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Rising up

The stereotype is wrong. Our history isn’t that peaceful. A retrospective on four under-appreciated Canadian rebellions whose effects are still with us

BY Angie Gallop, Craig Saunders, Jim Stanford and Carla Tonelli


Canadian history. Those two words have caused generations of eyes to glaze over. Like so many other kids, I went through school bored with history lessons filled with Great Men and Worthy Causes. There were a handful of Major Rebellions, such as the Patriotes and Riel, but by and large, Canada was presented as a nation of peaceful negotiators. It was a line that fed well into the myth of the middle power.

But then I started reading the stories our history textbooks didn’t cover—or at least glossed over. Canada has a rich history, full of bloodthirsty, lusty and diabolical acts that would make our southern neighbours envious. Unfortunately, we don’t celebrate those events.

To help fill in some of the gaps of our history, This Magazine set out to find other events that don’t necessarily make it into the classroom, searching for our most underrated rebellions— events that should inspire new generations to find their uppity souls and strike out to create a new and better Canada. We surveyed a broad range of experts to develop a long list of events— which in the end comprised more than 80, from the Great Peace of 1701 to the ongoing disagreement at Caledonia.

The list was then narrowed down by a panel including the writers of this feature; professors Steven High of Concordia University and Christabelle Sethna of the University of Ottawa; and Robert Chodos, who has written more books on Canadian politics, Quebec history and other subjects than most people have even read.

The four chosen events have each had a lasting effect on the country, and none has received the attention it deserves.

—Craig Saunders

Jump to:
Oka, 1990: “Our land is our future”
Abortion caravan, 1970: Ladies close the House
Ford strike, 1945: Fight for the right to bargain
Fraser Canyon War, 1858: B.C. born of bloodshed

Oka, 1990: “Our land is our future”

By Carla Tonelli

Think back to Oka. Maybe you remember masked warriors and roadblocks of burning tires, scrap metal and mangled police cars. It was the summer of 1990, and for 78 days Mohawk Indians squared off with the law over a 60-acre wedge of land 30 kilometres west of Montreal. Ultimately it took 4,000 soldiers to snuff out the fire—1,500 more than Canada now has in Afghanistan. With helicopters, razor wire and tanks pointing at armed Mohawks clad in balaclavas, it’s a textbook rebellion if there ever was one.

At issue was the expansion of a private golf course from nine holes to 18—on native burial grounds. Land claims can be tangled, ugly messes. And this faceoff turned into the closest we’ve come to a civil war in modern times. The crux of the matter: The town of Oka said it could and would sell the land adjacent to the existing golf course because the municipality owned it. Like hell, the Indians replied.

For 270 years, the Mohawks had successfully staved off development on the pine grove. But in 1947, the municipality of Oka expropriated the land. Mohawks were planning their next appeal when Oka Mayor Jean Ouellette, himself a bit of a golfer, put his foot down and said he would not negotiate. In March, plywood barriers came out, blocking the main route to the coveted property. It’s hard to forget the signs: “Mohawk Territory.” “Our land is our future.”

By June, the Quebec Superior Court had issued three injunctions demanding that the Mohawks remove their blockades. The city could now call in the provincial police if the Mohawks failed to get out of the way. They failed to get out of the way.

Tear gas smells like rotting fruit. It whips and stings your eyes and throat. When more than 100 Sûreté du Québec officers stormed the barricades at Oka at dawn on July 11, they shot tear gas onto the Mohawk side, near armed warriors, women and children.

“If ever a police operation was to go tragically wrong, it was this one,” reported Neil MacDonald for CBC’s The National. The fog of gas blew back on the police swat team. Then the shooting started. No one knows fired the first bullet. Corporal Marcel Lemay, 31, was shot in the mouth, and died on arrival at the hospital. Just two weeks later, a provincial inquiry determined the fatal bullet was fired by a Mohawk gun.

After Lemay’s shooting, the SQ fled. They left police cruisers and a front-end loader. Mohawks used it and stacked the police cars to build another barricade. What followed was three months of newscasts giving a voice to a struggle that for 500 years has been appearing and retreating from the political agenda. This rebellion is forgotten, then remembered, then forgotten again.

Oka, 1990. Ipperwash, 1995. Caledonia, 2006. Deseronto, 2007.

It’s the same struggle, the same resentment and the same call for defenders of Longhouse traditions to guard the land that is integral to their identity. “We never sold and we never ceded any of our land. We shared it with the Europeans who first came here. We are still sharing it with the European descendants and other nations of the world,” Ellen Gabriel, spokesperson for the Kanehsatake Mohawks, told CBC Radio’s As It Happens on July 20, 1990.

“As a nation with our own laws, our own traditions and our own customs, we want the world to recognize that voice. Our right to our territory and our right to defend it,” Gabriel said. The rebellion at Oka was a call for self-governance. We remember the golf course, but forget the call for independence.

Hundreds of Mohawk groups across Quebec, the rest of Canada and upstate New York set up solidarity blockades that summer. Everyone had a complaint. Nearby, Kahnawake Mohawks shut down the Mercier commuter bridge. A 20-minute drive to work in Montreal stretched to 3 hours. Resentment mushroomed. About 1,000 residents in Chateauguay rioted for three consecutive nights in August. They burned effigies of Indians. Those barricades had to come down.

Premier Robert Bourassa took the issue to the federal government. Declaring another nation in Quebec, which was what the Mohawks were calling for, was absolutely out of the question. Quebec’s minister of native affairs, John Ciaccia, successfully brokered a deal with the Mohawks, but in the days after July 11, Mohawks demanded the SQ leave. They didn’t. The deal collapsed.

“The Warriors wanted the army because then they could say they were fighting nation against nation, the Mohawk army against the Canadian army,” Ciaccia said. “They played it for all it was worth around the world.”

On August 8, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney put 4,000 troops on standby. Two weeks later, the tanks rolled in. Painfully democratic agreements were tossed to the wayside. The Mohawks demanded recognition as a nation. It was something they would never get.

The most memorable photos come from this period, including the nose-to-nose standoff between Private Patrick Cloutier and Brad “Freddy Krueger” Larocque, often misidentified as Ronald “Lasagna” Cross. On August 20, the Royal 22nd Regiment—Quebec’s famous Van Doos—stormed three barricades and reduced the rebellion to one small perimeter they marked with razor wire.

Trucks carrying food and supplies for the Indians were turned away. All phone lines were cut except one—to an army hotline set up for negotiations. Night after night, army helicopters hovered. Troops placed a sign to taunt one of the warriors: “Lazagna [sic] dead meat.” The country waited with bated breath for the showdown. But then, in a surprise move, at dusk on September 26, about 50 Indians dropped their weapons and walked into the arms of soldiers. They did not look like winners. Thirty-four of them were arrested (charges were later dropped).

Today, the Oka Golf Club remains a nine-hole course. The land at the centre of the standoff is an extension of the Mohawk cemetery. Ottawa officially purchased the land from Oka, despite Mohawk objections. The struggle for self-governance has not gone away. But it is forgotten all the time. Their rebellion is like a volcano; dormant for years, then erupting, sometimes taking life and retreating again to the call of a crackling fire. But it is always there. It will be as long as the St. Lawrence flows.

Abortion caravan, 1970: Ladies close the House

By Angie Gallop

Early on Monday May 11, 1970, women were rushing all over Ottawa, gathering their implements of war. Two hit the fabric shop, while dozens went around to all the lefty and feminist co-ops to borrow dresses, makeup, high-heeled shoes, jewellery, hats and gloves. Donations were gathered for bail.

Pantyhose were donned. Hair was done. Makeup was applied. More than 30 women put on the camouflage of respectability to infiltrate the House of Commons. In those innocent days before metal detectors, each carried a chain in her purse.

When they were ready, about 80 women in black headscarves started circling the Centennial flame, carrying a symbolic coffin and banners proclaiming, “Twelve thousand women die.” They were ignored by those in heels and skirts walking by singly and in pairs on their way to the House. Others sat lookout on benches around the gardens and on motorcycles nearby, ready to follow any cars carrying arrested demonstrators.

Jackie Larkin remembers pretending not to know her cohorts while going up in the parliamentary elevator. One MP who spotted her later said he had found it “odd” to see the national organizer for the NDP’s radical Waffle wing wearing a pair of gloves.

As the women took their seats in the various galleries circling the House, NDP MP Andrew Brewin asked the Minister of Justice John Turner if he would consider reviewing the abortion law. Although it had legalized the procedure, in practice it meant women needed approval from a committee of, almost always, male doctors. This meant that, in one four-month sampling from Vancouver, only one in 30 women was approved. Turner said he doubted the law would be reviewed.

Ellen Woodsworth remembers how hard it was to get the chain out of her purse quietly. Once shackled to her chair, she says she looked down at all of the men in the House of Commons and was flooded with a powerful sense of her mission to raise women’s concerns. Her cousin, the NDP’s Grace MacInnis, was the only woman MP at the time.

Just before 3 p.m., one of the women stood up and started giving the group’s speech. As the guards closed in on her, another stood up in another gallery and continued. One guard told The Globe and Mail’s Clyde Sanger that the women were “popping up all over the place.” They shut down the House of Commons, and the Vancouver Sun reported it was the first adjournment provoked by a gallery disturbance in its 103-year history.

This was the climax of the Abortion Caravan. As they travelled to Ottawa, members of the Vancouver Women’s Caucus stopped in cities and towns every night to listen to women so they could bring their voices to the government. And they inspired women throughout the country to create a national women’s movement in their wake.

According to Frances Wasserlein, whose masters thesis, “An Arrow Aimed at the Heart: The Vancouver Women’s Caucus and the Abortion Caravan of 1970,” has become an important document for researchers, it transformed the public discussion about abortion. “The caravan changed newspaper stories from people talking about women who were dead from botched abortions to women’s own voices speaking about their own experiences.”

The women in the caravan didn’t see abortion completely struck from the Criminal Code until 18 years later, in 1988. But they laid the foundations for the well-organized pro-choice movement that activists like Judy Rebick joined in the early ’80s. “One lesson of the Abortion Caravan is that in political action and social struggle you have to take risks,” says Rebick, a longtime feminist and author of Ten Thousand Roses: The Making of a Feminist Revolution. “They made the road by walking it and they could have failed. But it worked magnificently. They put abortion on the map, they put birth control on the map and they put a grassroots women’s movement on the map.”

For those who weren’t alive in 1969, the year doctors were first allowed to prescribe the birth control pill for uses other than “cycle regulation,” the idea of women throwing themselves down sets of stairs, puncturing their uteruses with knitting needles or having abortions on a kitchen table may seem positively medieval.

For those who haven’t faced the hundreds of calls from desperate women only to see a few dozen accepted for legal hospital abortions … for those who haven’t seen supportive doctors arrested while colleagues stood silently by … for those who don’t know any of the estimated one million North American women having abortions every year by 1969, it is easy to dismiss the rebellion on Parliament Hill as quaint, even forgettable.

For Christabelle Sethna, a historian well published in the area of women’s sexuality, the Abortion Caravan expanded the definition of “rebellion” to include women and their fight to control their reproductive labour. As a teacher, she warns her students of the danger in viewing this rebellion as “over and done with.”

In fact, she points to early warning signs that this story has the potential to circle backward against women’s right to choose.

Canadians for Choice researcher Jessica Shaw experienced this when she called hospitals across the country posing as a young woman, 10-weeks pregnant. Her findings, released in April 2007, indicate the availability of safe abortions has decreased in the past three years. Now, only 15.9 percent of Canadian hospitals provide abortions. Hospital closures and fewer younger doctors filling the shoes of retired abortion providers are among the many contributing factors.

What’s more, Shaw found three-quarters of the hospitals she called that did provide abortions had front-line staff who couldn’t answer her questions. Neither could some hospital executive directors. During her research, Shaw was laughed at, told myths about abortion and hung up on. “The fight for women’s sexual and reproductive rights is not only a forgotten rebellion, but many people think it is over,” she says.

“I speak on the phone every day with young women who honestly believe they are the only one who has ever been in their situation,” says Shaw. “We shouldn’t be making these young girls feel like they are an anomaly in Canadian society when that is not the case at all.”

Canadians clearly need to start talking about abortion again.

Ford strike, 1945: Fight for the right to bargain

By Jim Stanford

In the summer of 1945, just as the Second World War was ending, Ford announced 1,500 layoffs at Windsor. This helped trigger a strike that would last 99 days and forever change labour relations in Canada.

Notwithstanding the horrific things happening on the battlefields, the war had been a pretty good time for the Canadian working class. The economic and social disaster of the Great Depression had been cured by massive, debt-financed government spending. Unemployment went from double-digits to almost zero within two years. New pools of labour, including more than a million women, were recruited to the economic war effort. With all the new work, workers finally gained some power to demand a fairer shake, and incomes rose rapidly.

Not surprisingly, then, the end of the war spurred mixed emotions among the newly confident Canadian unionists. With wartime production shutting down, and the looming return of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, would workers and their unions hold on to the gains they’d made during the war? Or would Canada return to the desperation and exploitation that had marked the ’30s?

During the war, union membership had doubled, reaching 25 percent of the non-agricultural workforce by war’s end. Hundreds of strikes occurred during 1942 and 1943, perhaps the most concentrated period of union militance in Canadian history. The tension began to ease, eventually, but only after the unions had won significant new powers. These were enshrined in the so-called Canadian Wagner Act, which recognized bargaining rights for the first time.

Ford’s massive complex in Windsor was Canada’s largest workplace, employing some 14,000 auto workers. They had joined the Canadian arm of the United Auto Workers (later to become the Canadian Auto Workers in Canada) during the war, prevailing over bitter employer opposition. The workers won an initial moderate contract from Ford, but this was followed by many small work stoppages and Ford’s continuing refusal to truly accept the union. In those days, union dues were collected voluntarily from individual members. Union security—the ability of the union to exist and operate on a sustainable, consistent basis—was a necessary priority for the union.

The 1,500 layoffs only heightened workers’ peacetime insecurity. After failing to win a new contract, members of UAW Local 200 struck on September 12, 1945. The key demands were related to union security: a closed union shop and automatic dues check-off. There were economic demands, too, including a paid two-week annual vacation.

The local union was new and inexperienced, but solidarity quickly built, as members were determined not to return to a workplace of the ’30s. Solidarity was further strengthened by Ford’s confrontational tactics. The union worked hard to cultivate support for the strike in the broader Windsor community. This was before the days of strike pay, so the active support of spouses, families and neighbours was essential. In contrast, higher-ups in the union’s Detroit headquarters, the Canadian Congress of Labour (precursor to today’s CLC) and the CCF were alarmed by the strike’s militance, and offered at best halfhearted support.

In November, with winter coming on, Ford asked police to break picket lines to restart the strikebound plant’s heating system. The UAW then called on 8,000 members from Local 195, employed at other auto companies in Windsor, to join the 14,000 Ford workers. They did so, and stayed out—without strike pay—for another month. Facing a police attack, the strikers formed an immense blockade by parking their own cars in streets all around the plant. The blockade lasted three days and prevented what would have undoubtedly been a violent confrontation.

Following the blockade, and with the personal intervention of federal cabinet minister Paul Martin Sr., bargaining began again. A tentative settlement, based on the union’s pre-strike offer of binding arbitration on all union security matters, was defeated by the local’s now-militant members. Martin then assured the union, no doubt to Ford’s horror, that he would appoint a “sympathetic” arbitrator. That was sufficient to get the deal passed.

On December 9, after 99 days on the picket line, workers voted to return to work. Six weeks later, Ivan Rand, a Supreme Court judge, brought down his arbitration award. He rejected a closed shop, but approved automatic dues check-off—on the grounds that everyone in a workplace benefits from the union, so all should contribute to it. In return, he prohibited all strikes during the term of a collective agreement. This “Rand formula” became the foundation for the post-war compromise between union power and productivity that came to be known, fittingly, as “Fordism.” Over the next three decades, Canadian unions used this victory to expand their power and win economic gains for working people that are unprecedented in the history of capitalism.

Since the early 1980s, however, the apparatus of Fordism has been systematically under attack from a harder-nosed variety of capitalism that we now know as neo-liberalism. Canada’s economic future has been thrown to the winds of free trade and market forces. Ford’s facilities in Windsor, along with the rest of Canada’s once-vaunted auto industry, are fighting for a future. Unions have lost members; in many cases, more importantly, they have lost their fighting spirit.

The 1945 Ford strike was pivotal in laying the legal and political basis for Canada’s post-war Golden Age—which, unfortunately, feels like ancient history today. But the morals of this story are lasting. First, working people won’t win anything without fighting for it. Despite being on the cusp of enormous prosperity, it took incredible bravery and militance in 1945 for workers to win a good share of the pie they produced. Second, new times always demand new modes of struggle, and those new modes will always be controversial—not least within our own movements. But without constantly stirring the pot, our campaigns for change will be left behind. Maybe a car blockade wouldn’t work today (then again, maybe it would), but we clearly need to seek equally innovative ways to push the envelope of social change. Finally, the power of people to build a better world ultimately grows from the kind of grassroots militance and communitybased solidarity that won the great strike of 1945.

Fraser Canyon War, 1858: B.C. born of bloodshed

By Craig Saunders

The naked, decapitated body floating down the Fraser River one day in 1858 was just the beginning. Before the end of the year, more than 60 miners would be dead in one of the bloodiest clashes in Canadian history.

The Fraser Canyon War was basically a battle between the interests of First Nations—primarily the Sto:lo—and miners who had flooded into the valley in Canada’s first gold rush. But it was more than a cowboys-and-Indians turf war. It was an event that demanded a military presence, marking Britain’s first real attempts to police its mainland territory, which was under real threat of American annexation. A month after the war began, that territory officially became the Colony of British Columbia. And the war would see the last attempts at treaty making before Britain’s priorities changed from fur trading to development.

Until 1858, the shores of the Fraser River had been the summer home and fishing grounds of various First Nations. Then a small group of men found gold in the river. When their supplies ran out, they went to Fort Langley to re-stock and word of their find spread like wildfire. Soon American papers began splashing out headlines crying “Gold! Gold! Gold!” and hopeful prospectors—many remnants of the California gold rush—headed north to stake their claims.

On April 3, the first group arrived in Victoria. The Commodore sailed in with 450 passengers. At the time, that was more than the colonial capital’s entire Caucasian population. By summer, some 20,000 people had turned the village into a tent city as they began their migration upriver in search of the gold.

The gold they wanted was in the gravel bars along the Fraser. As the miners arrived, they found the river swollen with spring run-off, so they set up camp and waited.

For the Sto:lo, life had been pretty good along that particular stretch of the Fraser up until then. About 3,500 were living in relative peace with the 100 or so non-native settlers, and fighting off the occasional Yukletaw and Haida raiding parties.

But that summer, they returned to the Fraser and found thousands of drunken, rowdy prospectors. The miners developed a bad reputation—they were rude, stole fish, attacked and raped the natives. And they were competition for the gold.

By June, Governor James Douglas realized the situation on the Fraser was getting tense. A First Nations man was shot at Hill’s Bar, and a retaliatory killing only made the miners more edgy. To defuse the situation, Douglas ordered the miners off half of Hill’s Bar and reserved it for First Nations. Miners would have to obtain a permit to work there. This would be the last time a B.C. politician would sincerely negotiate treaties for about 140 years.

Douglas was a sympathetic ear for the Sto:lo. Born in British Guyana, he married a woman with a First Nations mother. Douglas was a Hudson’s Bay Company man, and the HBC relied on various First Nations as suppliers. He’d commanded the fort at Victoria before becoming governor of the island colony. Seeing the gold rush and knowing the annexationist (and anti-Indian) bent of the Americans, he declared himself governor of the mainland colony as well—an act that would eventually be supported by London, and would ultimately lead to the creation of British Columbia.

“Such stopgap measures, however, ultimately proved inadequate to stem the rapidly deteriorating situation,” writes Keith Thor Carlson, a history professor at the University of Saskatchewan. In July, the inevitable blow-up occurred. A miner apparently raped a Sto:lo girl. In retribution, the Sto:lo killed and decapitated him, and sent his naked corpse floating down the river. He was followed by three more miners, also naked and headless. (The place has ever since been known as “Deadman’s Eddy.”)

Thus began the Fraser Canyon War. In the weeks that followed, the miners waged a bloody campaign against the Sto:lo and Nlakapamux. One American regiment, commanded by Captain Charles Rouse sacked five communities and, according to some reports, killed two score First Nations people. It was a short war, but a bloody one.

Eventually some of the more moderate on the miners’ side met up with Liquitem, a Sto:lo chief, and a Nlakapamuk chief called Spintlum. Liquitem, Splintlum and an American miner named Snyder negotiated a peaceful end to the conflict, which had seen some 60 deaths on the miners’ side and many more Sto:lo and Nlakapamux. Liquitem and Spintlum then went upriver to meet with other chiefs and get their support for peace.

“By the time the Colonial Office’s concerns were relayed to Douglas,” wrote Carlson, “the warring Aboriginal and American forces had themselves concluded a succession of hastily conceived ‘peace treaties,’ bringing a tenuous end to the bloodshed and facilitating non-Native access to Fraser River gold.”

After the Fraser Canyon War, which came at the same time as Europe’s rapid industrialization and changing priorities for capitalists in B.C., the relationship between First Nations and Europeans would forever be changed. Douglas may have been sympathetic to the needs and desires of First Nations, but by war’s end, his priorities had been decided for him. Industry and settlement became paramount, and the Colonial Office in London made it clear that no Indian would be allowed to get in the way.

The Fraser Canyon War is more than just a fascinating and little-known fight. It’s one that illustrates the anti-treaty attitudes in the colony—attitudes that have left British Columbia in a terrible legal mess. The province never recognized the authority of the Royal Proclamation of 1763, in which King George commanded that treaties would be negotiated with First Nations prior to settlement. This refusal led ultimately to painful and costly court cases, including the historic Delgamuukw v. British Columbia, in 1997, perhaps Canada’s biggest and most famous land claims case, involving the Gitksan and Wet’suwet’en nations and the ownership of some 58,000 square kilometres of British Columbia.

The war also changed the nature of the young colony’s border. Only 140 years ago, it was a barely recognized thing. It existed at the whim of the individual and could be ignored in the interests of personal preference or economic mobility. With regiments of American militia fighting on the British side of it, the border became a real issue for Douglas, and the Fraser Canyon War forced his hand. He had to march in and assert his authority, making the 49th parallel more than an invisible line through the mountains.

And so, with the close of the Fraser Canyon War, the stage was set for events that would take generations to play out.


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