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Review: CBC Firsthand – The Oka Legacy

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The documentary opens at the moment when the  Sûreté du Québec (SQ) supported by the Groupe d`Intervention deployed tear gas and concussion grenades at The Pines, Kanehsatake. This specific assault was followed by a  prolonged gun fire exchange that resulted in the only casualty directly related to the crisis; the tragic death of Corporal Marcel Lemay. It was also this offensive that catapulted peaceful protests into a lengthy military standoff that in the end involved more soldiers than Canada sent to Kuwait. This was the threat that motivated people across Canada to branch out in response to the crisis.

Award-winning documentary film-maker Sonia Bonspille-Boileau takes us on a journey for knowledge and understanding as she carefully weaves her tale. Here, Bonspille-Boileau examines the legacy of the Oka crisis from three distinct perspectives: her personal experiences as a child during the crisis, those who were directly affected by the events, and those who were moved to action from outside the situation at large.

The first segment is from the perspective of a child (Bonspille- Boileau herself) as the timeline is retold. We are reminded of Oka’s municipal plans to expand a private golf course and luxury housing project onto unceded Mohawk lands; lands that included  Kanehsatake’s sacred burial grounds. Bonspille-Boileau explains how this event affected so many “people who fought, people who lost, people who witnessed and were inspired to do great things. Their journeys of overcoming hardships are just a small example of the bigger picture; of how that summer people stood up and helped change a nation”.

The remaining  segments are devoted to the responses of  others, who  either directly or indirectly experienced this pivotal  point in First Nations/non-Indigenous relations and have since branched out in their own directions as a result. The resistance demonstrated by the Mohawk Warriors of Kanehsatake ultimately acted as a seed of understanding for those we meet as they continue to stand up to the colonialism prevalent in Canada today.

We are introduced to  Clifton Nicholas, a documentary film-maker, who was 18 at the time of the crisis. Nicholas describes the events as he lived them as a Mohawk Warrior from behind the barricades. Nicholas provides what I feel is one of the most important statements in this documentary. He recalls, “I’m proud to have been there, but those days are done. I’m a film-maker; I do documentary film-making. I find I can do a lot more about things with a camera in my hand than with an AK47. I have more power; I am actually more dangerous with a camera.”

We  also meet Francine Lemay, a non-Indigenous woman, and the sister of  slain Corporal Marcel Lemay. Lemay shares both her  heartache of  the very public loss of her brother and her pathway to understanding and knowledge. During her personal journey of reconciliation, Ms. Lemay undertook the task to translate the book  At The Woods Edge: An Anthology of the History of the People of Kanehsatake, by Brenda Gabriel and  Arlette Kawanatatie Van den Hende into French so others could learn the whole story. This book–also a pivotal read for Bonspille-Boileua’s own journey–is a written account  of the oral history of the Kanehsatake Mohawks written following the crisis by community elders.   Lemay now recognizes how public opinion was shaped by the mass media in order to serve political interests and  as a result undertook this project in an effort to heal the rift between Quebecois and Mohawks.

We meet others. Melissa Mollen-Dupuis from northern Quebec, who as a child watched the Oka crisis unfold on her television and has since become the leader of the Quebec chapter of Idle No More. And Waneek Horn-Miller  who lived the Oka crisis from behind the barricades as a teenager. Horn-Miller went on to co-captain Canada’s 2000 Olympic women’s water polo team in Sydney and later became a motivational speaker.

The final segment focused on the idea of legacy itself. We are told that for those who lived through the Kanehsatake resistance, the legacy of Oka was an awakening: of the First Nations people,  of Canada, and to heal.  This event that captured the attention  of news media across Canada was the fire that sparked a 1000 more fires in the hope that the lives  of future generations will be better.  Nations from across the country stood up in solidarity with Kanehsatake; they found their voices  then, so that they can continue to fight for their rights across Canada today.

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Bonspille-Boileau has, with her gift as a story-teller/film maker, told not just the stories of those who experienced Oka  but she also demonstrated how this one event  led to larger movements in Canada. As a result of the Oka crisis, the Mulroney government initiated the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People whose final report ultimately led to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and that final report which was released earlier this year. Idle No More and MMIW are also movements that are a direct result of the Oka crisis.  Bonspille-Boileau identifies this crisis as the moment when Indigenous people in Canada renounced their shame, blossomed as a people, and found their pride.

In a country whose history texts continue to teach students the history of colonization from the European settlers perspective,  it is refreshing to see Canada’s television network (CBC) feature a documentary created by an Indigenous woman, that tells the story about a critical moment in recent Indigenous history from the Indigenous perspective, and is produced by an  Aboriginal-owned TV and film production company. If Oka was a moment of awakening to begin to heal; the process that created this documentary  is itself representative of that same legacy.

In Bonspille-Boileau’s own words, the Oka Crisis “wasn’t just about taking a stand for a forest and a burial ground, it was and still is about getting rid of the shame, about re-telling our story, and about fighting for what is right.”

Watch The Oka Legacy online at CBC’s website.

Carolyn Potts
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Carolyn Potts

Teacher. Writer. Mom. Masters' Candidate, Faculty of Education, Western University. Studying Pop Culture Media as a Decolonizer of Education Policy and Practice. I also volunteer as a Girl Guide leader in my spare time.
Carolyn Potts
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