Twenty years ago, the Mohawks of Kanesatake were at the center of an armed standoff that captivated the nation and redefined the rights of tribes over their lands. But despite the barricades and media attention, the disputes—and their underlying calls for dignity and sovereignty—were never resolved. Now, members of the Mohawk tribe are at the center of another conflict, over a mammoth tar sands pipeline some have dubbed the “alternative Keystone XL.” Can they finish what they started?
Serge Simon had big plans on the day the street in front of the Centre Mont Royal rang with clashing chants. It was late August, and the National Energy Board, Canada’s federal energy regulator, was beginning its hearings for TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline in downtown Montreal. Sturdy men from the Local 144 wielded placards in support, while students and khaki-attired middle-agers shouted in opposition.
Simon, the Grand Chief of the Mohawk Nation of Kanesatake, was scheduled to testify that afternoon. For the occasion, he had hung a rich blue stone, a lapis lazuli, around his neck—“to keep evil away,” he explained, before admitting that, actually, it just looked good.
The plan was to stand before the scrum of national reporters inside the hearing hall—the gateway to the public—and denounce the Board, the Canadian government, and TransCanada for violating their native rights. Energy East was slated to cross Mohawk territory and snake under the Ottawa River, just 20 kilometers away from Kanesatake and roughly 80 kilometers from Montreal. At 4,500 kilometers in length, the $15.7 billion Energy East will also traverse nearly the entire length of Canada and be the longest oil pipeline in North America.
But before Simon’s proceedings even began, a hefty, bearded man crashed to the front of the hearing room inside, hollering in French as he sprinted and nearly knocking over several reporters. After a scuffle with security guards, he successfully occupied center stage, chanting and clapping for nearly 30 minutes.
This turned out to be a massive victory for the environmentalists, as the hearings were suspended indefinitely (they continue to be delayed because of ongoing protest).
But in late January, the same week the Trump administration issued an executive order supporting TransCanada’s Keystone XL project, the Board also announced that the Energy East hearings would start anew. Now, energy analysts are unsure which of the two pipelines will be built, since they serve similar functions: getting tar sands oil out of landlocked Alberta, Canada. (TransCanada has stated that it is committed to both.)
Simon appreciated the courage and actions of the young activists; after all, they shared his goal of halting Energy East. But the pipeline hadn’t been his main concern. Energy East was only encroaching on Mohawk territory because of a more fundamental problem: The government seemed not to respect Mohawk rights over their lands. That afternoon, he and the chiefs of the neighboring Mohawk communities of Kahnawake and Akwesasne convened a press gathering a few blocks away. “It’s our land, and we have every right to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’,” proclaimed Simon to a tiny room of reporters.
The show was lackluster compared with what Simon had envisioned: a dramatic intervention before a large audience on a national stage. Instead, Simon did not raise his voice. Not a strand of his long, gray hair seemed to shift out of place.
Afterwards, he walked out with Harvey Gabriel, a slight, white-haired elder from Kanesatake who had accompanied Simon to Montreal. Gabriel slouched in the elevator, watching the buttons with an absent-minded gaze.
“Was it worth it?” Simon asked of their field trip for the day.
Gabriel glared. The numbers over the door lit up as the elevator fell, counting down to the end of an anti-climactic day.
Out in the street, Gabriel shrank against the wall, staring blankly at the passing cars. Simon smoked a clove cigarette, furiously relaying the story of joining West coast kayaktivists and tribes to protest another tar sands pipeline—the TransMountain pipeline—in May.
“That was amazing, the solidarity of people, not only on land but on water!” The West Coast protesters had encroached on one of Kinder Morgan’s oil tanker terminals in Vancouver, and Simon recalled them leaping over the buoys.
This was part of Simon’s work forging a “Treaty Alliance” with other tribes facing fossil fuel developments across the continent. The Alliance was not only a collective stand against industry, but also a reassertion of their roles as the legitimate caretakers of their lands.
The movement at Standing Rock was ballooning, and it felt more promising—and empowering—to strengthen these ties, rather than appealing to the non-native public to pressure the government to treat the Mohawks more justly. “That’s at the very top of my priorities,” he said of the Alliance, which includes the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
Yet here he was in Montreal. Cars rolled by, sunlight shooting off their windows, and all around them, concrete citadels shot up toward the sky. This used to be Mohawk territory too, known in the Mohawk language as Tiotia:ke.
Neither Simon nor Gabriel had forgotten how their ancestors fought to retain these lands. Even now, the face of one forefather looked out in faded sepia, from a pendant hanging against Gabriel’s chest.
“He was a big fighter,” Gabriel explained. It was his great-grandfather, Joseph Onasakenrat, the Grand Chief of Kanesatake until 1881. “He was murdered by the priests,” he said. “They invited him to a banquet—in his honor no less. The next morning, he was dead.”
Onasakenrat was the first chief to be fluent in both Mohawk and French, he explained, and had discovered that the Sulpician Fathers Seminary was illegally selling Mohawk land to settlers. (The Paris-based Roman Catholic order had been named the trustees of Kanesatake’s territories by the British crown.) Onasakenrat tried to chase them out. Today, he is buried in Montreal’s Mount Royal Cemetery under his Christian name, Joseph Swann.
Was there a lesson here for modern times?
“Never go to a banquet,” said Gabriel.
“I’m bringing my own sandwiches,” Simon replied.
Then they left.
They drove back to Kanesatake one hour away, past the shallow green hills of Oka National Park and the quaint suburban houses of Oka village, and the handwritten signs declaring “This highway is on Mohawk Land!”
This is where Simon grew up. As a child in the ‘60s, his family was too poor for a car, and his father often walked the five kilometers to work, lunchbox in hand, at a furniture factory in Oka. Simon was always on his feet.
These days, he spends much of his time seated behind a desk in the Kanesatake band office. In one corner, a Spartan helmet is a daily reminder of the similarities between the Roman Senate and the Iroquois Confederacy, which included his Mohawk ancestors. (It bound together 50 chiefs to form the greatest military force in North America.)
Here, amid these artifacts and a sun-bathed clutter of papers and books, Energy East is not what occupies his mind. Rather, he puzzles over how to bring better education, health services, and jobs to the community, so that they can eventually be less reliant on the federal government.
Simon kicked out TransCanada agents from this office, after they began probing for details about Mohawk lands—he wasn’t going to just hand them what they needed to ensure the path of least resistance for Energy East. So he began calling other chiefs in Canada’s oil-impacted regions, sharing what he had learned about the impacts of the tar sands—climate change, air and water pollution—and explaining that the Treaty Alliance is a vow to protect one another against these threats.
In between, he continued with the unglamorous work of governing. Signing stacks of welfare checks several inches thick every month can make the threat of Energy East seem utterly abstract, but Simon knows the two are connected. The lack of real opportunities for residents make Kanesatake more susceptible to overtures from TransCanada.
“Gandhi says that poverty is the worst form of violence, because it is preventable,” he sighed, ruminating on the financial benefits they might have reaped, had he continued talking with TransCanada and signed on the dotted line. Lacking wealth, Kanesatake remains reliant on the federal government to fund new public works, like high-speed internet.
Kanesatake has relied on the government and their agents, including the Sulpician Seminary that murdered Joseph Onasakenrat, ever since these lands—their livelihoods—were wrested from their control in 1717. But now that Simon was threatening to erect blockades against TransCanada, the media had begun to depict him as a “radical warrior” type. There was no winning: if you don’t make a fuss, you get steamrolled by private developers, but if you do make a fuss, everyone thinks you’re being antagonistic.
“If they understood the history between the First Nations and the Canadian government, there’s been a lot of antagonism there for a long time!” he howled.
Already there is Enbridge’s Line 9B pipeline, which crosses the Ottawa River at the same site as Energy East, and began pumping tar sands oil in December 2015. And there was also the infamous golf course proposed overtop the local Mohawk graveyard in 1990. This led to a months-long armed standoff with the military that drew thousands of indigenous supporters from across Canada in a Standing Rock-like encampment, and forced the government to revisit how it dealt with tribes over issues of development. It also left Kanesatake in disarray. The community is still recovering today.
The mass mobilization quashed the plans for the golf course. But the Mohawks did not win sovereignty over their territories or significantly broader authority to manage these lands, as they had demanded from the government. That is why Energy East and a whole slew of other developments continue to encroach on their lands, much as pipelines are snaking through native regions across North America.
Today, Simon is aligned with the environmental activists in opposing Energy East, but unlike them, his ultimate goal is to reassert Mohawk rights over their territories. Although he did not join the 1990 blockades, Simon recalls the years that followed with sorrow. Many who lived through it feel that Kanesatake was punished for the uprising. That is why he knows it isn’t enough for them to simply halt Energy East.
“All of a sudden, everyone was shuttered in, like when you go into one of those Western towns where you’re the newcomer, and all the windows are getting shuttered tight,” said Simon. “A lot of First Nations benefited from what we sacrificed and suffered. In the end, I think the government—I guess they took it out on us.”
It began in 1989 when the Mayor of Oka Village, located next to the reserve, announced that 60 luxury condominiums would be constructed in the Pines, a forest the Mohawks claimed as their Commons. A private, members-only golf course on the edge of the forest would also be expanded onto a Mohawk graveyard. This was a manifold affront: The existing golf course already sat on Mohawk land that was illegally sold to Oka by the Sulpicians in 1936, and the Mohawks had opposed its construction in 1961. Now, the Mohawk cemetery would be bulldozed to create more leisure opportunities for their rich, white neighbors.
The Mohawks of Kanesatake erected barricades on the highway. Soon, Mohawk Warriors joined from the neighboring communities of Kanawake and Akwesasne, and the provincial police responded with tear gas and concussion grenades. After one of their Corporals was killed (it remains unclear which side pulled the trigger), the federal police moved in with tanks, armed troops and surveillance planes (800 soldiers on the ground, and 2,500 more on standby).
More than 2,500 supporters also arrived to the adjacent “peace camp” on the first weekend, swelling the ranks of the resistance. For the next 78 days, the Warriors captivated the nation, clad in balaclavas and fatigues, locked in a standoff with military police. On the opposite end of the world, Iraq was also invading Kuwait, and the TV footage of army tanks in the Arab desert bore an uneasy resemblance to the images of army tanks in the streets of Canada.
The Warriors demanded full Mohawk sovereignty, and that all land disputes be brought to the World Court in the Hague, as they are for disputes between sovereign states. They were not granted this concession, although the condos and golf course expansion were halted. But the Crisis was a turning point in how Canada relates to its native residents, forcing the government to revisit how tribes are consulted over development. Since then, these rights to consultation have been greatly strengthened, but many tribes and native activists still claim it is inadequate: The government should be seeking their consent, not just consulting them.
A quarter century later, those behind the barricades are considered heroes, and the Mohawk Warrior is a symbol of native resistance, in large part because of the Oka Crisis. One September night, an announcement was made at the Standing Rock encampment that “the Mohawk chiefs have arrived,” and a cascade of whoops and cheers filled the dark prairie sky. “The real Mohawk warriors!” a young Sioux water protector had swooned earlier that day, like a child encountering Spider-Man at Universal Studios. He had just spent the weekend in jail for protesting the Dakota Access pipeline. Now, his idols had arrived.
But in Kanesatake, the legacy of 1990 is complex, a far cry from the powerful images of tear gas and barricades, sensational but one-dimensional, that sear in the mind.
Part of the problem, according to Ellen Gabriel, one of the most memorable faces of the Oka Crisis, is that the Mohawks still aren’t properly consulted over development. The official spokeswoman for the Longhouse, the traditional Mohawk government, Gabriel was eloquent, calm, and firm as she demanded answers from soldiers in armored vehicles in 1990. Since then, she’s swapped out her bandanas and high-waisted denim for button-up blouses and feathered earrings.
She has also amassed a hefty CV, winning accolades as the president of the Quebec Native Women’s Association; calling for the revitalization of traditional languages, cultures and governance before the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous People; and advocating for indigenous rights worldwide. Recently, she also began taking on the Canadian oil sands, having attended a 2014 meeting between TransCanada and the Kanesatake band council about Energy East. The gist of the message: This is going to happen anyway, so you may as well accept it.
“You didn’t even consult the community,” she argued. Nothing seemed to have changed, even though the right to “free, prior, and informed consent”—essentially, the right to say “no”—was enshrined in the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People in 2007.
Enraged, she organized an anti-pipeline conference in Kanesatake, inviting activists from the heart of the Alberta tar sands to share their experiences with the Mohawks. The vast oil developments had polluted their air and water, and transformed the lush boreal forest into a barren moonscape. This made it increasingly difficult for them to continue hunting, gathering, and performing ceremonies on their lands. Also, oil was being extracted from these territories, their land appropriated by the government on behalf of oil corporations. It sounded like 1990. It also sounded like the Sulpician order that Joseph Onasakenrat had fought.
“This is essentially what colonialism is,” Gabriel said. “They’re putting a different picture on it, but the end result is really the same: dispossession, contamination of the environment.”
Today, the land issues that prompted the Oka Crisis remain unresolved. In 2001, Kanesatake’s then-Grand Chief, James Gabriel, presented the community with the Kanesatake Land Interim Management Act, or Bill S24, which his band council had secretly negotiated with the federal government. This forced Kanesatake to adopt similar land laws as Oka, and was only approved by tribal members with a voter turnout of 25%, and a margin of two votes. Many in the community saw it as illegitimate.
But when tribal members voted to oust him, a Canadian court overturned the referendum, and within years, he had negotiated another secret agreement, this time for “extraordinary and enhanced police funding.” His house was torched in retaliation. Street gangs blossomed, and the charred remains of the police station still stand next to the Band Office.
“We’ve lost more land because this entity, the band council, has followed Canada’s rules,” Gabriel said. She was referring to Bill S24—the reason the luxury condos slated for the Pines in 1989 are now back on the table, and Energy East is knocking at their door. She claims the bill was passed because of the undemocratic structure of the band council, which counts the votes of a select few—the chief and council—unlike in the traditional Longhouse government, where decisions are made by consensus (and which counts her as a member).
This effectively transforms them into politicians who trade favors and negotiate agreements behind closed doors, making them an illegitimate government of Kanesatake, she claims. Band councils were imposed on native people as part of a colonial strategy for undermining traditional governments, dividing communities, and creating relationships of dependence between native people and the federal government.
Serge Simon, who currently heads the band council, chafes at the suggestion that he is a tool of the federal government, and insists that he works for no one but the people of Kanesatake (he knows the band council is flawed and is planning reforms to structure it more like the traditional Mohawk government). The Canadian government also responded that it is “committed to meaningful consultation” with indigenous communities along Energy East, which it will “engage on a nation-to-nation basis,” wrote a representative of Natural Resources Canada in an email.
Yet this division is really a reflection of the fierce dilemmas Kanesatake faces in enacting their sovereignty and engaging with the federal government after centuries of colonial subjugation. And they are not alone. Because of the treaties the U.S. and Canadian governments signed with the tribes, both countries recognize them as sovereign nations. But can tribes truly be sovereign if colonialism continues to persist, as Gabriel claims? A much deeper question underlies every pipeline and development conflict on native land today: What is the place of these many indigenous nations within the nations of America and Canada?
For their part, TransCanada emphasizes that they engage extensively with indigenous communities along the pipeline route, and that they “always strive to achieve consent when developing projects,” wrote a company representative.
But despite their differences, Simon and Gabriel are united in their opposition to Energy East, and also on a few other points: All tar sands pipelines must be halted, and the ongoing violation of Mohawk rights leaves them with limited options for stopping outside developers. Yet both have also lived through the aftermath of 1990, and understand the potential dangers of resorting to blockades.
“I don’t think it was a good strategy, but I think it was a necessary strategy,” said Gabriel. “The possibility of violence from the police—the violence is coming from their side. It was really not the first choice, as far as I’m concerned. It was a last resort.”
History is destined to repeat itself as long as old forms of oppression remain. The day before the barricades went up in March 1990, a similar debate over direct action took place among a few of Kanesatake’s men, who had gathered in the two-story log home of the carpenter and logbuilder Walter David. It had become clear that the Mohawk concerns over the golf course would be ignored. With construction set to begin any day, the men decided that the only remaining option was to begin patrolling the Pines: an early-warning system for when the bulldozers arrived. The next morning, they dragged a fishing shack from the backyard of Longhouse spiritual leader John Cree into a clearing in the woods, effectively launching the blockade.
“We’re going to get clubbed and beaten at the barricade and you’re saying all we should be armed with is our resolve?” said David in the People of the Pines: The Warriors and the Legacy of Oka, Geoffrey York and Loreen Pindera’s account of the incident.
Unmarked police cruisers had begun patrolling the area. Some of the Mohawks advocated protecting themselves with arms. David insists they weren’t naïve: “People debated it. People knew some of the consequences of what might happen,” he recalled. But he is more cautious today. “You better know what you’re going to do before you do it,” he warned.
David, wide-eyed and unassuming, now lives a quieter existence, spending his days tending to the café he opened last spring, Moccasin Jo, located in a small white house just two minutes from the Mohawk cemetery. Most mornings, David roasts coffee beans behind his home, next to a storeroom brimming with fresh cucumbers, tomatoes and squash that he and his wife grow. At Moccasin Jo, he brews the beans and serves the coffee in smooth, white mugs for neighbors, customers and old friends. This cafe is a promise of more peaceful times to come. A bullet hole on the back wall of the house, a remnant of a police raid that mistakenly targeted the building’s former resident, is the only visible reminder of the community’s history.
But this peace could be disturbed by a leak beneath the Ottawa River. Kanesatake sits on the northern shore of the Lake of Two Mountains, the river delta where the Ottawa River feeds into the Saint Lawrence River. Moccasin Jo is located just a few hundred feet from the water, and Kanesatake is about 20 kilometers downstream from the Line 9B and the potential Energy East river crossing. David recalls the spill from a different Enbridge pipeline with dread: In 2010, the Kalamazoo River spill in Michigan went unreported for 17 hours before the company even realized it was happening.
Enbridge’s Line 9B repurposes a pre-existing pipeline to ship Alberta tar sands oil from Ontario to refineries in Montreal. Like Energy East, it has also been targeted by a number of communities along its route. Non-native activists blocked its construction in Toronto. The Chippewa of the Thames band, located between Lake Huron and Lake Erie, have sued the federal government for failing to adequately consult them (the case is going before the federal Supreme Court). And the Citoyens au Courant community group in the mostly-white town of Vaudreuil-Soulanges, just across the lake from Kanesatake, organized Montreal’s 80-some municipalities against Enbridge’s inadequate safety testing.
Activists have also shut off its flow on numerous occasions since it began pumping oil in December 2015. Just a few days after the valves were opened, Walter David left his home before sunrise and drove an hour and a half to a field on the border of Quebec and Ontario. His friend Jean Leger had a surprise for Enbridge. The two had become friends in 2013, while planning a one-month, 700-km protest march along the route of Energy East that ended in Kanesatake.
David was impressed by Leger’s stoicism and wealth of knowledge. He was just as stoic that day: By the time David arrived, Leger was already seated serenely inside a chain-link cage with two other activists, his neck U-locked to a valve protruding from the ground.
“Sonofabitch, it was cold!” recalled David. The activists’ feet were beginning to freeze, so David and a handful of other supporters threw hay over them to keep them warm. They waited for Enbridge to arrive. Two of the bystanders had called the company’s emergency hotline to say that the valve had been shut, but were accused of lying. For hours, no one from the company arrived, and only in the late afternoon did firefighters finally break the valve using heavy machinery (but not before another nearby valve began spraying oil onto the ground). David was alarmed that Enbridge’s remote control system had not detected the shutoff—just like at Kalamazoo. Enbridge had pipelines criss-crossing both Canada and the U.S., and he wondered about all the other farms, rivers, and towns along those routes.
Enbridge did not respond to a request for comment, but a TransCanada representative said they were exploring a new location for “a safe crossing” of the Ottawa River, where the pipeline would pass “dozens of feet below the riverbed” without touching the banks. Also, TransCanada’s “pipelines are monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” and if operators cannot explain a problem within minutes, the “pipeline is shut down, the oil stops flowing within minutes, and a local team is dispatched to the site immediately,” he wrote.
Leger died in October at age 57. David speaks wistfully of the many sacrifices he made for Kanesatake, and the time he drove for hours through a snowstorm to support a fellow activist in Ontario. At 65 years old, David has seen many friends and family pass away (his brother Joe “Stonecarver” David was shot and paralyzed by the police in 1999) and sighs wearily when asked about Kanesatake’s future.
“I wanna get the fuck outta here!” he wailed.
But many of his friends still remain. So he continues to brew his beans and join in Longhouse debates on the future of the Kanesatake. He tends to Moccasin Jo.
One afternoon, David was a perpetual motion machine, wiping tables, filling mugs and vanishing into the kitchen before reemerging with steaming bowls of soup. Neighbors gathered at the counter. Their raucous laughter shattered the melancholy of Neil Young’s crooning overhead, like the blast of red from the Mexican blanket against the white wall.
A man with a gray ponytail breezed in, a pair of wraparound sunglasses perched on his head. “Eh!” he boomed. This was John Cree, David’s brother-in-law, and the Longhouse spiritual leader whose fishing shack was the first brick in their 1990 wall. He was picking up a pot of soup.
It was a hot summer day, and wildfires were raging in California, just months after fires had consumed the tar sands boomtown of Fort McMurray, Alberta. These had been foretold in the prophecies, said Cree: wildfires everywhere “that’ll continue burning and burning.” He’d first heard about them in the ‘80s, from elders on the Six Nations reserve.
“They’re telling us we have to change,” he said, his Hawaiian shirt loud and festive against the white décor.
But it wasn’t obvious how this change would come. A few weeks earlier, David, Cree, and others at the Longhouse had debated becoming more “proactive” against the various onslaughts against their land: Energy East, Line 9B, a proposed mine, a reappearance of the luxury condos from 1990, and a piece of farmland, smack in the middle of their territory, that had recently been sold to a white person.
Some, including Cree, did not want to spend their energy disrupting public meetings in Oka or Montreal—it’s not like these interventions had made much difference in the past, and wasn’t the letter they had co-signed with environmental groups to the National Energy Board enough?
“That’s a good start,” David argued. “And then there’s the other proactive part, which is the physical. You have to get out there and physically demand some questions and answers.”
Divisions run through Kanesatake, as in every community. But a much larger crack exists between the golf course and the Mohawk cemetery. On one side, Oka’s neatly groomed homes are ringed by freshly mowed lawns, and the Calvaire d’Oka, a collection of chapels in the hills of Oka National Park, commemorate the Sulpician efforts to “evangelize the Amerindians.”
On the other side, ramshackle huts are dispersed along the road. But thanks to the uprising of 1990, the cemetery still exists. The Pines remain, an army of evergreens standing erect, and the sunlight trickles through the leaves like glitter on the headstones and grass.
But the line between the cemetery and the golf course is not impermeable. “Give credit to the people who’ve been educating the people and the public. Those are the people who’ve been doing the groundwork,” David said. He was thinking of his friend Jean Leger and the young activists who had stopped the NEB hearing in Montreal, and everyone else who had stood up to Enbridge and TransCanada.
“If you say you’re protectors of mother earth, you gotta get out there and say it,” he said. He was emphatic. It wasn’t hard to imagine him arguing to erect the barricades in 1990. “You have to get out there physically and grab a placard, do what you can, link up with the non-natives and work out a solution.”