Douglas & McIntyre

Book details:

September 2010
ISBN 978-1-55365-429-2
6" x 9"
208 pages
16 b&w photographs
Cultural Studies
$34.95 CAD

Douglas & McIntyre


A Political Crisis and Its Legacy

Excerpt / Additional Content


This book is written to supply a perspective on the Oka crisis of 1990, from the point of view of someone who worked inside the federal government. To date it has been mostly journalists telling the story, as in the colourful and readable accounts of Geoffrey York and Loreen Pindera on Kanesatake People of the Pines) or Rick Hornung on Akwesasne (One Nation Under the Gun), though there have been a few personal memoirs, notably those of John Ciaccia and Doug George-Kanentiio. Bruce Johansen’s excellent Life and Death in Mohawk Country investigates what happened during the civil war at Akwesasne. Alanis Obomsawin produced a dramatic two-hour movie, Kanehsatake: 270 Years o f Resistance, for the National Film Board that captures some of the emotions on the Mohawk side of the barricades. The Montreal Gazette and the Globe and Mail, as well as radio and television broadcasters, followed the story closely once the gunfire began. To one degree or another, these “first drafts of history” tend to be sympathetic to the participants and critical of governments and their agents in the police and the armed forces. An exception is a lengthy chapter in a book entitled The Real Worlds of Canadian Politics: “Feather and Gun: Confrontation at Oka/Kanesatake” by Robert Campbell and Leslie Pal, a careful account that uses the Oka story to call attention to the need for deep changes in public policy.

In the summer of 1990, I was the federal deputy minister of Indian Affairs—the latest, in the eyes of some, in a long line of heavy-handed Eurocentric colonial administrators. The advantage of the job was that it gave me a unique view of events, the drama and excitement of which I hope comes through to readers. The downside is equally obvious: as a player, and a representative of a government that had a decided position on many of the issues, nothing I have written will, nor should, be seen as neutral or scholarly. My own views were not always those of the government I served, however, and I have not tried to suppress them here. What happened at Oka is part of the story of Canada, and, more generally of the collision of European and native cultures over the last five centuries or so. There are a number of Mohawk people (by no means all) who will nod their heads, perhaps in private, at much of what I have to say.

I spent my civil service career dealing with microeconomic policy in one form or another, except for five years in the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (DianD). In the end, economic policy became humdrum for me, even boring. The direction of virtue is always apparent for economists, even if you never get there. In the aboriginal world, and I suspect in the area of social policy generally, the path to truth, justice and right thinking is much less apparent, and conventions of language can conceal yawning gaps in meaning. Every now and then during my time in Indian Affairs I would stumble, in the middle of a conversation in an ostensibly shared language, into some epistemological abyss. The sudden realization, for example, that the malign spirit in the snowdrift over there to whom an Inuit speaker was matter-of-factly referring was not just a figure of speech but an empirical reality—well, that was a new thought to a southern Euro-Canadian. Working across cultural boundaries can be exhilarating. I think of my five years in Indian Affairs as the best years of my working life.

One of my first lessons there, as this book reflects, was that contemporary events have two-hundred-year-old tails. No part of the department’s business makes sense without understanding that, and people with no taste for history should not work there. Trying to impose the latest nostrum from a management school text is a recipe for failure—and, in Indian country, an occasion for mirth. In this context, the old Historical Section at DianD, now the Research and Analysis directorate, is a national treasure, and over the years its people have helped all parties to understand better just where in the grand currents of history they are swimming at the moment. The first two chapters of this book are intended to offer a similar perspective for readers. Every word in them bears on the events of 1990—and of 2010.

History veers from drama to farce to tragedy and back again. People under the pressure of great events are never simply noble, silly, scared, humourless or accident-prone. They are human: they are all of these things. What makes behaviour in a crisis so interesting is the compression of events. There is little time to check facts, untangle mysteries, assess new players or invent new modes of institutional response.

So it was with the story of Oka. All sorts of people were drawn into the affair, many surprised to be there, all of them with fragmentary histories of past entanglements, and all of them with views that corresponded imperfectly to the world and to the views of the other players. Ignorance, uncertainty and risk waited at every turn. Speed and strain affected events. The Canadian Army understood better than anyone the costs of haste and the value of sharing information with adversaries. Slowing things down—buying time—was often the most constructive step anyone could propose.