Alex Janvier Acrylic on Canvas 1991
On July 11, 1990 a group of Mohawk protestors defended the sacred pines of Kanehsatake near the town of Oka, Quebec. What began as a small group protecting land turned into a 78 day standoff involving the military, tanks, tear gas, a dead police officer, and a stabbed 14 year old girl. All of this to expand a nine hole golf course to 18 over ancestral Mohawk land.
For hundreds of years the Mohawk lived in Kanehsatake, long before the French trading posts and missions. In 1717, King Louis XIV granted the Mohawk land to the Sulpicians, who eventually sold the land to expand the village of Oka. The King of France, the Mohawk continue to argue, had no right to gift land that was never his. 253 years later, a segment of those sacred pines were in danger of being bulldozed over. 300 year old ancestral burials were to be exhumed. They had had enough. It was time to make a stand.
A small road was blocked and a barricade was constructed. This was not a major street or byway, it was the road used by the construction company set to clear the sacred pines. A small band of Mohawk people protested. And then the SQ were called in.
The SQ, the Sûreté du Québec, are the provincial police. It would be like the mayor of a small Illinois town calling in the state cops. Their response to a barricade was to use tear gas and concussion grenades. This led to a brief fire fight, which left Corporal Marcel Lemay dead from a gunshot wound under his bullet proof vest.
The SQ retreated, leaving several vehicles and a front-end loader. The protestors used this piece of heavy equipment to smash the police cars and form a bigger, more secure barricade. Not only was their barricade strengthened, their physical numbers strengthened. As word spread of the force used by the SQ, more Mohawks assembled in the pines.
But in addition to the growing barricade in Oka, the SQ had a new barricade to worry about. In solidarity with their brethren from Kanehsatake, the Mohawks of nearby Kahnawake set up a blockade of the Mercier Bridge. This seemingly small action of unity made the biggest impact they could ever think of. Without the Mercier Bridge, the Island of Montreal was cut off from the suburbs. Others from neighboring communities including Akwesasne blocked other major thoroughfares. This essentially stopped everything–traffic, commerce, and patience.
On August 14, over a month after the protest began, military support was requested. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police were deployed. By August 20, tanks were rolling in. Aircraft was flying over taking pictures of the encampment. The camp was surrounded by barbed wire. The bridge remained closed.
But on August 29, the Mohawk of Kanehsatake were dealt a blow. The protestors at Mercier Bridge negotiated an end to their blockade. This left them not just vulnerable, but something worse. They felt that without the blockade, they would lose the one thing they had gained during that month–a voice.
For 300 years they had no voice. The French, the priests, the settlers, none had listened, none had cared. For one month in 1990, people finally heard. People finally saw. They had something they never had before–media coverage. Every single day the protest was headline news. And although the loss of Mercier Bridge meant they lost their leverage, they gained exposure from the bridge closure by their neighbors they would have never gotten on their own.
On September 26, 78 days after the resistance began, the Mohawk protestors walked out from behind the barricade. There was confusion as some of the warriors did not come out peacefully as agreed among them. Some were allowed to simply walk into Oka, others were rushed, beaten. Waneek Horn, a 14 year old girl, was stabbed in the chest by a soldier as she clutched her terrified four year old sister.
See, the protestors were not all young men. They were not all young. They were not all men. There were families, children, elderly. At one point during the crisis, it was the women that calmed the tensions, mothering both the warriors and the soldiers. The Mohawk, as part of the Iroquois confederacy, look to the women as the “caretakers of the land and progenitors of the nation.” This was a fight of the entire Mohawk nation, not some unruly gun slingin’ Indians.
In the end, the Canadian government purchased the land. The developers received $5.3 million for the land. The Mohawk nation received nothing. The mayor of Oka, Jean Ouellette, was actually re-elected after the crisis. Many cite the growing racism and resentment toward the Mohawk as the reason for his win. In June of 1991 Canada established the First Nations Policing Policy to “provide First Nations across Canada with access to police services that are professional, effective, culturally appropriate, and accountable to the communities they serve.” The Oka crisis served as a catalyst for this development.
I highly recommend the movie Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance found here: Kanehsatake. It is full of footage taken inside the protest and was released in 1993. It really brings to the forefront things that outsiders would never understand. For instance, I was struck by a scene where an officer is speaking French, a Mohawk woman is speaking (what I presume is) Kanien’keha. They both turned to heavily accented English and both became frustrated barely understanding what the other was saying.
In another scene, a young soldier sits in a tank and watches as a man walks around him carrying a stick with a feather as part of a group of spiritual leaders that came from Mexico in support of the Mohawk. The man reaches up and places the stick inside the turret of the tank, feather hanging down. After the man walks away, the soldier removes the stick, but instead of throwing it down or breaking it, he places the stick in a similar position lower on the tank.
Waneek Horn-Miller, the 14 year old girl stabbed on the last day, went on to represent Canada in the Pan-Am Games and then became the first Mohawk woman from Canada to participate in the Olympics. Francine Lemay, sister of Corporal Marcel Lemay who was shot on that first day, had a chance encounter with a Mohawk woman who had served as a negotiator during the crisis. Not only did the two go on to become friends, Lemay eventually translated the book At the Woods’ Edge into French. It is the oral history of the Kanehsatake Mohawk people.
I can’t begin to scratch the surface of all there is to tell. Here are some more suggested articles:
Alex Janvier is considered a Canadian native modernist. He was one of the first Canadian First Nations artists to have formal training at a professional art school–the Provincial Institute of Technology and Art–where he graduated with a degree in fine art with honors in 1960. He is Denesuline, from Cold Lake First Nation, and is part of a collective known as the Indian Group of Seven. (I should write a blog of them. Look for that in the future).
At eight years old he was sent to the Blue Quills Indian Residential School. (Yes, they had those in Canada too. No, they also don’t seem particularly proud of it.) Luckily for Alex, the principal there noticed his talent in art at an early age and encouraged him to hone his skills. By the time he was a teenager he was being tutored by a prominent college professor. In May of 2019, a public grade school in Edmonton officially changed its name to Alex Janvier School in his honor.
The corners of this work on the outside of the circle are quintessential Janvier. Brightly colored flowing paint that conjure visions of psychedelic meandering streams somehow also appear to be figures or animals or neatly mowed fields. Janvier has often also worked with circles, even having entire shows and exhibits full of round canvas. The medicine wheel is painted as intricate lace in four colors as the four directions. But the wheel is something else here too–crosshairs. And in the very center, the target, is a child. The child is clung to by two adults, all of which are in the center of the profile of a figure with a large white feather at the nape of the neck. This piece, O’Kanada, was painted in 1991 in response to the Kanehsatake Resistance at Oka.
Read more about the artist and his work here: Alex Janvier
Follow him on Facebook here: FB Janvier Gallery
I love this portrait of Alex Janvier taken by Aaron Pierre in front of his work O’Kanada.