Many people consider that modern-day treaty making in Canada began in 1973, when the federal government responded to a Supreme Court ruling in a case brought forward by the Nisga'a Indians. Although the Nisga'a lost their case, some of the justices asserted that there was such as thing as Aboriginal land title in Canadian law. Their ruling was, in large measure, based on their discovery of the tradition of Crown-Aboriginal relations going back to the Royal Proclamation of 1763.
In response to the judges' ruling on the Nisga'a case, the Trudeau government set up an office, a process, and funding to examine Native claims. But the new process moved slowly. Frustration with government handling of claims and with the hopelessly small bureaucracy set up to deal with them led to the Aboriginal blockades set up from coast to coast through the 1970s and 1980s. These protests climaxed during what was dubbed the "Indian summer" of 1990. In one sense, these Aboriginal blockades, especially on the rail lines and logging roads of British Columbia, can be viewed as classic expressions of civil disobedience in the pacifist tradition of Mahatma Gandhi and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. The major preoccupation of the protagonists in these protests was to call attention to the illegal actions of the governments and businesses that are seen as the real violators of the rule of law.
One of the important protests during the Indian summer of 1990 took place at Long Lake Reserve 58 in northwestern Ontario. In August of that year, a blockade was established on the Canadian National Railways' (CNR) transcontinental line that ran through their reserve. The purpose was to draw attention to the band's land dispute. The band had been passed over in both the Robinson-Superior Treaty of 1850 and Treaty 9 in 1905 and 1906, so the 1,000 members established themselves on a tiny reserve consisting of less than a square mile of dank swampland. Rayno Fisher, an elderly trapper, explained the basis of the action by saying, "We're not trespassing the CNR. The CNR has been trespassing us for more than 75 years." When the group was served an injunction defining the people of Long Lake 58 as trespassers on their own reserve, Frances Abraham made a similarly pertinent remark. She asked why it was always the Indians who had to come up with so much documentary evidence to support their so-called "claims," whereas non-Indian individuals and companies, like the CNR, seem rarely to have to prove anything about where and how they got the title to the lands they use.
The Oka crisis was in origin a land claims issue. Mohawk peoples objected to the expansion of a municipal golf course onto sacred Native burial grounds during the summer of 1990. To protest this intrusion, Mohawk warriors from the Kanesatake and Kahnawake reserves blockaded a road that led into the golf course near the small town of Oka (south of Montreal). Tensions escalated when the Mayor called in the Sûreté du Québec (SQ) to remove the blockade. The SQ stormed the barricades on 11 July 1990 but met considerable resistance from the well-armed warriors. One officer was shot dead. The Canadian armed forces were called in and a standoff ensued between government and Mohawk forces. Peaceful negotiations ultimately ended the Oka crisis 78 days after it had begun.
The crisis, although marred by violence, has had positive effects for many Canadian Aboriginal people. It helped to give a national profile to First Nations issues, especially regarding land claims, and, according to at least some members of the community, forced governments to listen to and take seriously Native grievances. Oka became a rallying cry for Native peoples, encouraging them in their struggle with government authorities for Aboriginal rights.
A long-simmering dispute in Quebec provided the first flashpoint; certainly this confrontation was the most publicized event of that summer of 1990. The Mohawk community of Kanesatake had been complaining since the eighteenth century that outsiders were claiming the right to sell lands that the Mohawk had never agreed to cede. Particularly at issue was a seigneurie granted to the Sulpician religious order. In 1879, the Canadian government set up a new reserve in the Muskoka district of central Ontario, hoping that the people at Oka would simply leave. Some residents chose to remain, however, and the issue festered. In 1903, the Mohawks went to court, taking the case all the way to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in Great Britain, then the highest imperial court. They lost the decision, and the land was confirmed as belonging to the Sulpicians on the grounds that there was no such thing as Aboriginal title.
In 1945, the government once again attempted to solve the problem by purchasing a small tract of land from the Sulpicians, but clearly this manoeuvre was not a solution in the eyes of the Mohawk community. When the Quebec legislature set aside land for a nine-hole golf course in 1959, the Mohawks protested yet again, asking the Diefenbaker government to disallow the legislation. Once the Canadian government had set up its new claims process in the 1970s, the people at Oka decided to try to make use of this avenue as well. Although Minister of Indian Affairs Bill McKnight acknowledged in 1986 that there was clearly a problem here and some kind of solution had to be found, the government was not convinced that the Mohawk community possessed a legitimate comprehensive or local claim.
Before the government had taken any action, however, the municipality of Oka applied to enlarge its nine-hole golf course, and, in the summer of 1990, the people of Kanesatake found themselves protesting yet again. This time, the well-armed Mohawk Warriors Society, a group who looked to Kanewake's Louis Hall for spiritual guidance and mentorship, came to their aid and set up a road blockade to prevent the construction from proceeding. The Sûreté du Quebec, the province's police force, decided to storm the barricade and dismantle it, but, in the process, one of its constables was shot and killed. The protest began to attract considerable media attention, and Aboriginal supporters from across the country rallied to the cause. The stakes were raised when the Quebec government asked for the assistance of the Canadian Armed Forces and a weeks-long standoff developed. Once again, the Canadian government tried to solve the problem by purchasing a block of land for use by the Kanesatake Mohawks, but clearly, the underlying issues had not been addressed.
Prominent among the other Aboriginal protests that constituted the Indian summer of 1990 were a group known as the Peigan Lonefighters. Using heavy equipment, they attempted to divert the flow of the Oldman River in southern Alberta around an irrigation installation on their reserve. Their goal was to publicize Peigan opposition to the construction of the Oldman Dam in the heartland of Treaty 7 and the Blackfoot Confederacy. The group's most prominent spokesperson, Milton Born With A Tooth, made no secret of his desire to use many of the tactics advocated by the Mohawk Warriors. When Alberta officials sent a crew to shut down the Lonefighters' diversion of the river, Born With A Tooth fired what he claimed were two warning shots. His use of a firearm helped stimulate a very active debate, especially among First Nations activists, about whether or not armed resistance was justifiable in any circumstances. Ovide Mercredi, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations from 1991 to 1997, became outspoken in his advocacy of unconditional non-violence.