Against the 300-year-old land grab: Kanien’kehá:ka hunger strike against development in Oka takes on the fundamentals of Canadian colonialism

On October 11th, a member of the Kanien’kehá:ka nation began a hunger strike against the ongoing “land grab” of Kanien’kehá:ka territory by Canada. The same territorial dispute at the centre of today’s hunger strike also sparked the militant standoff that Canadian politicians and media refer to as the “Oka Crisis” of 1990. The Kanien’kehá:ka struggle against Canada’s colonial land theft is as old as the European presence on Kanien’kehá:ka territory itself. 

The hunger strike lasted 15 days, with the hunger striker calling it off on October 24th. Kanehsata:ke spokesperson Ellen Gabriel told CBC that the end of the hunger strike is not the end of the struggle. The hunger strike successfully “amplified the voices of the longhouse and people are getting aware.” 

The recent history of this territorial struggle has been framed around the Kanien’kehá:ka assertion of their Great Law of Peace against the illegitimate settler colonial laws enforced by the government and policing agencies of Canada.

In August, members of the Kanien’kehá:ka nation have stepped up their resistance against Canada’s ongoing land grab. At a news conference held in the same pines that Canadian tanks rolled through in the summer of 1990, Gabriel explained that these “contested lands” are particularly important because “Kanehsatà:ke is the oldest community of the Kanien’kehá:ka.” Stretching far beyond the Pines, these Kanien’kehá:ka homelands include the settler towns of Oka, Pointe-aux-Anglais, Pointe-Calumet, St. Joseph, Ste. Marthe, Deux-Montagnes, and many other municipalities.

Gabriel demanded an immediate moratorium on Canada’s legal parcelling of these contested lands and the sale and development of them as properties. She said that the Kanien’kehá:ka nation is issuing a “buyer beware” warning to anyone buying lands in these contested areas. She demanded that new development stop in the town of Oka. That “companies like that of Les Collines d’Oka of Mr. Grégoire Gollin, and Des Domaines des Ostreyers, Oka-sur-la-Montagne and other developments, from the sale or transfer of any more disputed lands in Kanehsatà:ke.” She said, “To continue to do so is land fraud.” And she demanded that Prime Minister Trudeau and the Crown intervene immediately to stop this land grab.

The hunger strike that started on October 11th has been the next step in the Kanien’kehá:ka nation’s struggle against this 300-year-old land theft. 

In this struggle, the Kanien’kehá:ka nation has been opposed by every branch of Canada’s power. Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government has ignored Kanien’kehá:ka demands, the RCMP and Surete Quebec police have loomed as a military danger, and the settler colonial corporate media have ignored the struggle, blacking-out coverage. The blackout by mainstream media dovetails with silencing by the Canadian government, and is reminiscent of other blackouts of other moments of Indigenous political struggle. 

On October 18th, the eighth day of the hunger strike, Sadie Morris, Ma Maa Tea (Nuu Chah Nulth, Wolf Clan) interviewed Ellen Gabriel about the hunger strike and the Kanien’kehá:ka struggle. We are publishing the full text of that interview here, with edits made only for clarity. 


Ellen Gabriel with Quebec Native Affairs minister at the barricades of Kanehsata:ke in 1990 (pic. Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Interview with Ellen Gabriel (Kanien’kehá:ka) by Sadie Morris (Nuu Chah Nulth, Wolf Clan)

My name is Sadie Morris, my Indignenous name is Ma Maa Tea – Little Bird, I am from the Wolf Clan, from the Nuu Chah Nulth Nation, and Irish. I am also an organizer with Alliance Against Displacement. Myself and my daughter Destiny Morris, who is Gitxsan and Nuu Chah Nulth and Irish, are home defenders for working class and Indigenous people’s homes.

My organizing work is informed by my belief that what happens to one Indigenous body or the land happens to all Indigenous people across Turtle Island. We are the land and the land is us. Whether it be imperialism, development of highways, resorts, or condos, any development at all is on unceded and never surrendered Indigenous territory. We have never surrendered our land.

It is from this perspective that I stand with Kanien’kehá:ka of Kanehsatà:ke. As the Kanien’kehá:ka leaders have already said: there will be no development without Free and Prior Consent in the Kanehsatà:ke. 

The government and media silencing of the hunger strike which stands for Kanien’kehá:ka of Kanehsatà:ke land relations and protection of Mother Earth, for the 302 years of resistance, as the Kanien’kehá:ka said, who never extinguished their rights, the land, each other, and the Great Law Of Peace, is silencing and continuing the colonization of Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island.  

This Indigenous activist, and The Volcano newspaper call on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to not only call a moratorium on development but to meet with the Kanien’kehá:ka and entrench protection of the Kanien’kehá:ka, which would be true reconciliation. 

SM: What is your name and where are you from?

EG: I am Ellen Gabriel, Kanien’kehá:ka of Kanehsatà:ke, which is Mohawk. 

SM: In the press conference held on August 21, you clearly defined the point that there will be no development in Oka because of the Kanien’kehá:ka nation does not give consent. This includes that Oka developers have no consent with the “Great Law of Peace.” To me, as an Indigenous person, the Great Law of Peace, which, although it is not recognized in colonial law, supercedes man’s or Canadian law. How does the Great Law of Peace define and frame your Nation’s (Kanien’keha:ka) defence of treaty territory?

EG: The Great Law of Peace is the original Mohawk constitution and it helps guide us in our traditional governance, our language, our culture, and our ceremonies. For us in an occupied state: they have stolen land and they have continued to steal land. 

We’re trying to stop development by third parties, including the Municipality of Oka. The Mohawk Council of Kanesatake are working in conjunction with the Municipality of Oka to develop and harmonize the laws with the parliamentary Act called “S24,” which is the Kanien’keha:ka Interim Land Management Act, established under Jean Chretien. S24 includes turning Kanien’kehá:ka lands into fee simple property. Art Manuel had talked about that being, in a sense, an extinguishment of title, and we are refusing that. We are not just fighting non-Indigenous people; we are fighting our own people who are siding with the colonial governments. 

SM: Your second point that was the Canadian government must cease and desist the illegal sales and development of Indigenous homelands. Along with the “Great Law of Peace,” it is clear to me that this territory is more than land; it is “home” land. How do you see this fight as not just for the Kanien’kehá:ka people but people of Turtle Island and other Indigenous people internationally?

EG: It is the same part of land dispossession that’s going on by Canada and colonizers. In 1990 a major historical event happened here, which was called the Oka crisis, but we called it the Kanehsatà:ke siege. It sparked an awakening of Indigenous people across Canada and the US and other Americas. It also shamed Canada internationally.

People don’t know that issue was never ever resolved. It is 302 years old now. The issue we are talking about is similar to others. We may have different ways of governance, languages, cultures, ceremonies, but the foundations on which most Indigenous peoples base their philosophy, the way they base their way of life, is grounded in Mother Earth, and respect for other relations, and thinking about seven generations ahead. That is basically what the Great Law of Peace is about.

Canada’s Constitution Act of 1982 acknowledges and respects the inherent rights of Indigenous people. Now, inherent rights is more than just fishing and hunting; it’s also governance. The fact is that Canada, especially under Prime Minister Trudeau, refuses to respect our rights. We don’t care if they recognize our rights, but they refuse to respect our rights as they allow land fraud and land dispossession to go on. That means Canada is violating the rule of law; even its own law. 

We are very disappointed. We hope that if there is another government that does come in, that they understand what respecting Indigenous peoples’ human rights is about.

SM: Can you speak to the media’s refusal to honour the hunger striker’s request for anonymity? You and the hunger striker have framed anonymity as a matter of protocol, and the media refusal to respect that makes it clear that the settler colonial media, including the settler colonial public media CBC, is part of the occupation, and that their coverage and production of Canadian knowledge is colonialism. Do you have something more to say about the refusal to honour the hunger striker’s request for anonymity?

EG: I think it is a twisted, hypocritical version of their policy because they have done many stories with people who were anonymous sources, particularly whistle-blowers. And there has been precedence set by journalists right around the world in issues like Watergate and other issues like that. 

It’s not like the reporters didn’t know his identity. The decision to release his identity was made by the producers.

I have spoken with a few of the reporters. I said, you know, for 29 years I have been respecting your ways of doing things, in regards to the media. This was a decision made in the Longhouse to support the hunger striker, and it’s about time that the media decolonize and respect our protocols. I found that was really disrespectful. 

I think it was a way to manipulate us, because they have been part of the problem. CBC has been part of the problem in respect to telling the truth. It is always a very biased reporting that we have seen in the last 29 years, that has promoted a misunderstanding of what we mean when we say sovereignty or self determination. 

SM: Can you explain more about the broader issues that your struggle is standing for?

EG: We’re asking for something that is reasonable, which is a short-term moratorium [on development]. But there’s so much money to be made and rich resources in our small community of Kanehsatà:ke and the Confederacy homelands. Quebec and Canada uses us as a pingpong ball to pretend not to offend one another. 

We know this is about an economic agenda, and taxes. As we’ve seen in this agenda: Indigenous peoples’ humanities and human rights don’t matter. We are once again marginalized.

After 29 years of propaganda to villainize Mohawk people, it’s easy for politicians to ignore us. This is part of institutionalized racism, it’s part of the colonial agenda. 

Our traditional governments existed before and survived colonization. Our system of governance before contact exists today, and our rights are violated constantly, not just by the colonizer but by our own people who are collaborating with them. 

I hope that people will one day see us as the first environmentalists. What we are trying to do is to protect the land so that the children and youth will be able to survive climate change, and that future generations will be able to decide how we’ll use our lands. This is why we’re fighting to protect them.

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