Alec G. MacLeod
National Film Board of Canada
Acts of Defiance is just one of a small number of NFB documentaries that recorded the events of the 1990 Oka Crisis that took place in the Western Quebec communities of Oka and Kanetesake. The crisis erupted when the municipal government of the Oka permitted the expansion of a golf course and luxury housing development on land long used by the Mohawk people of Kanetesake for things like the burial of their dead. The Mohawk Warrior society mounted a campaign of armed resistance against this expansion which ultimately failed although the crises led to a renewal of First Nations activism in Canada and the rise of warrior societies in many First Nations communities.
Defiance, directed by Alec MacLeod, opens with the scene of an illegal bingo game at a Kanetesake community hall during which it is announced that the first prize (a lawnmower) was donated by the Warriors, demonstrating how the Warrior Society was already woven into community life in the area. MacLeod’s film includes voices from all of the involved communities in his treatment of this crisis however it is the voices of the Mohawks and their Warriors that are represented most sympathetically by the director. Members of the Warriors (essentially those Mohawks who defended the disputed lands from construction crews and law enforcement) were the primary source of verbal information pertaining to the events and were shown admired and celebrated by their community. Conversely, the police and military (Canadian Forces were called into Oka) appear absurd at best and heavy handed at worst, while politicians (such as the mayor of Oka, Jean Oulette) appear mean spirited, corrupt, and arrogant. This privileging of the Mohawk voices challenges the representation of the events appearing in much of the press coverage of the crisis at the time, most of which consisted of statements issued by law enforcement, military, and governmental personnel who had an interest in resolving the dispute to the favour of land developers.
The film shows the decision to develop land long used by Mohawks as a contemporary form of colonial dispossession of First Nations sovereignty. A striking fact stated early in the film is that more Mohawk land had been taken legally for development since 1950 than in the entire previous era of Mohawk-European contact. The disputed land was originally used by Mohawks for grazing their animals, then European settlers began playing golf there (thus scaring Mohawk animals) and eventually a legal apparatus organized to privilege white interests could only recognize the space as a golf course. The film, through its many Native voices, expresses a more recent history of Mohawk anger at Canadian politics and society: their exclusion from the Meech Lake negotiations, and the shooting of a man named David Cross during a dispute with police. Such events, in addition to the continual encroachment of First Nations land, led to the development of an intense resentment towards a dominant society that appeared to only show them disrespect and demand obedience.
Much of Acts of Defiance is about the inability (or refusal) of outsiders to understand Mohawk resentment and opposition to them. The Mohawk Warriors fought in infrequent gun battles with police and military during the summer of 1990, but MacLeod’s film also shows unarmed Kanehtesake villagers standing up to armed personnel (who are also empowered by governmental authority) as well. Furthermore, it is clear from watching the film that the heavy handed actions of police (who are shown seizing cases of soft drinks during searches of all vehicles entering or leaving the Mohawk community) steeled the resolve of the entire Mohawk population against government forces. While the Quebec police produced the local First Nations community in its entirety as adversary, the military largely seemed present for the purpose of producing a particular representation of the events that advance a long-standing Euro/Native colonial discourse.
|Famous photo of Canadian Forces private Paul Cloutier in staring contest with Mohawk Warrior Brad Larocque. Here is Vancouver punk band DOA's appropriation of of the image for the cover of their 1993 album, Loggerheads.|