Thank you to Shakil Choudhury for permission to share this BEAUTIFUL story, in honour of the National Day of Truth & Reconciliation, from his useful book! This story is more fully recounted online at: http://francinelemayenglish.weebly.com/my-story.html
The First Step to Reconciliation
In the summer of 1990, a blackade was set up on a local road to Kanesatake, home to the mostly English-speaking Mohawk people in the French-speaking province of Quebec, about an hour’s drive from Montreal. Once again, Indigenous rights were being trampled. This time the scenario involved the local town, Oka, pushing for townhouse development and expansion plans for a golf course over the ancestral burial grounds without consent or permission from the Mohawks of the Kanesatake community.
After spending a frustrating year going through official legal channels and protesting peacefully, the Mohawk community mobilized to protect their land. An armed standoff ensued with the Quebec provincial police, and eventually the army, which lasted 78 days. It was dramatic and tense, and a skirmish of gunfire occurred during a botched police raid on a Mohawk barricade. One police officer, Marcel Lemay, was shot and killed. Bereaved were his pregnant wife, 2-yr-old daughter, and sister, Francine, along with the rest of the Lemay family. Photographs capturing the solemn-faced Francine Lemay walking behind her 31-yr-old brother’s casket were all over the news.
Fourteen years after the crisis, 2 university students asked Francine for her opinion on this historical event. Embarrassed to have no opinion to offer, she read an account of the history of Oka. Curiously, the book that made it into her hands – At the Woods’ Edge – was powerful but not well-known, a self-published historical overview written by two members of the Mohawk community. It chronicled the First Nations people from Kanesatake’s struggle to survive, including the betrayal of treaties and land rights that implicated both French and English governments and the church, which was to have held the land in trust but instead sold it off to settlers.
Francine was shocked to confront this perspective on history. For example, she read of the relocation attempt in 1811 by the federal government. Mohawk families were promised food for the winter and seeds for the spring if they resettled far away in central Ontario. The families that went were only given food for two weeks and lived in tents during the cold, hard winter. Many died of disease and hunger.
This version of historical events stood in stark opposition to what she had learned as a child in Quebec schools. She had been taught about the Iroquois Confederacy – of which the Mohawk Nation was one of six cofounders – whose communities had been portrayed as the “bad Indians” for having supported the British during a pivotal historical period that led to the English victory over the region. The Huron, in contrast, who were Indigenous communities that supported the French, were considered “good Indians”. Beyond that, her knowledge of Indigenous history came from Hollywood movies.
“That book changed my life,” Lemay told a newspaper reporter. “It really touched my heart, to find out all the injustice, the pain and hurt, all the mistreatment [the Mohawks] received, and the inertia of the government.”
As a Christian, she struggled with the contradictions and gaps in her knowledge. As it happened, the same week she learned this new history, a delegation from Kanesatake was at her church to give a presentation about a project they were working on. During the event, Francine found herself shaking all over as she listened. At the end of the presentation, she stood up in front of the congregation and asked to speak.
She shared, “I’m Marcel Lemay’s sister, the police officer who got shot at Oka.”
Pin drop silence.
She then apologized for the injustices their community had endured, including the racist portrayal by the media.
Mavis Etienne, who had been a key negotiator during the Oka crisis, happened to be part of the Mohawk delegation. Mavis walked over to Francine and hugged her, offering condolences for the loss of her brother.
Could there have been a dry eye in the house?
This was a powerful moment of reconciliation. It would be the first of many steps Francine would take toward healing with the Mohawk people of Kanesatake. Mavis invited Francine to attend an ecumenical gathering to pray for peace & reconciliation, called the Trail of Prayers. Francine went. When the trail ended in the Pines, the site of her brother’s death, Francine was overtaken by nausea and weakness. Though she was invited to leave if she needed to, Francine insisted on completing the ceremony.
Francine described this experience as “the first phase of my healing… I let myself mourn my brother — for the first time.” This was in 2004, almost a decade and a half after Marcel’s death.
Francine began occasionally attending Mavis Etienne’s church in Kanesatake. She also realized that many friends in her francophone community still held old ideas and prejudices. Mohawks were stereotypically referred to as “savages” and as involved in “illegal cigarettes, the bingos, the lottery.” She decided she could do something to help educate her fellow Quebec francophones: translate At the Woods’ Edge into French. Translation was her profession and this was her way of giving something back.
The offer was met with surprise, joy, and even some discomfort from the Mohawk community. but they accepted her offer, and she toiled away for nine months until the book was successfully translated. À l’orée des bois was available in time for the 20th anniversary of the Oka crisis.
“This is like my contribution for the pain the Mohawks endured throughout the centuries, my way to make amends,” she explained. “The first step to reconciliation is knowledge, information. So I have to inform the Québecois, the Francophones, about the history of Kanesatake.”
(**) -> This is not, of course, a truly faithful reproduction of what is in the book. It’s my hasty typing up of excerpts, hoping to whet your appetite for more