On the Edge of Seventeen…
July 11, 2010 3 Comments
It’s been 20 years since those 78 days that changed my life forever.
Those 78 days set the wheels in motion to what I consider a pretty interesting life.
I was just shy of 17 yrs old.
I had just finished grade 10, preparing for the lazy summer days ahead and excitedly looking ahead to my last year of high school. (In Québec, you graduate high school in grade 11) I attended the only English speaking public high school on the Rive-Sud – that educated many students, from all ethnicities and heritages. That included a high population of Mohawk students from the Kahnawake reservation.
At 16, I was very naïve and extremely unaware of the outside world.
Let me explain:
Growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness in a province that really dislikes anything that isn’t French, staunch Roman Catholic or Orthodox *insert whatever ethnicity you want here* – I had lived a life very different than many of my schoolmates. While going door-to-door in rural Québec, I had been shot at (at my feet) by a very angry Roman Catholic Italian, almost raped (if it hadn’t been for my partner beating on the man with her briefcase, he most certainly would have succeeded) by a drunken man who had somehow successfully managed to pin me up against a garage wall as I was attempting to convince the man how the Awake! and Watchtower magazines are the ones he needed to read; or we’d be surprised by some kids hidding in ditches along the roads we’d be walking with rotten vegetables or stones thrown at us as they giggled away… Yes. I’d lived thru that and then further mocking from teachers and students while at school. At home, I survived a highly abusive environment at the hands of my lying step-monster, while maintaining high enough grades to be an honour student, winning art competitions, being published in various school board publications while being mocked for my unruly nappy curly hair and a strange older brother … AND still managed to put on a smile and be a dutiful JW.
I had lived thru a lot in my short 16 yrs.
But I was incredibly unaware of life outside of my own.
I didn’t have a voice of my own – I could talk like no one’s business but I didn’t have a formed opinion of my own outside of what I had always been taught… as a Jehovah’s Witness.
We were always taught to not put thought or faith or effort into all things ‘worldly’ – in fact, we were to avoid it as much as possible and to never associate with the outside world. So I simply hadn’t been aware of the outside world.
Until the summer of 1990.
It took 78 days to change my life forever.
That was the summer that put the issue of Aboriginal mistreatment and land claim issues to the forefront of Canadian politics. It is also known as the OKA Crisis.
I lived in a town called Châteauguay, located on the South Shore of Montreal, QC. Two Mohawk First Nation Reservations were nearby, that of Kanesatake (“OKA”) and that of Kahnawake – and the Pond Mercier went thru the Kahnawake reservation, connecting the South Shore to Montreal. The only other bridge was Pond Champlain, which was about a 45-60 min detour.
Now – I won’t go into the politics behind the Crisis – if I did, we would be here reading for days on end. But I will state this much: I was very much supporting and supportive of our Mohawk neighbours. That wasn’t a popular belief lemme tell you – and in many a crowd today, still isn’t.
The OKA Crisis had involved the Canadian Armed Forces, who had setup camp within a block from where I lived and went to school. Our hockey arena became the Command Centre and our school football field became a helicopter landing pad. Tanks were seen everywhere on the streets and it wasn’t uncommon to see solders and machine guns at the local Dunkin’ Donuts or at the local Casse-Croûte.
Worldwide media converged in the K-Mart parking lot, where the barricades had been setup stopping all access to the Pond Mercier… known as ‘la zone rouge’ (the red zone) – the area that I was strictly forbidden by my father to ever go near.
As any good daughter and teenager would do, I ignored his orders.
I mean he’d never given me curfews or strict rules before – and although I knew why – my curiosity got the better of me.
And that blatant disregard for my father’s warnings changed my life forever.
What I saw, heard, smelled, felt etc… had been like no other experience lived up until that point.
The fear, anger, resentment, and sheer utter hatred were running rampant in the air. Perhaps it was the one day that I chose to disregard my father’s stern warnings but it was the day that there were effigies burning and the crowds threw bricks and eggs at the police. The crowd were yelling ‘… something something maudit sauvages something something…” All that sunk in was how the crowd was yelling at the Mohawks who were quietly drumming several kilometers away, on their land, ‘des maudits sauvages’ (goddamn savages). I know I didn’t stay long. I was very afraid. The KKK was there in full force promoting their propaganda of hate. It was a very uneasy environment.
I went home that night, never telling my father I disobeyed his warnings.
I didn’t have nightmares but I remember what I saw haunted me for a long time.
My mind was suddenly awaken to something that it had never considered before… pure, original thought, belief that was my own. That frightened me more than anything else. I was riddled with guilt that there wasn’t anything I could to do help my friends but that I suddenly couldn’t turn off the images and newly formed beliefs in my head. I was afraid of the repercussions should anyone found out in the JW faith… so I kept silent… but my life forever changed.
I cried when I saw a mob of angry people attack women, children and elderly First Nations who left the reservation, to supposedly safer grounds. My heart broke into a million pieces at the knowledge that I couldn’t see my beloved Linda & Gary Horne or John & Irene Phillips – not being able to get in touch with the many Mohawk women who had become my surrogate mothers and grand-mothers, showing me unconditional love and what it meant to be a girl and in time, a woman. I wondered where my schoolmates were and if they were safe. Would I ever see any of them again? My heart still aches at the images I saw on TV – the monstrosity of the human spirit… while the government sat by ignoring the issues that led up to the crisis in the first place. Not much has changed since – 20 years and it still feels like yesterday. My heart still hurts, as I sit here typing thru the tears and anger.
The OKA Crisis was a catalyst for many a treaty or semblance of a treaty.
Sadly – very little has changed since those days – some advancements have been made but very little progress in ways of Aboriginal rights.
But for some of us , we became aware of just how mistreated our First Nations are – many are living in what is considered 4th world conditions – beyond hope and poverty… and then the masses get angry at those who fight for their rights.
Sickening to me.
78 days changed many a lives.
For me – it was an awakening.
For some, life altering, no doubt.
And for many many others, forgotten and ignored.
This isn’t something I can or want to ignore.
My life changed in those 78 days.
I broke the rules and those rules changed me.
My father tried to protect me perhaps from this very thing back in the day.
But I was on the edge of seventeen – and my life was forever changed in those hazy summer days.
I will never forget.
To learn more about the OKA Crisis, please watch the Acts of Defiance video to see, hear and better understand the issues that still exist today.