Where the Violence Began

By Doug George | 1991-03-01 12:00:00

TO UNDERSTAND what happened at Kanesatake and Kahnawake in the summer, you have to understand what happened in Akwesasne in the spring. At Akwesasne 400-600 people tried to stop the gambling and smuggling that were destroying the community's peace. On March 23, after we appealed to the outside authorities to work with us in a partnership, they blocked a road at Akwesasne, detouring non-essential, non-residential traffic around the reservation. At about the same time the people of Kanesatake also established a roadblock to keep the town of Oka from constructing a golf course there.

In Akwesasne the people knew well with whom they were dealing and that when they challenged those vested interests, some might pay with their lives. There simply wasn't any alternative. The barricades continued for 32 days under increasing threats.

We have maintained since 1984, when the gambling began, that there were connections between it and organized crime. These connections had begun to infiltrate our community and change the nature of our people.

When the people erected barricades, it was spontaneous, never endorsed by any Mohawk government-neither the Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs (the traditional government), nor the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, nor the St. Regis Tribal Council. It was the act of people who thought they had to do something to regain control of their community. At the end of April violence increased-gunshots every night, machine-gun fire. It got to the

point that people could tell what calibre of bullet was flying overhead. Yet the weapons, obtained through a criminal network in New York City, had not been used against other Mohawk people.

On April 24 that all changed: Ma-chine guns were fired at two barricades that were maintained mainly by women, elders, and children. The shots were fired at people. There was no shooting up in the air. This was not an intent to scare people, this was an attempt to murder people. By some act of God, people were not killed. Despite our pleas to agencies in Canada and the United States, we received no government support.

Nor did the native people rally to our defence as they did on the Oka golf course. Mohawks were shooting machine guns at other Mohawks on an issue of ethics and morality: whether we'll live in harmony as a native people, or convert our community into a mini-Las Vegas.

As a result of a refusal to provide assistance, the Canadian side of Akwesasne was evacuated. An estimated 2,500 people abandoned Akwesasne and lived as refugees for nearly a month off the reservation.

I was ready to do that on April 27, until I got word that my brother had supposedly shot somebody. Immediately, I went to him. He was prepared to leave, but he wanted to see if the police got there first, because we didn't trust the politicians who had assured us we would get support.

The police did not show up. I stayed with my brother, and there were gunshots for four nights straight. We got no sleep. There were snipers around us who would have taken our lives. On Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, a grand flotilla of RCMP boats would come down the river through the middle of the reservation, wave at us, turn around and go back. They knew we were taking gunshots. You could hear it in the city of Cornwall. Anybody who lives in Cornwall along the river can tell you it was like a war.

OUT OF NECESSITY, I decided to pick up a rifle. Well-armed, organized people were prepared to kill my brother. If there had been any chance that any police would have come in and stopped this, we would have thrown those evil weapons away. My alternative was to leave and allow my brother to die.

Initially there were five of us, then six, and by April 30 there were eleven of us, and two Canadian Press reporters. That's when the full wrath of the gamblers and the smugglers was brought to bear on this little residence on the river in Akwesasne. About seventy people were using all sorts of fire-arms, from M-50 machine guns to fully automatic AK-47s, directed at us. Although all the media were at Oka on July 11 with all their cameras and recorders, Oka bore no comparison to what we had sustained for four days at Akwesasne.

No one came to our defence.

Yet no one came to our defence. The Assembly of First Nations was not there, voice quivering in outrage. George Erasmus made no speech defending the women, elders, and children of the Mohawk nation. No Indian leader took a stand to help us out.

As silent as the Indian organizations were across Canada, so too were the authorities. That was a story that we wanted people to hear, but it wasn't getting across. It seemed that the only thing that would activate the outside police forces would have to be bodies. Reporters who had been there were feeling frustrated: What will take for people to come to these people's assistance? They concluded, as we had, that it would take a death.

On the morning of May 1, one of the guys who had come to our aid was shot in the back by a high-powered rifle, and died at 11:30 that morning. Sometime earlier that morning, another young man had been shot in the back and had died also. That's what finally got the police to come to Akwesasne.

On May 13, the Surete du Quebec (S.Q.), in all its grandness and professionalism, decided to arrest and charge with either accessory to murder or murder the very people who had been defending the community: myself, my brother, Kenneth Lazore, and two Akwesasne police officers, Steve Lazore and Roger Mitchell. That meant that all resources and our emotions would now have to be fled up in defending ourselves against what turned out to be a ludicrous charge. [The author was later acquitted of these charges. -Ed.]

Given the history of S.Q. insensitivity towards Indians, we maintain that they should not have anything to do with aboriginal peoples. On July 11 the S.Q. overreacted at Kanesatake, with the result that they lost one of their men. And then came the standoff there, and then the similar event at Kahnawake.

In Kahnawake, the community as a whole never fully agreed with the road-blocks. Had they been given assurances by the federal or provincial authorities that the S.Q. would not be permitted to go into Kahnawake, they would never have erected those roadblocks, or they would have taken them down fairly quickly. But they were never given that assurance and so the situation grew more serious with each passing week.

What is happening at Akwesasne? The violence is still there. An attempt was made to firebomb my brother's house. Somebody also drove into his fence, and my brother went over to the Sureté du Québec to file a complaint. Instead of taking this issue seriously, they told him that there was no law at Akwesasne. As far as giving him protection goes, they would not do it.

Sporadic gunfire continues. Threats and fear are still there. The Mohawk Council of Akwesasne has initiated a healing process, and have professional counsellors who will listen to people who are feeling the emotions that have overwhelmed our community in the past year. They are trying for reconciliation.

BUT CAN AKWESASNE secure peace, can it achieve a stable community without justice being done? Justice, of course, requires that those who initiated violence be held responsible for their actions. In any organized society that request would be a matter of course. But in our community, we don't take it for granted.

At Kahnawake and Kanesatake there probably will be more trouble. The Canadian Government purchased CL land in the disputed area, but certain very sacred sections of that forested area have been left out of the Canadian government's purchase. These areas are still retained by the town of Oka. They say they will undertake an expansion of that golf course.

The S.Q. is putting pressure on Kahnawake. The best thing the S.Q. could do right now is to withdraw and leave policing to the indigenous police force, called the Kahnawake Peace-keepers, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

The continuing incidents at Kahnawake could lead to another blow-up in that community. If there is a confrontation, we may again have the standoff situation of July 11, and the chances of reaching a peaceful solution will be almost non-existent.

We need for the Canadian public to put pressure on Robert Bourassa, Tom Siddon, and various other officials, including Mulroney, to diffuse these situations before they reach the critical point. All they have to do is listen.

Doug George edits Akwesasne Notes.

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1991

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1991, page 21. Some rights reserved.

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