5. The Politics of Panic - A History of Canadian Firearms Control


In 1989, Oka's politicians announced that they planned to expand their golf course. In order to accomplish this they needed to use an area of disputer land adjacent to a Mohawk cemetary, part of the Kaneshsatake reserve which was home to approximately 1,000 Mohawks (Wright, 1991, p.331).

The Mohawks, along with the Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora, are part of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, one of the oldest political unions in North America (Wright, 1991, p.223).

The Oka land dispue extends back nearly 300 years. In 1717, Louis XV of France "granted" 150 square miles of land surrounding Oka to the Sulpician missionaries. As was the case where Europeans dealt with aboriginals, the land wasn't Louis XV's to grant. The Mohawks had always lived there; regardless, the Suplicians subsequently sold the timber and farmland to whites (Wright, 1991, p.331).

In 1869, the Mohawks burned down the Catholic church in protest, but evidently their message wasn't getting across. What remained of the Suplician's real estate holdings was bought by the Canadian government in 1945. A private members bill in the Quebec legislature gave title to a portion of the Mohawk lands to the Oka town council. In 1959, the town built a nine-hole golf course on a portion of Mohawk territory (Wright, 1991, p.332).

In 1961, the Mohawks protested to the federal government. Sixteen years later the government replied that all land claims dating prior to the British North America Act of 1867 were outside its jurisdiction (Wright, 1991, p.332).

In April of 1990, negotiations aimed at resolving the issue, involving the Quebec government, the Mohawks, and the Town of Oka, proved unsuccessful (Wright, 1991, p.333).

While negotiations were underway it was reported that trucks escorted by police were observed unloading long wooden boxes in the vicinity of the disputed territory. The Mohawks believed that they contained firearms. The Mohawks erected barricades and began arming themselves (Wright, 1991, p.334).

On 11 July, 1990, one hundred armed officers of the Surete du Quebec (SQ) attacked the main barricade. Both sides began shooting. When the shooting ended the police retreated and Corporal Lemay of the SQ had been shot to death (Wright, 1991, p.334).

At the Kahnawake reserve some 25 miles away, Mohawks blocked peak hour traffic across the Mercier bridge into Montreal. Residents of Montreal's suburbs who were accustomed to travelling undisturbed through Mohawk land demonstrated outside the Mohawk barricades, chanting racist slogans and burning Mohawks in effigy (Wright, 1991, p.335).

Food and medical supplies into the Mohawk camps were cut off by a police cordon (Wright, 1991, p.335).

The federal government refused to become involved. On 8 August, 1990, Premier Robert Bourassa called in the Canadian military (Wright, 1991, p.337).

Lise Bourgault (Parliamentary Sec-.Min of National Health and Welfare): "It is like a checkerboard, Madame Speaker, white land next to native land, and that makes for shaky relations between the two communities. And now we have all heard about the famous golf course. Does that case give a handful of armed warriors the right to hold a whole population hostage?...How do you think people in my region feel towards these Warriors? They call them savages!...The arms did a magnificent job. They should have been sent from the very beginning."

(Hansard, 1990, p.13307)

"...He [Minister of Indian Affairs] never expected, as no one would have, the day would come when fifteen or so people would make a whole nation shake at gunpoint and could not hold out against the Quebec Police Force and even the Canadian Army."

(Hansard, 1990, p.13310)

Sid Parker (Kootenay East): "...It should come as no surprise that some native people have resorted to violence. The real surprise is that it has not happened sooner."

(Hansard, 1990, p.13310)

Jack Anawak (Nunatsiaq): "...I would also like to comment on some things that have been mentionned by some honorable members across the way about how heavy the Mohawk artillery is. We have to make it quite clear that never have we said at any point that we condone violence. However, I would just like to point out that various members from the government side have referred to the arms, the arsenal, or the artillery in the Mohawk camp."

"While this may be true, it does not excuse the fact that the army moved in with tanks, with machine guns, and with I do not know what else - with more arms - but it moved in with 3,000 to 4,000 army personnel against a group of something in the neighbourhood of 50 Mohawks, of which a number were warriors. I would say that is overkill..."

(Hansard, 1990, p.13331)

By 12 August, 1990, 2,500 Canadian soldiers were within striking distance of the Mohawk encampments. On 27 August, 1990, Bourassa ordered the army to move in (Wright, 1991, p.340).

On 28 August, the Mohawks opened one lane of the Mercier bridge to allow their children, sick and elderly to leave. They were pelted with stones by a white mob. The police did not intervene (Wright, 1991, p.340).

By 29 August, 1990, there were 4,000 soldiers deployed in the area. It appears that violence was imminent; however, a last minute deal was completed which allowed certain Mohawk Warriors to leave Kahnawake with their weapons (Wright, 1991, p.340).

In Oka, the army advanced. By this time, protests had broken out across the country in sympathy with the Mohawks (Wright, 1991, p.341).

On 18 September, 1990, soldiers raided a Kahnawake longhouse searching for weapons. The raid erupted into violence and seven soldiers and seventy-five Mohawks were injured or gassed (Wright, 1991, p.341).

The Quebec government refused to negotiate with the remaining Mohawks at Oka, and would only recognize the army's attempt to acheive their surrender (Wright, 1991, p.342).

Beryl Gaffney (Nepean): "...This is a national tragedy and one that every member in the House should be thoroughly ashamed of. Canada's armed service men and women are being used as fall guys for a government that has been incapable of acting to end the tragic circumstances in Kanesatake. None of us condone armed intervention. None of us condone violence. But I can partly understand it. When one consistantly has one's back to the wall, when one's rights are consistantly being trampled on, when one watches the federal government bend over backwards to accomodate a distinct society within that particular province, but does not include its native peoples in that accomodation, when one sees a federal government that does not appreciate or understand the national aspirations of its first citizens, then I understand their frustration."

(Hansard, 1990, p.13377)

On 26 September, 1990, the Mohawks in Oka capitulated (Wright, 1991, p.342).

During the incident one police officer was killed, scores of people were injured and racial passions inflamed.

The prospect of a hundred other Oka's involving aboriginals dressed in combat fatigues, armed with "military-style" firearms, and prepared to use force to expedite land claims and treaty obligations long ignored by the bureaucracy, was not an attractive scenario for the Mulroney government.

Ray Funk (Prince Albert-Churchill River): "...There are...approximately 15,000 treaty Indian people in my constituency. My heart bled more than once at what I saw, especially among the young people, as they asked each other: 'Are we prepared to die? Are we prepared to be like the people in Oka and Kanesatake? Are we prepared to die for our people, if it should come to that?'...In fact, that became perhaps even an attractive option, even to go so far as to think about taking life and becoming violent themselves."

"...we were virtually in a situation of civil war between Indian people and our own military forces...Whole Indian communities were feeling themselves threatened and, in fact, Indian people across the country felt in the position where they needed to mobilize themselves to take action and we had a Minister of Indian Affairs who decided to hide behind the army and the police and a Prime Minister who decided to hide as well."

(Hansard, 1990, p.13378)

Kim Campbell (Minister of Justice): "Our police officers and soldiers were confronted with a veritable arsenal of these weapons during the disputes at Kahnawake and Kanasatake this summer."

(Hansard, 1990, p.15575)

"There is a growing concern over the role of firearms in all parts of Canadian society, particularly in the wake of the Montreal tragedy and other incidents in recent months."

(Hansard, 1990, p.15579)

Consequently, debate on Bill C-80 resumed in the fall of 1990; however, vigorous lobbying by fireams owners shelved the bill by referring it to the Special Committee on the Subject Matter of Bill C-80 (Fife, 1993, p.126). Bill C-80 died on the order paper when Parliament recessed in the winter months of 1991 (Bartlett, 1994, p.4).

In May of 1991, Campbell introduced Bill C-17. It included a few initiatives that had been recommended by the Special Committee but was essenially identical to Bill C-80 (Bartlett, 1994, p.4).

Despite furious opposition from firearm owners, Bill C-17 was passed in December of 1991.

Robert Nault (Kenora-Rainy River): "...What we are debating is just what it means to the law-abiding citizen, the individual who feels that this piece of legislation does absolutely nothing to the criminal element that we as members of Parliament are supposed to be dealing with."

"We are not supposed to be restricting severly law-abiding citizens who are not the problem at all...We have suggested to law-abiding citizens of this country that we cannot trust them to do the right thing."

"...It is a charade to say that we have put in good legislation and people can sleep better and feel much safer walking on the streets in cities like Toronto and Montreal. It cannot, for the life of me, come out of my mouth..."

"...It seems to me that this bill as it now reads is dealing not with the fundamental issues of controlling the criminal use of guns. It is penalizing people who have proven in the past that they are part of the solution, and not part of the problem of gun related deaths in Canada."

(Hansard, 1991, pp.4588-4589)

While the majority of Members of Parliament voted in support of the bill, over one-third did not vote at all.

Kim Campbell (Minister of Justice): "...The last time this subject matter was before this House, interestingly enough it was brought forward by one of my predecessors as member for Vancouver Centre, who at that time was the Liberal Minister of Justice, Mr. Ron Basford."

An Honorable Member: "He lost his seat over it."

(Hansard, 1990, p.15572)

Kim Campbell became leader of the Progressive Conservative Party in June of 1993 (Fife, 1993, p.202).

In October of 1993, the Progressive Conservative Party suffered the worst defeat in Canadian electoral history. Kim Campbell was defeated in her own constituency.

The land claims which started the incident at Oka still have not been resolved (The Toronto, Star, 94-11-16, p.A19).