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Walking with the ghosts of the Oka Crisis

Twenty-Nine years after the Oka Crisis, Kanesatake is faced with an opportunity to dance with old traumas as they navigate new relations around the pine forest area with the old wounds that accompany it.

The Pines, for many Mohawk people in both Kanesatake and Kahnawake, has come to represent a place of resilience as much as it does a place of pain. 

Through the lens of resiliency, the 78-day standoff of the Oka Crisis was viewed as an act of solidarity against the original colonial systems that continued to oppress the Indigenous ways of knowing. 

By standing against these systems and their proposed development on traditional territory, the Mohawk people stood as the voices of the forests, the land, the waters, the children and the ancestors that were woven into the land itself. 

This moment became an important act of resiliency and resistance against systemic violence and it was a moment to be seen, recognized and validated as Indigenous and distinct people. 

Through the lens of trauma, however, the Oka Crisis was also a moment of loss, grief, anger and fear related to the violence that ensued, not just by the armed forces but by surrounding neighbours who remained unaware of the injustices that Indigenous people faced.

From storming army tanks, to tear gas raids, to rocks thrown at the Mohawk people in the Whiskey Trench just after the Mercier Bridge, this moment was also a time of great and sustained stress. 

And for anyone that studies or understands trauma, sustained stress can lead to the re-mapping of the brain to remain in survival mode. 

Fight.

Flight.

Freeze. 

Disassociate. 

These are all reactions that are often triggered during traumatic moments, and are reactions that can continue long after the trauma has passed.

This level of stress, alongside its resilience, then continues to be carried into the next generations and can act as fuel for the debate on land claims, sovereignty and Indigenous rights. 

Within the web of multigenerational trauma, rooted in the many forms of systemic violence prior and post-Oka Crisis, a new moment for reflection has arrived.  

Last Thursday, land developer Gregoire Gollin offered a portion of the Pines on Mohawk territory as an ecological gift and act of reconciliation with the Mohawk people of Kanesatake. 

Sharing that the land is difficult to develop due to the forested nature of the territory, Gollin proposed signing the land to the people for their own use. 

On the surface, this act indeed appears to be a moment of reconciliation and acknowledgment of the trauma the people have endured to reclaim land and identity – in general.

Indeed, this is a moment that opens the opportunity to build relations and set in motion novel ways to return traditional land and access to identity to Indigenous people.

And indeed, this may all be valid, genuine and true in the heart of Gollin, but from the lens of Indigenous people and the traumas their communities carry, gift-giving and agreements have historically led to more violence and new waves of system conflicts.

For this reason, traumas can often lead communities to think critically and feel deeply about land, language and culture as they touch old memories of loss.

For some, this act of returning land can trigger such a deep level of anger around the invalidation of stolen land, of past actions and the many facets of the system that continues to oppress identity. 

For some, the shared traumas across territories speak so loud that it is hard to listen, hard to trust; hard to feel safe and hard to know what is trauma and what is intuition. 

So as this proposal unfolds between communities, it is important to take time to acknowledge trauma, validate it and walk with the ghosts of the Oka Crisis into the conversation so that all decision-makers can be aware of how deep land, identity and consent work together. 

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