The Grand Chief of the Mohawk First Nation at Kanesatake, Quebec is urging the 8th Canadian Hussars to stand by its decision to withdraw the gift of a Cougar armoured personnel carrier for display in Sackville’s Memorial Park.
Chief Serge Simon says the Cougar is not a fitting memorial to Hussars who died in the Second World War because it was never used in that conflict, but was used against his people during a standoff between Mohawks and the Canadian military during the Oka crisis of 1990.
When he was told that a petition is circulating in Sackville urging the Hussars to reconsider the decision to withdraw the Cougar, Simon said there are better choices.
“Why are they so headstrong about using an armoured personnel carrier as a symbol of, I don’t know, Canadian strength?” he asked. “Canadian oppression of First Nations people? What is your point when we have so many other options?”
During a telephone interview on Friday, the chief said he was already aware of the controversy after being alerted to it last month by a Mi’kmaq person. He added that he wrote a letter objecting to the gift on June 28.
Simon forwarded the letter to Warktimes.
“Many of us in Kanesatake still endure the memories of that summer almost 30 years ago and the effects of the human rights abuses our people suffered at the hands of Provincial and federal forces that are still apparent in our lives today,” his letter says.
“When the Canadian armed forces encircled our community with the help of the AVGP Cougar and closed in, it sent shock waves throughout First Nations territories, as the fear of a wider armed conflict could become a reality and throw us all in an uncertain future as a free society, let alone the image of force being used to further suppress the anger and frustration of First Nation people,” the letter adds.
The 78-day Oka crisis began after Mohawks objected to the extension of a golf course near their ancestral burying grounds on land they claim as their own.
Although Simon said the golf course was never built and the burying grounds are safe, the fight isn’t over.
“There’s still developments on our claimed land that are still going through that we’re trying to stop,” he said.
Mohawk war veterans
The Mohawk chief said two of his great uncles fought in the Second World War with one surviving both the Canadian raid on Dieppe and the D-Day invasion of Normandy while the other was “blown to pieces” in the Italian campaign.
“Our people fought in your army, in all the conflicts since the first [European] contact,” he said referring to Mohawk support for the British in their colonial wars against the French.
“If my uncles were still around today, they would probably be pretty ashamed of the Canadian government and military for their part in the Oka crisis,” Simon added.
His letter says a more fitting symbol to honour war veterans could be a sculpture reflecting peace.
“It could be a giant poppy with ‘never again on foreign or domestic soil’ carved in its base, as well as one feather on the helmet or bonnet of one of the sculpted soldiers of the 8th Hussars…I think my great uncles would be proud to stand beside both the symbol and their brother Warriors as well as recognizing it as a good symbol of reconciliation in this country,” the letter says.
The Mohawk chief responded to Mi’kmaq peacekeeping veteran Allan Dobson’s presentation Tuesday night at town council during which he said the town should be listening to the Mi’kmaq of the Fort Folly First Nation who support installing a Cougar in Memorial Park.
“The Mi’kmaq down there are the ones who alerted us to this,” Simon said. “Obviously not everybody is in favour,” he added. “If I were to speak to the Mi’kmaq chiefs and let them know how we feel, they would change their position.”
Simon also responded to the argument that the military were using the Cougar at Oka to restore peace.
“The army was used on Canadian soil to suppress the land grievances of a particular First Nation,” he said, adding that the way to restore peace would have been to deal with the centuries-old conflict over land rights instead of calling in the Quebec police (SQ) and the military.
He recalled that many Mohawks were beaten by the SQ both during and after the crisis including his cousin who had an electric prod applied to his genitals.
“I saw Angus maybe a week later and I couldn’t believe how he was walking and I asked him ‘What the heck happened to you?’ He explained it to me and then he showed me,” Simon said. “I didn’t think a man’s scrotum could swell that bad.”
Simon, who was 27 at the time of the Oka crisis, said he was driving his mother home from the hospital when the military detained them for two hours at a check point.
“My mother got fed up,” he said. “She opened the car door and said ‘the hell with this, I’m going home.’ They pointed an M16 at her.”
Simon said he sent a copy of his letter to Harjiit Sajjan, the Minister of National Defence.
“I’m hoping that maybe the minister, hopefully before the election, might be able to take it to his cabinet and see if there is any way that we can dedicate some funding for a proper symbol of peace and harmony and reconciliation,” he added.
“I think the citizens around that area, around that town, the Mi’kmaq and the Canadian citizens would be very happy. I think if they worked together, it’s an opportunity where we could get together, really put our minds in there and do something significant,” Simon said.
“I’m not pushing my views on anyone. I’m just saying that I’m a little disappointed and I’m hoping that better minds will prevail.”
To read Grand Chief Serge Simon’s letter, click here.
To see an historic timeline of the Oka crisis posted on the McGill University website, click here.