A pine tree in London, Ont. passes on lessons of healing 30 years after Oka Crisis

·3 min read
A pine tree in London, Ont. passes on lessons of healing 30 years after Oka Crisis
Indigenous elder Dan Smoke sits with the Tree of Peace planted July 11, 1991 in Ivey Park in London, Ont to commemorate the Oka Crisis in Quebec.  (Angela McInnes - image credit)
Indigenous elder Dan Smoke sits with the Tree of Peace planted July 11, 1991 in Ivey Park in London, Ont to commemorate the Oka Crisis in Quebec. (Angela McInnes - image credit)

Indigenous leaders are inviting the public to gather around a towering white pine tree in a downtown London, Ont. park Sunday to reflect on why it was planted three decades ago.

The little known tree, called the Tree of Peace, was put in the ground in Ivey Park following the Oka Crisis in Quebec which saw Mohawk protestors square off with police for more than two months.

Elders from Oneida Nation of the Thames, and others who travelled to Quebec during the standoff to act as negotiators in the summer and fall of 1990, want young people to understand the conflict.

"We planted it because it was a symbol of the great law of peace and how we are peaceful people still living according to the precepts of peace, power and righteousness," said Dan Smoke, who, along with his wife Mary Lou, will assist in leading a prayer circle and sacred fire.

Angela McInnes
Angela McInnes

Smoke was there, alongside hundreds of others from the London area, when the tree was planted July 11, 1991. Despite the conflict being hundreds of kilometres away, it had impact at the time, and still today.

Also known as the Kanesatake Resistance, the armed standoff was triggered by the proposed expansion of a golf course and townhouse development onto a sacred Mohawk burial ground known as the Pines. The land was not officially Kanesatake territory under the Indian Act, but it was considered sacred.

"The reason that they were standing up to protect the land was because the land had their ancestors buried there," said Smoke. "So there they were, protecting their ancestors."

On July 11, police and military were sent to dismantle the barricades using tear gas, leading to gunfire from both sides and the death of one officer.

Tom Hanson/THE CANADIAN PRESS
Tom Hanson/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Smoke said that following the firefight, the Oneida Nation sent their own skilled negotiators to advise the Mohawk people in working toward a peaceful disengagement.

"In our belief system as Indigenous people, the harm of one is the harm of all of us," he said. "So if one of us gets harmed and gets hurt, then we're all getting harmed and we're all getting hurt. So we have to stand to protect them. That's our responsibility."

For 78 days, the Mohawk people held their ground against enforcement with encampments and blockades as Canada watched on. In the time before social media, the Oka Crisis put a significant spotlight on Indigenous people's rights.

"That's when ourselves and all kinds of people in Canada became much, much more aware of Native issues," said John Turner.

Turner and his wife, Anita, were present when the white pine tree was planted in Ivey Park. "I'm a big believer that if different cultures understand each other's cultures, that's just a positive thing."

Angela McInnes
Angela McInnes

On the day the crisis ended, a soldier stabbed 14-year-old Waneek Horn-Miller in the chest with a bayonet as she and other protestors departed the barriers, nearly taking her life.

Smoke said that the Tree of Peace was planted as a gesture of healing after the Oka Crisis. Some of those who were present at the planting 30 years ago will return on Sunday to speak and honour the tree. There will also be veterans who were present at Kanesatake.

But Smoke said he is also looking forward to seeing new generations come to learn about its history and meaning.

"I think that it's time for us to pass on to our young people this knowledge and wisdom so that they will benefit from it in a good way, so they don't have to go through what we went through and what my ancestors went through," he said.

The Tree of Peace is located next to the Forks of the Thames off of York Street, west of the London Labour Council Sculpture, "The Praying Hands." The ceremony starts Sunday at 6 p.m.

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