Canadian army troops and masked Mohawks jointly dismantled barricades at a key commuter bridge into Montreal on Wednesday, taking a major and unexpected step toward resolving an armed standoff that has preoccupied this country for seven weeks.
The sudden army-Indian cooperation came just as the army was scheduled to demolish the barricades by itself, using armored personnel carriers fitted with bulldozer blades. Because the Mohawks manning the roadblock were heavily armed, many Canadians had feared the demolition would trigger a blood bath.
Authorities said the bridge, which is normally crossed by 60,000 to 70,000 commuters a day, should be open to normal traffic by the weekend. The Indians’ blockade had caused major dislocations for suburbanites living across the St. Lawrence River from Montreal. In recent days and weeks, they have been venting their frustration by burning Indians in effigy, blocking ambulances carrying sick Indians to hospitals and pelting unarmed Indians with stones the size of grapefruit.
Such hot-headed acts seem likely to taper off once the bridge is opened, but the standoff had not been fully resolved as of Wednesday night. Well-armed Mohawks were still manning another barricade on the main road through Oka, a pleasant village northwest and across the river from the bridge blockade. This remaining barricade first went up last spring and was more heavily fortified in June after a botched raid by Quebec provincial policemen in which one officer was killed.
It was that raid that led Indians to protest by setting up the bridge blockades.
Talks between Indian and white negotiators were continuing late into the evening, and there was widespread hope that the Oka blockade could also be dismantled peacefully, bringing a nonviolent ending to Quebec’s lengthy Indian standoff. That would be good news not only for the Indians involved but for the Canadian armed forces, which are normally used only on United Nations peacekeeping missions in international hot spots and which haven’t entered into combat since the Korean War.
The Canadian army’s nonviolent mission is a source of national pride, and their deployment at home has surprised and dismayed the country. As troops set up their sandbags and moved armored personnel carriers and even artillery pieces into position near the Indian encampments, white Canadian civilians in various parts of the country took to the streets to protest. Many feared a shoot-out in Quebec that would disrupt Indian-white relations in Canada for years.
“I was in Texas when Martin Luther King was assassinated, and America was a nation scarred after that,” said protester Frank Spataro, who feared the same thing for Canada.
Nearby, David Parsons was holding up a large banner that read: “If you like South Africa, you’ll love Quebec,” and he waved it every time an armored personnel carrier rolled by. “If one drop of blood is shed here, Quebec and Canada will burn,” he predicted.
Indeed, Indians across Canada have already been blocking roads and railroad tracks this summer, sympathetic with and inspired by the Mohawks of Quebec. One bulldozer-wielding group in Alberta is even trying to redirect a river to flow around a large new dam.
Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney has called the armed Mohawks “terrorists.” He has been careful, however, to distinguish between the armed Mohawks who have been manning the barricades--who hail from a paramilitary group called the Warrior Society--and ordinary, unarmed Mohawks.
Army officials say the Mohawk Warriors operating around Montreal possess, among other things, AK-47 assault rifles, Uzi submachine guns and M-16s, the weapon typically issued to American soldiers in Vietnam. The army has also speculated that the Warriors have mortars and anti-tank weapons.
There was no immediate word Wednesday on whether the Warrior Society would have to relinquish its weapons now that the barricades in Quebec are coming down. The terms of the agreement that led to the dismantling had not yet been made public. Earlier, however, Mulroney had promised that the Mohawks of Oka would be given control of the development site that had touched off the whole controversy when the community proposed to build a golf course on what the Indians claim is ancestral land.