Today, July 11th, marks the 29-year anniversary of the Oka Crisis, a historic moment for the Indigenous people of Canada in their fight against imperialism and settler-colonialism. The Crisis, which lasted for just over two months, arose due to the unjust encroachment of the Canadian state onto the territory and land of the Mohawk People. Specifically, the Canadian government sanctioned the development of a golf course on Kanehsatà:ke land without even consulting the Indigenous people who lived there. This encroachment was a continuation of the imperialist policies and genocidal campaigns against the Mohawk People which date back to the beginnings of the colonialist expansion of Britain and France into what is now known as Canada. In response to this attempt to further steal Mohawk land, Indigenous fighters organized themselves and took up arms against the Canadian state in defence of their land.
Initially, beginning with only 30 warriors, numbers of resistance fighters grew to over 600. In the midst of this Crisis the Canadian government responded by sending in the Canadian military, with troop numbers exceeding 4,500 soldiers to quell the Indigenous rebellion. Amidst high tensions numerous soldiers were injured by the brave Mohawk fighters and a police officer was killed. The Canadian state responded by savagely attempting to supress support for the Mohawk by means of gunfire, concussion grenades and tear gas. Despite the drastic attempts made by the Canadian state the cause of the Mohawk warriors was taken up by progressive peoples throughout Canada. From BC to Nova Scotia there was an outpouring of support for the struggle of the Mohawk to defend their land, with the event marking a resurgence in Indigenous resistance to capitalism and settler-colonialism. After 78 days of conflict, the Crisis eventually ended with the dismantling of Mohawk barricades and the stand-down of Mohawk fighters due to the increasingly hostile actions of the Canadian Armed Forces. However, while being a tactical loss for the Mohawks, the Crisis proved to be strategically a victory in that their actions led to the cancellation of the proposed golf course expansion and a complete stoppage to any further incursions onto the sovereign territory of the Mohawk People.
Why Remember Oka?
We remember Oka not just because of its just and righteous cause for Indigenous self-determination, but also because Oka serves as yet another example of the correctness of armed struggle. In the immortal words of Chairman Gonzalo, “without revolutionary violence one class cannot replace another, an old order cannot be overthrown to create a new one”. The violent uprising of the Mohawk People in defence of their land caused such an uproar amongst the settler-bourgeoisie that it shook them to their core. A mere 30 brave warriors with firearms and a willingness to use them provoked a nationwide response and mobilization of the state’s armed forces to combat this perceived threat. What does this extreme reaction tell us? It tells us that revolutionary violence and a commitment to armed struggle scares the ruling classes. It tells us that the capitalists fear armed struggle by the workers and oppressed nations because it is through such violent struggle that true societal change is possible. Their position in society truly becomes jeopardized when the people take up arms in the name of revolution, and so they respond with the utmost ferocity when revolutionary fervor arises amongst the masses. No amount of lobbying, peaceful protest or engagement in elections in the hopes of voting in “progressive candidates” amounted to anything for the Mohawk, or sparked any response from the Canadian state. It was only when the Mohawk took up the call of revolutionary violence that they were perceived as a threat by the state. However, not only did their acceptance of revolutionary violence lead to the state seeing them as a threat, but also, it was only through their capacity to materially fight and inflict damage on the foot soldiers of Canadian settler-colonialism that their demands were met.
With the upcoming federal election fast approaching, the question of Indigenous struggle and self-determination is again coming to the forefront. Here in BC, the continued advances onto the territory of the Wet’suwet’en in the form of the Trans Mountain Pipeline are reminiscent of the past struggles in places like Oka and Gustafsen Lake. While popular support for the Indigenous peoples is growing, there is a large reformist trend that is emerging calling for a renewed push into the elections. These reformist types claim that reconciliation between the settler state and the Indigenous population will come from the ballot box (ignoring the fact that true reconciliation will only come through complete self-determination of Indigenous peoples up to and including secession) and that all hope rests in voting in candidates who will “serve the people’s interests”. These reformists represent nothing but enemies to the working class and all oppressed peoples. They wish to steer the masses away from revolutionary violence and armed struggle and instead pacify them into submission. If we have learned anything from Oka it is that, as the Great Helmsman Mao Zedong proclaimed, “political power grows from the barrel of a gun”. If we are to demand decolonization and self-determination for all oppressed nationalities, it is clear that engagement in the same system which enforces this oppression is a dead end. Instead, today we look to places like India and Peru, where the Maoist forces, led by Communist Parties, mobilize indigenous peasants to fight against the oppressive capitalist state in their fight for self-determination. It is by their example that the path for Indigenous liberation is clear: a total rejection of the electoral system in favour of armed struggle by way of Protracted People’s War (PPW).
On the Importance of Oka for Communists
Many on the so-called “left” often attack the Maoist position of the Universality of People’s War by claiming that armed struggle in imperialist centers is impossible. These revisionists often point to the militarization of the state and its technical advancements which would “make armed struggle and PPW impossible”. But these phony Marxists and social-democrats forget the fundamental principles of class struggle. As Mao correctly stated “Weapons are an important factor in war, but not the decisive factor; it is people, not things that are decisive”. While we wish to be clear in saying that Oka was not a PPW, it does help serve as a means to dispel the myth that a weaker revolutionary force is incapable of fighting against a militarily and technologically superior state. In this sense Oka helps strengthen the argument against the revisionist claim that PPW is inherently adventurist and that a People’s Army would be unable to combat the armed forces of an imperialist country. Instead Oka shows that when a movement is backed by the masses, it is capable of combatting the state precisely because in times of warfare, it is the people who are the principal factor, not the technological ability of the state.
The Mohawk fighters, numbering initially only 30, equipped with a haphazard collection of rifles and equipment, were able to fend off the state and hold the strategic Mercier Bridge for more than two months. This bridge was highly important for both transport and commercial use, thus the barricading of the bridge cut off a key access point to Montreal. This heroic action cost the Quebec government almost $180 million, and cost the federal government millions more in expenses related to the deployment of the Canadian Armed Forces. What then does this have to do with supporting the theory of PPW? It highlights that armed urban actions are not only possible in imperialist centers, but that even in small numbers, revolutionary groups can carry out such actions which are highly costly to the state. While the tactics employed by the Mohawk warriors did not adhere to the tenants of PPW, namely the use of mobile and irregular guerilla warfare, they did expose that a numerically inferior group with limited weaponry was capable of striking a blow against the Canadian state. One can imagine that if the scale of Oka was greater, or that numerous “Okas” arose across Canada, the cost to the state would be enormous.
It is precisely the existence of Oka and its historical impact which is still felt today, which provides further evidence to dispel the revisionist lines of the Communist Party of Canada and Communist Party of Canada (ML). These revisionists proclaim that communists must ignore armed actions and focus solely on elections and parliamentarianism. They say with confidence that armed struggle in Canada is an impossibility and not worthwhile in actively pursuing. In this way they promote a strategy of complete legalism and a negation of clandestinity. Yet the material consequences of Oka suggest that armed struggle against the state is not only possible, but that even relatively small and localized events such as the Oka Crisis can be highly effective and costly for the state.
The limitations of the Mohawk warriors’ strategy and tactics are also clear, and through its failures, the Oka crisis can serve to help refine our strategy of PPW. The failure of barricade warfare, the lack of a leading political body (the Party) and lack of a cohesive People’s Army all contributed to the rapid encirclement and eventual forced disbanding of the Mohawk warriors. It is clear that for any revolutionary movement to sustain itself it must be led by a vanguard Party firmly in command of a People’s Army. It is clear that this army must operate in a highly irregular and mobile manner, and that extensive political education and mass work must be done to gain the support of the masses. It is important however, when critically analyzing the Oka Crisis to understand its historical limitations. The Oka Crisis was a direct response to the actions of the state against the Mohawk People, and so the reaction of the Mohawk People was naturally one concerned with the direct, local implications of the Canadian state’s intervention on to their land. It is unlikely that these Mohawk warriors, when first initiating their struggle were planning on it becoming a national phenomenon and causing many to begin calling for a total upheaval in Canadian society. The actions taken in Oka did however go on to inspire Indigenous people throughout Canada and around the world.
The Oka Crisis fundamentally brings to light two main questions: How can Indigenous self-determination come about, and how should Indigenous people be organized to bring this about? To answer these questions, we can look to Marxism for the answer. Political power, by definition, is the imposition of one class over the other. Thus every struggle for power is a struggle over securing one’s class interests over the other. Colonialism represents but a means through which power is maintained. It signifies a historical link between Indigenous oppression and the rise of capitalism in the Americas and Europe through the primitive accumulation of capital. It also explains why many Indigenous peoples are oppressed primarily based on their status as an oppressed nationality subject to settler-colonialism and secondarily due to the class stratification of these nations. Therefore, it must be understood that the struggle for Indigenous self-determination is inextricably linked with the struggle against capitalism itself. In other words, to defeat settler-colonialism, the capitalist state itself must be smashed and reorganized into a new state: A People’s Republic, founded on socialist principles and upholding the dictatorship of the proletariat. To achieve this new state, a unity must be developed between the Indigenous national classes and the settler working class, who both have a vested interest in the overthrow of capitalism in favour of communism by way of socialism.
To answer our first question, Indigenous self-determination must come about through the transfer of power from the capitalist class to the working class. This transfer will not be peaceful, but violent as demonstrated in the struggle for liberation which have surfaced in events like the Oka Crisis. It will be through revolution and more specifically a Protracted People’s War, that the Indigenous masses will be freed from the chains of capitalism and colonialism and will be free to decide their own path after more than five hundred years of bondage.
It is therefore essential that the Revolutionary Communist Party incorporate within itself the needs and demands of the Indigenous masses and helps to build these links between the settler working class and the Indigenous national classes. Without such incorporation of Indigenous self-determination, any coming revolution in Canada will be hollow and will easily succumb to revisionism and degeneration. The Revolutionary Communist Party has a duty to take up the struggles of all Indigenous peoples in Canada, to fight with them and unite with them against capitalism and colonialism. To do so the urgent task at hand is to build the capacity of our Party. We must prove, in practice, the correctness of our politics, and to ultimately lead the formation of the People’s Army for the coming People’s War. The answer to our second question is also clear: Indigenous people must be politicized and organized into a fighting force of communists. They are central to the building of revolution in this country and any attempt at revolution in Canada will be doomed to failure without the Indigenous masses fighting alongside the settler working class to fight for the cause of socialism and liberation.
In the 29 years since Oka, the Canadian state has continued its attacks against the Indigenous nations with reckless force. Yet Oka remains both a sore spot for the state, and a glowing example of heroism for all progressive peoples in Canada and around the world. Today we remember the brave Mohawk warriors, who took up arms in defence of their territory and in defiance of the Canadian state. We echo their demands of self-determination and look to their actions for lessons to incorporate as we move forward. As election posters go up across Canada for the upcoming elections, we are reminded that all the federal parties represent one single class, the bourgeoisie. No amount of voting will change this fact, and no amount of engagement with reformism will bring about Indigenous self-determination. We are reminded instead to cast aside all illusions of the parliamentary system and fight for revolution via People’s War!
Long Live the Memory of Oka!
Down with the Canadian Prison-House of Nations!
Indigenous Liberation through Protracted Peoples War!