Articles

40 for 40: Julian Sher

OKA 1990: Fighting for journalists’ rights

By Julian Sher

The Oka Crisis of 1990 pitted Indigenous activists against the Canadian army and saw journalists literally caught in the middle. And it was a baptism of political fire for a young CAJ.

The CAJ, or the Centre for Investigative Journalism (CIJ) as it was known then, was little more than a decade old.  Early on, it had focused naturally on conferences and supporting investigative journalism, but it was hardly known to the outside world and the general public.  Oka would help change that and it would inspire many advocacy battles by the CAJ in the years to come.

In March of 1990, Mohawks in Kanehsatà:ke erected a blockade to stop bulldozers from building a golf course on land they considered sacred.

There was a tense standoff, with a Surete de Quebec officer killed.  Eventually 4,000 Canadian troops were called in, surrounding the Mohawks and the armed Warriors.

If you weren’t there or following news reports at the time, it’s hard to imagine to smouldering tensions, the hatred and the fear that much more violence could explode.

Into that cauldron came the journalists -- because that’s our job. At various times, reporters from many media outlets, including the CBC, Montreal Gazette, the Ottawa Citizen, the Globe and Mail, and La Presse, were behind the lines, trying to document the events. Photos and TV images of confrontations between Mohawk Warriors and Canadian soldiers flashed around the world.

Equally hard for any plugged-in journalist under 40 today to imagine is that back then, cell phones were relatively new and clunky, with little battery power, and the Internet as a daily news source was still a decade away. Journalists were a lifeline in getting the news out, but it wasn’t easy – and the army didn’t make it any easier.

I was president of the CIJ/CAJ that year. With my colleague Alain Saulnier, a Radio-Canada veteran who was president of the Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec, we went to the front lines to meet the Armed Forces commanders. We wanted to negotiate for an end to the harassment of journalists trying to do their job and for basic assistance such as   cell phones batteries and other material.

What was significant is that the Canadian army chiefs agreed to meet with us in the first place. In effect, the CIJ/CAJ was recognized as an important independent voice for Canadian journalists.

I remember pulling up the barricades with Alain, making our way through the army vehicles and heavily armed soldiers. We were greeted by two commanders, who ushered us into a tent that I supposed served as their command post.

Then came a scene I will never forget. Alain and I took out our pens and pads to take notes (remember, smart phones and tablets were still sci-fi back then) and laid them on the wooden table.  Plunk.

The two army commanders took off their guns and placed them on the table. With a much louder plunk!

The pen maybe mightier than the sword, but not that day.

Needless to say, we did not sway our military counterparts. The army would not budge and refused to treat journalists any differently than any of the other “fighters” behind the lines.

We would find out 20 years later that the battle for media access in times of crisis had been hotly debated all the way up to the Prime Minister’s top advisors in the Privy Council Office (PCO) in Ottawa.

Harry Swain, who at the time  was the federal deputy minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, revealed in a book he wrote in 2010 that he and others felt that the “serious armed insurrection” was becoming “a continuing photo op for the media.”

Ottawa wanted to cut off communications from behind the lines.

Here is the good news: At least one person dissented: a deputy minister of Justice argued that “cutting off outside communications would be an infringement of … human rights.”

But here’s the bad news: Sadly, his advice was not heeded.

Instead, Swain says the PCO decided the “media circus” had to end. “The Department of National Defense applied for warrants,” he wrote. “Bell Canada was instructed to inactivate the phones it could, and the army would jam the rest.”

Still, back at Oka, we continued our advocacy. We campaigned. We spoke on radio and TV. We stood up and were heard as a voice for Canadian journalists and their rights.

Journalists from the Ottawa Citizen and Montreal Gazette journalists went to court to contest the treatment the meted out during the Oka Crisis. It did not end well.

Federal Court Justice Marcel Joyal found that “freedom of the press . . . does not confer any special status on media people.”

Still he acknowledged that “the role normally exercised by journalists is one which is fundamental to a free and democratic society. This is the role which the plaintiffs have voluntarily undertaken by maintaining their vigil in the compound and by continually filing their stories. In so doing, the plaintiffs are exercising their right to stay there.”

By September, the Mohawk Warriors surrendered and most of the leaders were arrested.  Several journalists would eventually write books or make documentaries about their experiences.

We fought the good fight.  And we kept on fighting.

Soon after the Oka Crisis was over, the first Gulf war (“Operation Desert Shield”) was in full swing and once again, we took on the Canadian military, pushing for free and unfettered access.

That year, we also testified before a Parliamentary committee for the first time, speaking out against media cutbacks and concentration.

And in the years since, the CAJ has kept on fighting for access to information and to the courts,  against police seizure of reporters’ materials, against harassment and censorship -- and on so many other fronts.

It’s what we do.

It is what makes the CAJ such an important voice, 40 years and counting.

April 15, 2018

Julian Sher is the Senior Producer of CBC’s The Fifth Estate and a member of the CAJ for almost all of its 40 years.