Canadian soldier Patrick Cloutier and Saskatchewan native Brad Laroque come face-to-face in a tense standoff at the Kahnesatake reserve in Oka, Que., Saturday September 1, 1990. The ghosts of Indigenous protests past have hovered over Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as his government struggles to bring a peaceful end to blockades that have disrupted traffic on rail lines and other major transportation routes across the country for more than two weeks. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Shaney Komulainen

Violent ends to past Indigenous protests haunt Trudeau government

Trudeau adopted a more assertive tone Friday, insisting the barricade must come down

The ghosts of Indigenous protests past have hovered over Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as his government struggles to bring a peaceful end to blockades that have disrupted traffic on rail lines and other major transportation routes across the country for more than two weeks.

Oka. Ipperwash. Caledonia. Gustafsen Lake. Burnt Church.

Those are just some of the names that evoke grim memories of violent confrontations that resulted from attempts to forcibly shut down Indigenous protests.

Even as he called Friday for police to enforce injunctions and bring down the barricades, Trudeau stressed the need for a peaceful resolution and worried about the potential for another Oka — the 78-day standoff in Quebec in 1990 that left one police officer dead, an Indigenous teenager badly wounded and the relationship between Mohawks and non-Indigenous locals in tatters.

“History has taught us how governments can make matters worse if they fail to exhaust all other possible avenues,” Trudeau said.

The lesson has been repeated countless times over the past 60 years and will continue to be repeated so long as federal and provincial governments fail to resolve Indigenous land claims, in the view of Hayden King, executive director of the Yellowhead Institute, a First Nations-led think tank at Ryerson University.

“We see through Canadian history that Canadians want access to the land, they want to use the land, they want to extract resources from the land and, even if that means harm, significant harm and violence to Indigenous Peoples, that overriding interest has prevailed,” says King.

“And now we’re at a point in Canadian history where all those cases (of violent confrontation) … they’ve all culminated to the point that we’re at now where there isn’t a clear avenue to address this in a climate of so-called reconciliation.”

READ MORE: Blockades remain in place as Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs returning to B.C.

At least initially, in resisting pressure for immediate enforcement of injunctions and calling for patience, Trudeau struck a markedly different tone than bellicose government leaders faced with similar circumstances in the past.

Michael Coyle, a Western University law professor who specializes in Indigenous rights and dispute resolution, says that was the right approach and ”much more likely to lead to a mutually agreed and respectful outcome.”

But under pressure from business leaders, premiers and the public, Trudeau adopted a more assertive tone Friday, insisting the barricade must come down.

While the prime minister insisted he wasn’t directing the police, King says Trudeau was signalling to police that the time had come to move in. King believes, however, that police forces are “less susceptible” to that kind of pressure from political leaders than in the past.

Coyle too, believes police and some politicians have learned from past mistakes that the use of force risks lives, can inflame an already tense situation and doesn’t necessarily lead to “an enduring peaceful outcome.” Police have also learned that enforcing the rule of law includes protecting Indigenous rights, he says.

Indeed, so far, police across the country have shown considerably more restraint and sensitivity than was exhibited by the Ontario Provincial Police in 1995 when members of the Stony Creek First Nation occupied land appropriated by the federal government for a military training camp and the nearby Ipperwash Provincial Park.

Under pressure from the provincial government to quickly remove the protesters from the park and acting on unverified reports of gunfire, dozens of heavily armed OPP officers in riot gear marched towards the protesters at night. In the fear and confusion that followed, Indigenous protester Dudley George was shot and killed.

An inquiry into the Ipperwash crisis was highly critical of the OPP for failing to educate officers on Indigenous rights or to discipline some of the overtly racist officers involved. It also criticized police and the government for not trying first to communicate with protesters or negotiate an end to the park occupation.

In the current crisis, Trudeau has expressed confidence in the “professionalism” of the police to deal with blockades that sprung up across the country in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs opposed to a natural gas pipeline in northern British Columbia. And he has categorically ruled out deploying the military.

Back in 1990, some 800 soldiers wound up facing off against Indigenous protesters after a botched police raid to remove a blockade — set up by Kanesatake Mohawk warriors to protest expansion of a golf course on disputed land that included a Mohawk burial ground — left one officer dead.

The raid inflamed tensions, prompting neighbouring Kahnawake and Akwesasne Mohawks to erect more barricades that shut down highways and the Mercier bridge, cutting off residents in Montreal’s southern suburbs from the island of Montreal. Some infuriated local residents retaliated by throwing stones at cars taking the elderly, women and children out of the Kanesatake reserve.

While Oka and Ipperwash were the deadliest, there have been other instances when attempts to forcibly end Indigenous protests have turned ugly. Here’s a summary of a few:

Caledonia, 2006

Mohawks from the Six Nations of the Grand River occupied a construction site for a new subdivision on disputed land in this community southwest of Hamilton. Local residents accused the Mohawks of harassment, intimidation and sabotage and they accused the OPP of doing nothing to protect them. The occupation lasted 52 days before the OPP launched a raid and arrested 16 people. Several police officers were injured and property destroyed. In solidarity, Mohawks of Tyendinaga blocked railroad tracks near Belleville, just as they are doing now in support of the Wet’suwet’en.

Gustafson Lake, 1995

A rancher tried to kick a small group of First Nations Sundancers off his property — which they claimed was unceded Secwepemc territory — in northern B.C. They refused to leave. Some 400 RCMP officers were deployed to the site, backed up by helicopters and armoured personnel carriers. Gunfights ensued. One Indigenous woman was injured. The standoff lasted several months, said to be one of the largest police actions in Canadian history at a cost of $5.5 million.

Burnt Church, 1999-2002

This began as a long-running dispute between non-Indigenous and Mi’kmaq fishers in New Brunswick, over the Mi’kmaqs’ treaty rights to catch fish and lobster out of season. There were numerous violent confrontations between them, with shots fired. In August 2000, federal fisheries officers launched a raid on Mi’kmaq lobster traps, ramming Mi’kmaq boats and forcing their occupants overboard.

Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Coastal GasLinkIndigenous

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

MP Tamara Jansen to donate pay raise to Surrey-based charity

Members of Parliament to receive legislated pay raise Wednesday, April 1

COVID-19: Daily update on the pandemic in Surrey, White Rock and beyond

APRIL 1: B.C.’s state of emergency extended, provincial health officer to provide update at 3 p.m.

Surrey RCMP not seeing ‘significant loss’ in ranks because of COVID-19

Surrey Mounties say they have a good tracking system to keep tabs on police officers experiencing an illness

Supreme Court upholds White Rock council decision on Lady Alexandra development

Planned 12-storey highrise on lower Johnston Road was stalled in 2018

‘Potentially life-threatening’ injuries in South Surrey crash

152 Street was closed between Colebrook Road and 40 Avenue for several hours

B.C. records five new COVID-19 deaths, ‘zero chance’ life will return to normal in April

Province continue to have a recovery rate of about 50 per cent

Liberals delay release of 75% wage subsidy details, costs: Morneau

Program will provide up to $847 per week for each worker

World COVID-19 update: NATO suspicious of Russian military drills; Cruise ships ordered to stay at sea

Comprehensive update of coronavirus news from around the world for Wednesday, April 1

John Horgan extends B.C.’s state of emergency for COVID-19

Premier urges everyone to follow Dr. Bonnie Henry’s advice

UPDATE: 6.5-magnitude earthquake in Idaho shakes B.C. Interior

An earthquake was reportedly felt just before 5 p.m. throughout the Okanagan

Two inmates at prison housing Robert Pickton test positive for COVID-19

Correctional Service of Canada did not release any details on the identities of the inmates

B.C. heart surgery patient rarely leaves home

James Jepson is especially vulnerable to the novel coronavirus

BC SPCA launches matching campaign to help vulnerable animals after big donations

Two BC SPCA donors have offered up to $65,000 in matching donations

Anti-tax group calls for MPs, senators to donate scheduled pay raises to charity

Bill C-30, adopted 15 years ago, mandates the salary and allowance increases each calendar year

Most Read