The Oka Crisis. It’s an ugly piece of Canadian history that those of you outside our borders will not have heard of and those of us inside find shameful and painful to own. But own we must.
In brief: white people set sail to find a route to Asia and landed in and around Canada instead. White people are lousy sailors but they’re awfully good at taking what isn’t theirs. We even gave it a fancy word: colonization, a polite term for stealing land and dispossessing current inhabitants. By 1956, the Mohawk First Nation had just six remaining square kilometers from their original 165 around the Oka area and in 1959 the town (of white people) approved the development of a private nine-hole golf course on a portion of that land. The project bordered a sacred Mohawk burial ground in use for nearly a century but the Mohawk were not consulted and soon a parking lot bordered their cemetery. In 1990, it was announced that the golf course would be expanding by an additional nine holes and even more land would be bulldozed to make room for condos. In protest, the Mohawk people erected a barrier blocking access to the area. This land dispute lasted 78 days, with 2000 provincial police and 100 special operatives, as well as 4500 members of the Canadian Forces deployed to “keep the peace.” Tactical units used tear gas and concussion grenades on the barricade, prompting gunfire exchanged from both sides, killing one. At the time, there were only about 30 armed Mohawks behind the barricade. That number doubled after the raid, but obviously the sides were still incredibly uneven. The Mohawks had support from other First Nation communities across Canada but their white neighbours lined the streets to throw rocks at cars of evacuating women and children.
The Oka Crisis wasn’t so much resolved as ended with both sides feeling used and bruised. It was a dramatic stand-off for sure, but only a symptom of a much larger problem in Canada and in many countries where indigenous populations were pushed aside and marginalized in their own territories. The relationship between Canada and its Aboriginal people is still uneasy, with systemic racism practically baked right into the foundation of our country.
There have been many documentaries about this turbulent time in Canadian history, but Beans is the first narrative film, one that captures the time and the tension rather eloquently. The film is told from the perspective of an 11 year old girl behind the barrier called Beans (Kiawenti:io Tarbell) and largely divorced from politics. It is a humane and personal account of the crisis, which writer-director Tracey Deer experienced herself as a child.
Beans has no agenda. She’s just a kid who loves riding her bike and is excited to meet the new baby her mom Lily (Rainbow Dickerson) is carrying. Beans is a bright kid but she’s young, and susceptible to peer pressure. She doesn’t realize she’s living through a historical event, she’s just trying to make it through the summer without embarrassing herself in front of the older kids she’s been hanging out with. But as the tension becomes undeniable and the violence ever closer to her home, Beans is about to face things no kid her age ever should.
Because Deere (along with co-writer Meredith Vuchnich) is recounting events from the perspective of a child, the conflict itself is simplified and we experience it on a visceral rather than diplomatic level. We feel her fear, her shame, her confusion. There may be two sides to every dispute, but there’s no excuse for terrorizing a pregnant woman and her children. There are certainly challenges for Beans and her peers growing up on the reserve, but outside of Mohawk territory, the racism alone poses a real danger and threat.
Deere isn’t condemning anyone with her film, but she is exorcising some ghosts she’s clearly carried with her into adulthood. Her images are beautiful, her story is balanced, and she’s made an important contribution to our cultural legacy – for better or for worse.