Opinion: 30 years after Oka, let’s not allow history to repeat itself

Denying our rights will only make us redouble our efforts to ensure Indigenous peoples get the respect they deserve.

KANESATAKE, QUEBEC: JULY 11,1990 — Men pound a drum near at the site of a blockade on a secondary road in Kanesatake Wednesday, July 11, 1990, the morning of the start of the Oka Crisis in Kanesatake near Montreal. The long summer of conflict began when Quebec Provincial Police attempted to forcefully dismantle the Mohawk blockade on a side dirt road that had been erected earlier in the year to protest the proposed expansion of a golf course. John Kenney / Montreal Gazette

Thirty years ago, on July 11, 1990, Quebec entered one of its worst human, social and political crises. The climate of violence that we witnessed from that July to the end of September 1990 had dramatic consequences, including the death of a serving Sûreté du Québec officer.

The Oka Crisis has, sadly, left an indelible mark in our minds. And it still serves as a point of reference, because nothing has really changed in 30 years.

The social and political divide between First Nations and part of the Quebec population is the result of decades of injustice and forced measures. It is obvious that subjecting an entire population to such actions can only result in wounds that remain raw today. Quebec is no exception in this regard; examples abound around the world.

The Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador wishes to respectfully underscore the memory of the summer of 1990.

We also want to share with the premier and all Quebecers ways to prevent history from repeating itself.

The COVID-19 pandemic, police misconduct of a racist nature, a sad 30th anniversary — it is in this sensitive context that the debate on racism and discrimination is resurfacing in Quebec. Racism and discrimination also has a systemic nature, whether we like it or not. Systemic racism and discrimination are not just concepts or theoretical notions. Rather, they are a set of facts and behaviours, and we should not be afraid to name them and denounce them if we are genuinely willing to correct them. From the point of view of the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador, when a people denies the fundamental rights of another on the basis of its race, we are in the presence of racism. When this denial is formally and systematically exercised by a government, we are in the presence of systemic racism and discrimination. Again, let us not be afraid of words. They help us to face reality.

It should also be recalled that the United Nations adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) more than 10 years ago, with the aim of breaking with such behaviour and proposing viable solutions to states to redefine their relations with Indigenous peoples on a respectful basis. Moreover, the declaration called for minimal standards to ensure the survival, the dignity and well-being of Indigenous peoples. In our view, the political decisions that led to the Oka Crisis are a perfect example of actions to be prohibited under the declaration.

By now, the Quebec government has had ample time to learn the lessons of the recent past and to take to heart the provisions of UNDRIP.

However, what we are seeing is the contrary: Through recent court actions, the Quebec government is today challenging the fundamental right of First Nations to be self-governing, our right to take charge of our own services for our families and children. Must we remind the premier that denying our right to self-determination will only make us redouble our collective efforts to ensure that Indigenous peoples get the respect they deserve?

Putting so much energy and resources into impeding First Nations’ desire to better serve their populations will only exacerbate systemic racism and discrimination.

It is difficult to be optimistic in the search for constructive solutions when the wounds of the relationship are still contaminated by such contempt.

We need to learn from the past and act to move in the right direction, one that will ensure that there is no turning back on mutually agreed principles. Indigenous and Quebec leaders share the duty to find a path that is respectful and beneficial to our respective peoples. It is a matter of willingness.


Ghislain Picard is chief of the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador.


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