‘Different day, same issue’: What the Oka Crisis can teach us about the pipeline protests

TVO.org speaks with Carleton University professor Kahente Horn-Miller about the Mohawk Resistance — and why it’s important to inconvenience people when you’re fighting for change
By Shelby Lisk - Published on Feb 11, 2020
For five days, protestors near Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory have disrupted passenger and freight-train service along the rail corridor connecting Toronto and Montreal. (Shelby Lisk)

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Thirty years ago, Kahente Horn-Miller watched a standoff unfold between the Mohawks of Kanehsatá:ke and the Canadian military. The Oka Crisis, also known as the Mohawk Resistance, was a 78-day confrontation between Mohawk protestors, police, and the army over the proposed expansion of a golf course and the development of condominiums on land that included a burial ground.

“My mother and two of my sisters were up in Kanenhsatá:ke [Oka]. I was in Ottawa watching from the side, just getting ready to go to university,” says Horn-Miller. “I was watching everything that was going on because I’d never seen my mother [Kahn-Tineta Horn] like this. She’d kind of put all her activism aside, and it really awakened at that moment.”

On September 26, 1990, the crisis ended when the expansion was cancelled and the federal government purchased the land. Out of the standoff came the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People and 444 recommendations related to such issues as treaties, governance, land and resources, economic development, and education. Horn-Miller and others say they’ve been ignored.

It’s with this context in mind that she approaches the current standoff between the Wet’suwet’en people in British Columbia and the RCMP over a Coastal GasLink pipeline project on Wet’suwet’en land.

“Oka is still in our memory. There are still a lot of people who are alive who were a part of that. That was only 30 years ago. And it was a moment of awakening for a lot of us, because my generation were teenagers, right? So it’s not easy to forget,” Horn-Miller says. “When we see other places in Canada or elsewhere in the world that need our solidarity, we remember all of the people all over North America and South America who stood up with us.”

Since the RCMP tactical unit was deployed at the Gidumt’en checkpoint, in January 2019, there have been solidarity protests across Ontario in such cites as Guelph, Hamilton, Kingston, London, Ottawa, and Toronto. For six days, protestors near Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory have disrupted passenger and freight-train service along the rail corridor connecting Toronto and Montreal. In Horn-Miller’s community of Kahnawà:ke, protestors blocked the train tracks at the Adirondak Junction. Akwesasne protesters blocked the Seaway International Bridge on Friday afternoon.

Horn-Miller is now a professor in the School of Indigenous and Canadian Studies at Carleton University. She spoke with TVO.org about fighting for the future, speaking to the land, and what it means to be a warrior.

TVO.org: What are the similarities between the 1990 standoff and today’s?

Kahente Horn-Miller: I think we’re dealing with the same issues. Different day, same issue. The whole thing about the colonization that’s taken place here on Turtle Island is that it’s always been about lands and resources. It started when they first came here, and they over-fished, and they over-hunted — the extinction of the buffalo, the beaver population almost decimated, multiple animals going extinct. The removal of us from our traditional economies, placing us in residential schools, taking away our language and our culture and our families. This is the impact of it. We’ve tried to fight it, and now the whole world knows that the Earth is suffering. It’s not just Indigenous people watching what’s going on and being impacted.

TVO.org: What would you say to people who feel inconvenienced by the protests and blockades?

Horn-Miller: In certain instances, you can’t change someone’s mind, but that’s what those protests are meant to do — inconvenience people, so, hopefully, they’ll start writing letters, they’ll start calling their member of parliament, and that’s the impact. That’s what supposed to happen. You have to throw a log in their path in order for them to trip on it. It’s actually achieving what it’s supposed to. An awareness is happening — whether it’s an angry awareness or a learned awareness — where someone actually says, “Whoa, okay. I need to learn about this issue.”

TVO.org: Do you think that the protests can create change?

Horn-Miller: I don’t know. My mother has been fighting this fight since she was in her twenties. For the same issues, just a different year. I don’t want to sound defeatist, but the system is huge. All of society’s structures are predicated on the idea that the Earth is for the taking, the resources are for the taking. They’ve put in place all of these structures that are about top-down power, and so we’ve been fighting that. My ancestors were fighting it, we’re fighting it now, and our children and our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren are going to be fighting it, I think, because it’s really hard to change that system. It’s a certain way of thinking that is about domination of the Earth, having power over the earth.

TVO.org: If your non-Indigenous students came to you and asked what they could do, what would you say?

Horn-Miller: There is new toolkit put out by the Wetsu’wet’en Strong group. Look at it. Read it. Do what they suggest. They know best what they need. Whether it’s fundraising money so that they can remain out there, writing letters to members of parliament or to the prime minister, or showing up at a march on the hill — there are multiple ways. But the thing is not to stand by, because this has an impact on them, as well. It’s an important point to communicate that we’re not just doing this for ourselves. It’s for everyone, and it’s for the future generations. We have to think seven generations ahead because if we don’t, we will have no food, we will have no water, we will be dead.

TVO.org: Growing up, the only media I saw about my community of Tyendinaga were photos of people holding the Mohawk warrior flag, blocking the highway or the railroad. Usually, it was associated with the militant imagery of the 1990 Oka crisis. Can you explain what the flag symbolizes?

Horn-Miller: The flag is actually a symbol of peace. It originated in the community of Kahnawà:ke, created by Louis Hall Karoniaktajeh. There’s a paper I wrote on it called “The Meaning of the Mohawk Warrior Flag 20 Years After Oka.” Each one of those symbols in the flag represents Karoniaktajeh’s understanding of the great law, Kayanerenkó:wa, which means “the way of peace.”

Mohawk flag
The Mohawk warrior flag was created by Louis Hall Karoniaktajeh. (Francis Vachon/CP)

In the ’80s, he was asked to design a flag specifically for the warrior society because there was no flag; it was just a painting. The original design has long hair, which, from what I was told, was a hairstyle of peace. So you wore your hair down in peace time, and then you would do a scalp lock in wartime. He put a scalp lock on the warrior’s head, but Rotisken’rakéhte (the warrior society) means to “carry the burden of peace” — and that’s really what a warrior is supposed to do. We were not about going to war all the time. That’s not who we are. We are people of peace. So that’s what [the flag] communicates, and then it evolved over time. It was used during ’90s, and the media took it up as a representation of bloodshed and warfare, and then it took on this meaning of “the warrior society” or “the bad boys.”


TVO.org: What else do you think people need to know to understand the Mohawk warrior symbol, the great law of peace, in the context of the protests?

Horn-Miller: I think that they have to understand that the Indian Act put in place a system that is foreign to our original instructions. The band-council system is meant to administer money that comes from the federal government. Traditional governance, traditional leaders, hereditary chiefs, traditional legal orders are about protecting the land. They aren’t about administering money. So when they encounter these situations where they are asked, “Well, what do you think if we put a pipeline through your land?” the first answer will always be no, because it goes against the instructions.

Despite colonization, despite the Indian Act, we know what our responsibilities are, and our traditional governance and legal orders are still there. It’s very easy to understand what your responsibilities are when you look at the Earth.

TVO.org: How can you speak for the land?

Horn-Miller: You put your body there, and you say, “Well, I guess I have to show you,” because we’ve tried going through the courts, and we get shut down all the time. But we keep on trying. We can’t stop. If we stop, we’re not going to have a future, and our children and our grandchildren won’t.

The interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

This is one of a series of stories about Indigenous issues brought to you in partnership with Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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