« Kanehsatake, 270 years of resistance », 25 years later
On July 11, 1990, Québec’s provincial police force, the Sûreté du Québec (SQ), stormed the barricade erected on a small dirt road by Mohawks from the village of Kanehsatake.
The community had been protesting since March against a housing and golf-course expansion project in the municipality of Oka that would encroach on a pine forest on Mohawk territory.
For weeks, the protesters had ignored two court injunctions obtained by Oka ordering that the barricade be removed. Tear gas canisters were fired at the protesters and the Mohawk warriors from Kahnawake and Akwesasne who had come to their aid. An exchange of gunfire ensued and the provincial police’s involvement turned tragic when an SQ officer, corporal Marcel Lemay, was killed in the gun battle.
The SQ retreated and the protesters took advantage of the confusion in the battle’s aftermath to expand their barricade to include Route 334. After hearing the news, the Kahnawake Mohawks blocked the Mercier Bridge in support of their Kanehsatake brothers. The Oka Crisis had begun.
From the start of her career, Alanis Obomsawin has felt it her duty to document important events involving Indigenous communities. So when she heard the news, she immediately put together an NFB crew to film the events that were to follow.
She arrived with a small team, thinking the siege would last only a few days. It lasted 78 and turned into a major political event that would forever alter the relationship between the Indigenous peoples and the non-Indigenous Canadians. It would also result in the Abenaki filmmaker’s most important work.
Kanehsatake, 270 years of resistance celebrates the 25th anniversary of its release in 2018. While the documentary enjoyed enormous success, its launch was not without problems. The CBC and the private British broadcaster Channel 4 got wind of the project as it was being edited, and CBC staff even came to observe the filmmaker and her editor at work at the NFB. It was a colossal task.
After cataloguing some 100 hours of film, they embarked on the long editing process. The first version lasted 10 hours! Subsequent versions cut this down to three hours and then to its final length of 119 minutes. But the CBC felt this was still too long and demanded a 48-minute version. Obomsawin refused. How could you boil down a 78-day crisis into under an hour? Ultimately, the full-length film was purchased by Channel 4.
The British broadcaster first held private viewings with various target audiences to get their reactions. The reception was very enthusiastic; viewers leapt to standing ovations, and the film was broadcast a week later. Which is how, strange as it may seem, Alanis Obomsawin’s most important work was world premiered in England and first broadcast on television on a foreign network. The CBC eventually purchased the film in its original length and broadcast it several months later.
A unique perspective
As its title implies, Kanehsatake, 270 years of resistance is about much more than the Oka Crisis. It covers nearly three centuries of Mohawk resistance against the invasion of its territory. It looks at the crisis from the inside – from the Indigenous point of view. It takes a unique perspective on the confrontation between the Mohawks, the SQ, and the Canadian Armed Forces, in contrast to the TV reports and newspaper stories of the time.
It is a striking film. A pioneering work. A pivotal moment in the history of Indigenous cinema. It represents the recognition of a filmmaker who has tirelessly, intelligently, and sensitively defended the causes of Indigenous peoples in Canada for nearly 50 years, and who strives, film after film, to make their voices heard.
So on this National Indigenous Peoples Day, June 21, I invite you to enjoy – or enjoy once again – this NFB classic.