Akwesasne Community Mediates Peace & Ends Deep-Rooted Civil Strife (1990-1992)
“Is Everyone at the Table?” When the world is no longer under your feet, all you have left to stand on is what you stood for.
In1989, the people of the Mohawk territory of Kanesatake were outraged to learn that the neighbouring town of Oka, Quebec planned to expand a golf course onto land the Mohawks considered their sacred burial ground. After trying for a year to stop the golf course expansion through the courts, the Mohawks barricaded the land. In late April 1990, as the nation waited for the next chapter at Oka to unfold, 90 minutes away in the Mohawk territory of Akwesasne the long-simmering internal strife had boiled over, touched off by a gaming licence on the American side of the territory.
During five days of violence that some likened to a civil war, two young Mohawk men were killed. The Canadian side of Akwesasne was evacuated to Cornwall, Ontario, and approximately 900 police officers descended on Akwesasne to attempt to restore order. Akwesasne had always been very complex politically, divided by the Canada-U.S. border, split into numerous different factions, and governed by three separate bodies: the elected Mohawk Council for Akwesasne (MCA) on the Canadian side, an elected tribal council on the U.S. side, and the self-governing traditional Longhouse chiefs. Following the evacuation, I was invited to meet with the grand chief and other leaders in an attempt to mediate a solution.
Thus begins Chapter 1 of my book, “Is Everyone at the Table? 18 Life Lessons in Problem Solving”. Mohawk Elders gave me permission to write my stories after 18 years so that one generation could grow from wartime with the peacemaking seeds planted during 1990-1992.
During initial discussions with MCA, I discovered that every major Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) organization in North America was interested in providing services. At the time, I was co-founder and Executive Director of the Ottawa Canadian Institute for Conflict Resolution. It was selected as the conflict resolution consultant with me “on the ground.” The foundation of their training today is from Mohawk teachings on community-based conflict resolution approaches. Two years of consultation led to Akwesasne creating its own precedent community-based mediation centre, Sken Nen Kowa - Organization for Great Peace, with Joellene Adams selected by the community as Executive Director.
Traditional teachings, combined with the principles of ADR and conflict resolution, seemed to give the Mohawk leadership the endurance they needed to survive the destabilizing forces. After months of negotiations the various factions finally gathered for their first meeting to discuss implementing a rumour control system to reduce the violence within the community. This was an idea from my colleague Tom Colosi to prevent the process from being disrupted by destabilizing forces, troublemakers, misunderstandings, or inadvertent information.
Each faction, and each police force, would designate a representative. Before anyone acted on information circulating in the community they would check it out with the other representatives and the police to be sure the situation was not worsened by incorrect information, gossip or false rumours planted to stir up trouble. This system did help with conflict prevention and maintenance. It was also a unique way to build on the common ground that we had identified at the beginning of the process: ensuring a better future for the next seven generations.
A leader of the Warrior Society later told me that he believed success had been possible because, for the first time in 100 years, the Mohawks in Akwesasne had been given the opportunity to do something by and for themselves. An Akwesasne Mohawk Chief at the Oka Crisis said, “The Creator gave ADR to the western mind in order to heal with all other communities and cultures in the world.”
I believe the Akwesasne mediation centre is a process design model for the world, "not for what they did which is unique to their people and territory"; but, “for the process on how they did it". The former is 'distinct', the latter is ‘universal'. My personal and professional problem-solving toolbox expanded in ways I could not have imagined. Ancient and spiritual teachings, traditional dispute resolution, and wisdom from Mohawk Elders and community underpin the innumerable cases settled and my views.
By: Ernest G. Tannis, President, Global ADR Strategies
Doreen Kahalé (Editor)