We marched along to the beat of the drum, almost in sync. In the middle of our group of about 60 or 70 marchers were four young men from our community, holding up a drum with one hand and a drumstick in the other.
They sang the traditional Anishinaabe Honour Song, and those of us who knew the words joined in. Some of the adults held up signs that read "Native solidarity," "Our home and NATIVE land" and "No golf courses on burial grounds!" Others chanted similar slogans.
It was a cloudy July day in the small Central Ontario town of Parry Sound, and people from neighbouring Ojibway communities had gathered to walk the streets and show their support for Mohawk protesters hundreds of kilometres away at Oka.
Sidewalk onlookers gave us mostly puzzled glances. Some joined the walk in support. Others shook their heads and turned away. This was something new not only to them, but to many of us as well. We were standing together as our Mohawk brothers and sisters in Quebec stood up for their traditional land rights.
This resistance was already rippling across the country as other aboriginal people in other provinces spoke up and marched in support. But those waves of pride and self-awareness would only get bigger as the summer went on, and they continue to wash through communities today because of the resolve of Kanesatake's people to preserve their traditional land. We learned what it truly meant to be aboriginal in this country because of what happened at Oka.
I was 11 when we marched that day. I was raised by my Ojibway father and white mother on Wasauksing First Nation - an island right beside Parry Sound on Georgian Bay. Our community had generated a small cultural renaissance by the late 1980s. A lot of people were reclaiming the traditional Anishinaabe ways, such as sweat lodges and naming ceremonies, to overcome some of the hardships of alcohol and drug abuse and other tragedies we'd endured for decades.
A few years prior to Oka, we even had our own taste of resistance. There was a minor standoff with a CN crew that was taking sand from a pit on our rez. It ended peacefully and was a huge moral victory for our people.
But these were just the building blocks, and Oka helped catalyze that monumental pillar of aboriginal pride found in our community - and on reserves across the country - today.
My memories of that time aren't as vivid as they once were. But I remember seeing it all go down on TV. How a group of Mohawks moved to protect an ancient burial ground from becoming a golf course. How the Canadian army moved in, and how the scuffles that ensued resulted in serious injury and even death.
I'd never seen so many Indians on TV in my young life, and it made me proud. That rediscovered dignity swept over our whole community and the other First Nations around us. My dad, aunt and others went to Kanesatake to help where they could, driving people around and making meals. We had food and clothing drives for the women, elders and children.
It was true solidarity.
Outside the native community, people were forced to pay attention because of the media coverage. I played Little League baseball in town that summer, and my white teammates asked more and more questions as the standoff went on. They were just kids like me, but wondered out loud if there'd be fights on our rez too. Others echoed the obvious sentiments of their parents in condemning the actions of the Mohawks.
Some just wondered what life on the rez was like, and how the Mohawks on television at Oka were different from the Ojibway people in our community. Our rez was only a 10-minute drive from town, but there'd been a cultural divide between the communities for decades that put an invisible barricade on the road between us.
Oka made the rest of Canada take a closer look at us - a whole country of aboriginal people who had originally been forced to the periphery of society to waste away. What happened 20 years ago brought our plight back into the national spotlight, and it's helped us overcome many of those social struggles and flourish today.
We owe the strength of our voice now to the passionate stance of the Mohawks at Oka. I think we would have eventually found that voice and collective will to stand up for aboriginal rights in Canada, but it would have taken a lot longer. That summer inspired a whole generation of young native people in this country to discover who exactly they were, and where they fit in on a national scale.
Generations before us were beaten into submission at the hands of the authorities. Many young people are still suffering on reserves as a result of that. Poverty is still rampant in many of our communities, and there are still lots of unresolved land issues. But that summer we learned that our destiny lies in our collective will to speak up and achieve everything generations before us were told they couldn't. We are now a strong generation of leaders, and the momentum is still building.
Waubgeshig Rice lives in Toronto.
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