Overcoming the Barricades: The Crisis at Oka as a Case Study in Political Communication

Article excerpt

This article contains a study of the stand-off at Oka using the tools of political communication analysis. It offers an interpretation of the crisis that displays the discursive effacement of Native claims to identity and self-determination. Furthermore, it reveals as discursive the connection between the exercise of state power and influence and the relation of authority. The article argues that the crisis at Oka demonstrates how discipline, coercion and violence are immanently linked to the maintenance of legitimate authority and the identities such authority requires. Before looking at the context and events of the case, the article begins with a brief outline of the model used in the study.

Dans cet article nous examinerons la crise d'Oka au Quebec pendant l'ete 1990. Nous utiliserons pour ce faire les outils d'analyse en communication politique. Notre objectif est de decrire "l'action communicative" pendant la crise et de montrer comment cette communication a rendu compte de la position des Mohawks d'une part et des gouvernements provincial et federal d'autre part, les deux partis se situant dans deux paradigmes culturels et politiques differents. Nous ferons aussi quelques observations sur la facon dont l'Etat contemporain utilise la communication pour gouverner. Pour conclure, nous verrons comment l'issue de cette crise a represente le succes "instrumental" de l'Etat a subordonner l'identite et la souverainete indiennes a "l'identite et souverainete canadiennes."

The stand-off involving Mohawk Indians, Quebec police and the Canadian Armed Forces at Oka, Quebec during the summer of 1990 constituted a dramatic and shocking event in Canadian political history. A naive view might see the stand-off and its associated events as an aberration in Canadian politics, an exceptional breakdown in an otherwise markedly non-military and non-violent political system. A more reflective understanding of the "crisis" as a symptom of larger forces and a deeper malaise would situate Oka within the history of Native peoples frustration over land claims, emphasize its symbolism in relation to Native demands for self-determination, and focus on the particular problems and questions raised by the way in which the federal and provincial governments handled events.(f.1) While the stand-off at Oka emerges as an exceptional event, and while an examination of the historical and political context as well as the behaviour of the actors involved may produce insight into deeper problems besetting Native-government relations or the Canadian political system in general, such understandings generally do not regard the communicative action of the crisis as the crucial determinant.

The stand-off at Oka, on the face of it, involved a clash of cultures, but the dynamics and form of this conflict are accessible only if we look at communication in political terms during the crisis. The conflict as a whole, then, can be understood as an exercise of power rather than as a symptom of deeper problems in the body politic.

This article studies the stand-off at Oka using the tools of political communication analysis. It offers an interpretation of the crisis that displays the discursive effacement of Native claims to identity and self-determination. Furthermore, it reveals as discursive the connection between the exercise of state power and influence and the relation of authority. The article argues that the crisis at Oka demonstrates that discipline, coercion and violence are immanently linked to the maintenance of legitimate authority and the identities such authority requires.

A Framework of Political Communication

The tools of analysis employed in this study are developed in a framework that focuses on political communication, on symbolic action. Meaning is given in society most often and most importantly via verbal systems -- using words -- but gestures and visual representations are also important forms of communication. …

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