In the summer of 1990, the Kanesatake Mohawk people wanted to stop their surrounding town of OKA from building a members-only golf course and condo development on a pine grove and sacred Mohawk burial ground.
The Mohawk had been contesting the Canadian claim to these sacred lands for centuries, to little avail. So they erected a protest camp and barricades on the road to the proposed development site. After failed negotiations, the provincial police descended, and began shooting tear gas and concussion grenades at the protestors, which prompted gunfire, though it's unclear who shot first.
The Mohawk warriors used abandoned vehicles to fortify their barricade. Meanwhile, Mohawks from the nearby Kahnawake reservation seized control of the Mercier bridge, a busy commuter artery south of Montreal. While the provincial and federal governments publicly rejected the Mohawk’s demands for title to the disputed lands and withdrawal of police from Mohawk territories, they continued to negotiate with senior warriors in private, hoping to end the crisis without further bloodshed.
Mobs of Canadians, furious at the occupation's disruption of their daily lives, frequently gathered at police checkpoints to taunt the warriors down the road, calling them “savages" and burning effigies. Other First Nations communities across Canada inspired by the protest blocked highways and railroads in solidarity.
Nearly a month into the standoff, the Quebec premier called in the army to replace the SQ. More than 4,000 soldiers and over 1,000 vehicles were deployed in the largest internal military operation in Canadian history.
The army had tanks, armored personnel carriers, helicopters and surveillance planes. The Mohawk warriors had a few hundred weapons, including AK-47s, hunting rifles and shotguns. With some clever psychological warfare, however, they projected a much more intimidating presence.
The proposed golf course and development which triggered the 78-day crisis were never built. Despite that, neither the Mohawks nor the federal and provincial governments officially ceded the land. In Kanesatake, the standoff is still a traumatic memory, as well as a reminder of centuries-old conflicts that remain unresolved.
The Oka Crisis in Five Minutes
The Oka Crisis: 25 years later