The Kanesatake Resistance was a watershed moment in the history of Indigenous land actions. By the end of 78-day standoff in the summer of 1990 — known at the time as the “Oka Crisis” — public opinion polls showed high support for the Mohawks and for the settling of land claims.
This was likely due in large part to how it was covered in the press. While columnists who never visited the site or spoke to the land defenders adhered to stereotypes that cast them as criminals, journalists who were embedded with the Mohawks learned their side of the story and the history of the particular land claim at issue. They served as eyewitnesses, and could effectively counter the Canadian army’s version of events.
The new episode of canadaLANDBACK looks at how Canada’s state forces lost the PR war at Kanesatake — and how they worked to make damn sure they wouldn’t do so again:
That fall, a symposium was held for army public relations officers and journalists about communications during the action. The head of public affairs for Canada’s Armed Forces told the room that if he were ever again in a situation similar to the standoff at Kanesatake, there was one thing he’d do differently: He’d get the media out sooner.
Five years later, the BC RCMP would perfect that tactic, with a standoff at Gustafsen Lake serving as a model for future “exclusion zones” limiting journalists’ access to land actions.
The PR war started almost immediately after that armed standoff began on August 18, 1995, when a group of Sundancers occupied a private cattle ranch on unceded territory.
Both the Sundancers and the police invited journalists to cover the story. The Sundance is sacred, and normally the media or any outsider isn’t welcome. But that July, Sundancers had invited the local paper, a TV station, and a documentary team into the camp — not to tape the ceremony, but to explain their case.
On August 19, the RCMP booked a flight for reporters to a town near Gustafsen Lake, where they held a press conference. They played a piece of footage from the documentary, showing guns inside the camp, and District Superintendent Len Olfert told media that the Sundancers were “a small group of terrorists” who were “prepared to use weapons.” A few days later, Sundancers followed with their own press release, assuring that they were in fact seeking “a peaceful resolution to a crisis which has been going on for 139 years.”
On August 26, the RCMP severed all media access. They cut the camp’s cellular phone and told journalists nearby to leave. By the next morning, they’d set up a checkpoint 20 miles from the camp, and for the next 22 days, right up until the standoff ended, journalists had only the RCMP’s side of the story, getting twice-daily briefings at the Red Coach Inn in the nearby town of 100 Mile House.
When journalists grilled Ujjal Dosanjh, BC’s attorney general, about police cutting off access to any perspective but their own, he countered, “There is no other side of the story. There’s only one side of the story.”
And that “one side” happened to involve a disinformation campaign, which the RCMP themselves internally described as such.
While recording a training video, the RCMP captured on tape a conversation that would later be released at the land defenders’ trial.
“Did you find somebody today that can help us with a disinformation or a smear campaign?” Superintendent Olfert is seen asking.
“Smear campaigns are our specialty,” media relations officer Peter Montague adds.
An internal communications plan with the subhead “Wolverine and his band of thugs” advocated releasing criminal records of the Sundancers to the media — and they did, sharing the rap sheets of nine individuals. But many of the charges were 20 years old, none were outstanding, and most were associated with people who weren’t actually in the camp.
“I think the exclusion zone combined with this really overt disinformation campaign just resulted in Gustafsen not getting proper coverage, for the most part, and being portrayed in a negative light,” freelance columnist Kim Goldberg says on the episode.
canadaLANDBACK host and producer Karyn Pugliese views current police tactics around land actions as an outcome of the lessons learned at Kanesatake and Gustafsen Lake, which see “the police and the state keeping journalists away to control the story, to justify violence if necessary.”
The police, of course, see it differently.
In a statement, the RCMP says they respect “the fundamental freedom of the press under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as detailed in recent decisions by courts across Canada. When enforcing a court-ordered injunction, we make every reasonable effort to allow media personnel to get as close as possible to the enforcement area while ensuring no interference with police operations.”
canadaLANDBACK is a co-production between Canada’s National Observer and Canadaland.
Correction (February 6, 2023, at 6:30 p.m. EST): This article originally said that RCMP media relations officer Peter Montague could be heard on tape saying, “Smear campaigns are special.” In fact, what he said was that “Smear campaigns are our specialty.”
This post has also been updated to add the full RCMP statement below.
Full statement from the RCMP’s E (British Columbia) Division:
Court-ordered injunction orders and police enforcement clauses obligate the RCMP to enforce those orders within a reasonable time. The RCMP is given discretion to decide how and when to enforce those orders depending on changing risks, locations of crowds and other variables at the sites, which include establishing temporary exclusion zones around police personnel while enforcing those orders. Under civil injunctions, exclusion zones are similar to criminal search warrants, where the police do not allow access to anyone who is not part of the enforcement team. There are both privacy and safety concerns in keeping the public and the media at the perimeter, which should be as small as possible and as brief as possible in the circumstances, based on security and safety needs. Police can shrink or expand the perimeter, as required based on safety and security.
The RCMP respects the fundamental freedom of the press under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as detailed in recent decisions by Courts across Canada. When enforcing a court-ordered injunction, we make every reasonable effort to allow media personnel to get as close as possible to the enforcement area, while ensuring no interference with police operations.
The BC RCMP understands the role that the media has and recognises the importance of providing every opportunity to observe and report on police operations when enforcing court-ordered injunctions. This is why, in recent enforcement actions, we have been deploying Media Relations Officers to escort journalists to enforcement areas, or employing protocol to allow their access to those locations. While at times, the location of where to hold media personnel while arrests are occurring may not be as close to where journalists would like to be, we have often been able to find that balance with our site commanders.
Regardless of the situation, police are entitled to have a work area whether it is a homicide scene, a fatal collision, or a protest and there is an expectation that any journalist adheres to police directions and the law, including abiding by court-ordered injunctions. The actions of those involved will dictate the actions of police.