memories of Oka,” Montreal Gazette, (Montreal: Quebec), July 13, 2010.

[xviii] Swain, 125.

[xix] Marshal, Oka Crisis.

[xx] Marshal, Oka Crisis.

[xxi] Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, directed by Alanis Obomsawin (1993; Montreal, QC: National Film Board of Canada, 2006), DVD.

[xxii] Marshal, Oka Crisis.

[xxiii] Swain, 155.

[xxiv] Scott, Marian, “Revisiting the Pines: Oka’s Legacy,” Montreal Gazette (Montreal: Quebec), 10 July 2015.

[xxv] Valiante Giuseppe, and Peter Rakobowchuk, “Oka Crisis Inspired Dialogue on Indigenous Awareness,” last modified July 7, 2015.

[xxvi] “Grand Council of the Crees,” GCC, last modified March 2018,


Baxendale, Michael S and MacLaine, Craig.  This Land is Our Land: The Mohawk Revolt at Oka. Montreal: Optimum Publishing International Inc., 1991.

“Grand Council of the Crees.” GCC. Last modified March 2018.

Guilbeault-Cayer, Émilie. La Crise d’Oka: Au-Delà des Barricades. Québec: Éditions du Septentrion, 2013.

“La Crise d’Oka: 11 Juillet 1990.” La Chaîne du Québec. Published on November 22 2013. Accessed April 3 2018.

Mahoney, James. “Memories of Oka.” Montreal Gazette (Montreal, Quebec), July 13, 2010.

Marian, Scott, “Revisiting the Pines: Oka’s Legacy.” Montreal Gazette (Montreal: Quebec), July 10 2015.

Marshall, Tabitha. “Oka Crisis” last modified July 12, 2013.

Obomsawin, Alanis, dir. Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance. 1993; Montreal, QC: National Film Board of Canada, 2006. DVD.

“Oka Timeline: An Unresolved Land Claim Hundreds of Years in the Making.” CBC. Last modified September 23, 2017.

Pichard, André. “Oka residents flee, fear battle looming.” The Globe and Mail (Toronto, ON), August 8, 1990.

Rakobowchuk, Peter and Giuseppe, Valiante. “25 Years on, Legacy of Oka Crisis Is Deeper Understanding of Land Claims | CBC News.” last modified July 17, 2015.

Swain, Harry. Oka: A Political Crisis and its Legacy. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2010.

Media Sources

“Oka Timeline: An Unresolved Land Claim Hundreds of Years in the Making.” CBC. Last modified September 23, 2017.

“The Mohawk Warrior Society” Indian Country Today. Last Modified 2018.

Wurst, Bonnie. “Oka Crisis: Part Two?” last modified August 14, 2017.





















Blog authors are solely responsible for the content of the blogs listed in the directory. Neither the content of these blogs, nor the links to other web sites, are screened, approved, reviewed or endorsed by McGill University. The text and other material on these blogs are the opinion of the specific author and are not statements of advice, opinion, or information of McGill.