Mohawk land defender Ellen Gabriel on the continuing struggle for land and territory
Peace Brigades International closely followed the July-September 1990 confrontation between Mohawk land defenders (who opposed the expansion of a golf course onto Indigenous burial grounds) and the Quebec police and Canadian army.
That 78-day confrontation took place just 50 kilometres west of Montreal and about 150 kilometres east of Ottawa and is the subject of Alanis Obomsawin’s National Film Board documentary Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance.
The PBI Annual Report in 1991 notes that PBI was invited by members of the Mohawk communities of Kahnawake and Kanesatake to provide training.
Toronto-based author-activist Len Desroches has written, “The summer after the ‘Oka crisis’, some members of Peace Brigades International and myself spent an intense week in Kanesatake and Kahnawake [and] explored the possibilities of active nonviolence with members of the Mohawk community.”
The PBI Annual Report further explains, “Part of the training was held in The Pines, site of the armed confrontation between the Sûreté du Québec [the provincial police] and Mohawk Warriors a year before. PBI’s internationalism was especially valued, above all because one of the trainers was himself an indigenous person from Central America.”
This recent interview with Ellen Gabriel in Canadian Dimension magazine highlights that the 300 year long Kanien’kéha:ka (Mohawk) struggle for the return of their land continues. Gabriel was the official Mohawk spokesperson during the Oka Crisis of 1990.
Gabriel says, “Once the federal government stopped its siege on our community in September 1990, it promised to resolve the land issue; however, when the tanks left and the 2500 troops were redeployed, we didn’t get the land back.”
She adds, “In the years afterwards, the government promised to work with the community to transfer the land back, but instead fraudulently sold it to a developer who in turn sold it to [real estate developer Gregoire] Gollin. People need to understand that this is what has been going on for 300 years.”
Gabriel says, “We are people of the land. We are made from this land. It is priceless. We want to have the ability, like everybody else, to be able to live in a safe and secure environment, and we cannot do that when the Government of Canada continues to control our lives and our lands. And if Canadians want to pressure their governments – municipal, provincial, federal – to do something, if they really care about peace in this country, then they need to learn their own colonial history.”
Tensions have continued to escalate with Oka Town Council passing a motion on August 6th calling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to establish an RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) detachment in Kanesatake.
The Peace Brigades International-North America Project, which existed from 1992 to 1999, was established following the July-September 1990 Oka Crisis. It focused on Indigenous rights and visited various frontline struggles in the 1990s.
That included visits to Nitassinan (Quebec-Labrador) in December 1992 (when a hydroelectric dam was to be built on the Sainte Marguerite River); Ipperwash (Ontario) in September 1995 (following the police shooting of Indigenous land defender Dudley George); Barriere Lake (Quebec) in April 1996 (where the community has struggled to defend its unceded territory from logging and mining); and Esgenoopetitj (New Brunswick) in 1999 (when the Mi’kmaq people asserted their right to catch and sell lobster out of season).
The PBI-North America Project was started by Alaine Hawkins, a Toronto-based Quaker and director of PBI’s Central America Project, Steve Molnar from PBI-USA, and others who had volunteered with PBI in Guatemala.
In this PBI-USA article, Molnar said, “There were a lot of things that we did in Guatemala that were quite applicable and then some things that were just totally new.”
He adds, “In Guatemala, we might see massacres or open violence. We didn’t see as much of that in North America, but we did witness a type of genocide, a cultural genocide. A lot of our work was spent recording that.”
The story of PBI’s North America Project is more fully told in Joan Edenburg’s book Making Space for Peace.