20 Years After the Oka Crisis
My Journey to Reconciliation

Before the Oka Crisis, I knew almost nothing about the Indians. The words “Natives” and “First Nations” were not part of my vocabulary, as was the case for many Quebecers. My knowledge was limited to what my schoolbook Histoire du Canada had taught me: that the Hurons were the “good Indians”, allied with the French, and the Iroquois, allies of the English, were the “bad Indians.” There was also the story of the Lachine massacre and of Dollard des Ormeaux, who had perished with many other courageous soldiers at Fort Long Sault and the terrifying pictures of the Jesuit fathers Jogues, Lalemant, de Brébeuf and Goupil tied to a post and being consumed by fire.

Tragedy in the pines

On July 11, 1990, a tragic and life-shattering event only reinforced my negative perception of the Iroquois. I received a phone call from a family member telling me that my younger brother Marcel, at the time a corporal with the Sûreté du Québec and member of the Groupe tactique d’intervention (SWAT team), had been killed by gunfire at Oka during a police raid. I couldn’t believe it; I was appalled. I knew nothing of what had been happening in Kanehsatake in the last months, or rather in the last centuries. All I knew was that I had lost my brother in a gunfire exchange because of barricades the Mohawks had erected and that the police had been ordered to dismantle. A bold 31-year-old man, Marcel, the only one to lose his life in this confrontation, left behind a grieving family: his wife, pregnant with their second child, his 2-year-old daughter, his mother, three brothers and two sisters, as well as colleagues who were in a state of shock.

For months, the media talked only about the events surrounding the crisis that was to last 78 days. Striking pictures in the papers only worsened the situation and the public’s perception of Indians, mine included. Nightmares of Indians destroying houses and killing Whites disrupted my sleep. I was unaware of the nature of the claims, which consisted of a golf course the mayor of Oka wanted to enlarge by taking land from the Mohawk cemetery and the pine area. As a “good Christian”, I suppressed all the negative thoughts besetting me in order to “forgive” the one who had killed my brother. My forgiveness, however, was merely intellectual, superficial. It certainly rested on a basic Christian principle, but it was not heartfelt. Moreover, all kinds of racist propaganda and biased information had managed to firmly implant in me prejudices which I kept to myself.

Discovery of a new world

Fourteen years went by when, one day,  two students working for the McGill University community radio called me and asked to meet with me for an interview on my views of the Oka Crisis. Hesitant and with my heart pounding, I asked them to give me three days to think about it. I had thought this chapter of my life behind me. Immediately, I called Céline Bastien-Genest, a friend of  mine who was taking courses on Native culture and on the Mohawk language, to ask her some questions concerning “Indians” in general.

Noticing my ignorance and wanting to inform me on the specific history of the Mohawks of Kanehsatake, Céline lent me a book titled At the Woods’Edge. Thirsty to learn more about these people and the circumstances which had led to the Oka Crisis, I devoured the book in a matter of days. Another side to the story unfolded and I was deeply moved in learning of the deception, the exploitation, the injustice and the forced removals the people had endured. I knew prior to this that there existed two interpretations to the history of Canada: the one told by the English Canadians and the one told by French Canadians.  I had just discovered a third point of view: the one told by the Aboriginal people.

My First Contact with Mohawk People

The following Sunday, the greeter at the church I was attending in the West Island of Montreal asked me to replace her, to which I agreed. I knew that my friend, Céline, had invited a group of Native people working on the translation of the Bible into the Mohawk language, project in which she also participated, to present the project to the church . When they arrived, I inexplicably felt a tightness in my chest. Not letting on to how I was feeling, I greeted them like I did everyone else. When the meeting began, I sat down and the Native people in question went up on the stage and introduced themselves. They explained the purpose of the project and their respective roles in it.

Although this day in June of 2004 was a warm one,  I shook from head to toe during the whole presentation. Two friends, noticing my shaking, came and sat by my side. They knew these Mohawks awoke in me painful memories. After the guests had returned to their seats, I was moved by a sudden urge to speak. I asked to address the audience. I went up on the stage and calmly thanked the guests for having shared about their project with us, and then there was a pause. I then identified myself as the sister of the policeman who had been killed during the Oka Crisis and sincerely asked forgiveness from the Mohawks present for the wrongs they had endured since the arrival of the Europeans, particularly at the hands of the governments and the Sulpicien priests. I could not hold back my tears-- neither could the audience.

Mavis Etienne, chairperson of the project and one of the negotiators during the 1990 crisis, came back up on the stage and offered her condolences and her apologies for not having prayed for the safety of the policemen during the assault which had taken place in the pines. Later in the day, she invited me to participate in an event she had organized called Trail of Prayers that was to take place the following week in Kanehsatake. This event consisted of a walk through the Mohawk territory which covering four strategic locations where people were invited to pray and sing in Mohawk, English and French, for peace and the healing of the community.

A trail of healing

Our first stop was behind the high school, on the shore of the Ottawa River. The day was beautiful and the site enchanting. About fifty people raised their voices to the heavens. The strong wind blowing gave me hope of better days to come for the little community of 1700 people who were still suffering from the aftermath of the 1990 siege. The last stop was in the pines, where 95 gunshots had been fired in a matter of 20 seconds. As we stopped there, I was overtaken by nausea and weakness. Seeing me crouch down, people came to comfort me. After 14 years, I was finally able to freely weep and truly mourn the death of my brother. The real healing process had now begun, but still many questions haunted me: Why Marcel? Why did the bullet reach the small unprotected area of his bullet-proof vest?

The Trail of Prayers ended with a friendship circle during which all the participants greeted one another. Tracy Cross, the brother of the infamous "Lasagna", came to me and offered his condolences and embraced me. This gesture was witnessed by a young 25 year old Native woman, who had been raised among Whites. For years, she had been torn between these two worlds, which had collided during the crisis, and the gesture she observed helped her to heal and find the peace she had needed for so long.

During the buffet served afterwards, Mavis invited me to a church meeting in Kanehsatake the following Sunday. In spite of inexplicable and persistent misgivings, I accepted. Once there, I realized these are people like me, with the same need for love, the same daily worries and the same hopes. As the months went by, I developed friendships there and accepted another invitation from Mavis, this time to go to Ottawa to a conference organized by My People International. This group holds as its mandate to promote healing in Native communities in a culturally relevant way. This is where I met the man I would marry two years later, Daniel Lacasse.

Thirst to know more

It was at that moment that I started to develop a profound interest in North American Native culture. I bought books such as People of the Pines, those of Crying Wind, of Kent Nerburn and countless others. I watched two documentaries produced by the National Film Board (NFB) of Canada: Kanehsatake – 270 years of resistance and Rocks at Whiskey Trench, and as well as the film Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee. All the while, Daniel explained to me principles of the Great Law of Peace, the government of the Iroquois Confederacy, and helped me discover traditional and contemporary Aboriginal music. I began to notice that my way of thinking and my worldview were slowly changing. Together, we watched another series from the NFB called Five Great First Nations Chiefs, as well as one produced by Kevin Costner, 500 Nations. I began to appreciate the traditions, customs and ways of life of these Aboriginal peoples. No longer did I see the earth as an object to exploit and possess; rather,  I started to considered the earth as a caring mother which we must respect and with whom we need to learn to live in relationship. I now had a greater understanding of the opposition the Mohawks had faced as they had attempted to protect the cemetery where their ancestors were buried from being destroyed to allow for the enlarging the Oka golf course .

During the 2008 Christmas season, I started reading a book written by Donald Gingras whose title, Window of Hope…and Reconciliation, had piqued my curiosity. This book, which had been published to coincide with the 400th anniversary of Quebec City, aroused in me a desire to once again read At the Woods’ Edge which had been lent to me five years earlier. I therefore called the Kanehsatake Cultural Centre to request the book, and after identifying myself to the person in charge, Hilda Nicolas, she offered it to me as a gift. As soon as I read it again, my heart was filled with the desire to share its content with the francophone community.  A few days later,  I proposed, as a chartered translator, to translate the book free of charge. In spite of my loss, I determined that my contribution would be to make known the losses the Mohawks had suffered.

The work begins

In March 2009, Hilda Nicholas called a meeting with one of the two authors of the book, Arlette Kawanatatie Van den Hende, other Mohawks from the community and two Band Council Chiefs. I explained to them my reasons for wanting to translate the book and my wish to have it published within a year, in time for the 20th anniversary of the Oka Crisis. They accepted and I was filled with much enthusiasm and zeal. Then the long and arduous work of translation the book during my free time began. 

The Kanehsatake Cultural Centre had requested a grant from the Provincial government to cover the cost of editing and printing. After nine months, there was still no response from them. At the Federal level, we already had been politely directed to address our request to other well-established organizations. At that point, I became discouraged and exhausted and felt doubtful of the project of the project ever coming to fruition. With the many hours spent at the computer, I suffered acute daily attacks of fibromyalgia which also woke me up during the night. More and more, I began to believe that I had done all this work in vain. Still, I had made a commitment to this Native community and, remembering all the broken promises made to these people in the past, I was not about to do the same. Besides, I truly believed in the necessity of making this book available in French.

In January 2010,we finally received an answer from the Provincial government: grant refused. A few days later, Rola Helo, learned from Hilda Nicholas that the book At the Woods’ Edge had been translated in French, but that no funds were available for its publication. As a project manager, part of Rola’s mandate was to develop awareness among the general population of the culture and customs of the Kanehsatake Mohawks. She proceeded to request a grant from the organisation that hired her and it was granted! The book that brought me out of my ignorance was launched July 11, 2010 and is entitled, in French,  À l’orée des bois. For me, it was a great reward! The information contained in the book is but a first step towards the long-term goal of bringing reconciliation between two peoples who know little about each other.

Reconciliation: A work in progress

Today, many people and organisations are looking into the process of reconciliation, the first step which is providing information. This is where my translation of the book comes in. The reader desiring to learn more can only proceed through each step of the reconciliation process—revelation, conviction and reparation—by staying open and sensitive to the conditions of First Nations, who, after having welcomed our ancestors to this land over four centuries ago, have been dispossessed of what was most precious to them: their land, their language, their heritage and their means of providing for themselves.

This well-documented book helped to change my understanding of the issue andto  softened my heart towards the people of Kanehsatake and all Aboriginal peoples. It was the tool the Creator used to deeply transform my life and views and  broaden my horizons. It has prompted me learn more about the First Nations peoples, to discover the richness of their cultures and traditions and has allowed me to share in their joys, sorrows and hopes. It has brought me new friendships and even a marriage! The authors of the book laboured  for three years to write it and sacrificed hundreds of hours, not only in the writing of it, but also in compiling the information contained therein. They helped me discover a people rich in history; but also a strong, generous and courageous people.

Dismantling the barricades

Even though the barricades were dismantled after the 78-day crisis, we must admit that barricades still exist in the hearts of both non-Natives and Natives alike. There is still much pain, frustration, anger and misunderstanding on both sides. Prejudices, based mainly on ignorance or misinformation, are often the cause and they persist over time. We cannot love what we do not know. As for my own barricades, have been removed  forever! The only way to start the reconciliation process between the two nations is through our willingness to listen to each other's pain, to attempt to understand each other by way of open and honest dialogue, and to admit our wrongs. It is not through eliminating our differences, but rather by accepting and ultimately even coming to appreciate them.

Peace is not free. It costs us our pride, our selfishness, our indifference and our prejudices. To build bridges between us, we must honestly and actively pursue reconciliation through various means such as, creating awareness through the media, conferences on First Nations history and on the repercussions of the residential schools, workshops on reconciliation, and, more importantly, through personal interaction. In this perspective, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada has been doing excellent work since its inception in 2008. 

I like the French phrase “artisan de paix” which translates the term "peacemaker".  Aboriginal people have been artisans recognized for their unique crafts: objects made by hand, not manufactured. Peace cannot be manufactured. As with handicrafts, it needs time, dedication and love. Although the loss of a life always seems useless, that of Marcel, even if it is highly deplorable and still afflicting, has not been in vain. A tragedy can sometimes serve a greater good further down the road, for a purpose that surpasses our limited human understanding.

 Skén:nen (peace)!

 This article was published in a McGill student journal entitled Kanata (Volume 3). All three volumes can be found on their website :http://kanata.qpirgmcgill.org/2010/05/kanata-launches-volume-2-and-volume-3/g.