A Female Warrior Leader’s Journey
Updated November 28, 2016
This is an extra-ordinary leadership story about a woman who as a young teenager almost lost her life. But she not only survived but went on to become an outstanding First Nations female leader who represented Canada later in life at the Olympics. She has maintained her focus on improving the conditions for Canada’s ignored and exploited First Nations peoples. Her life has been one of contribution and steadfast principles.
Be sure to read this incredible story, and also the complementing piece The Way of the Warrior Leader.
The sharp point of the Canadian soldier’s bayonet penetrated her chest, just above her left breast, narrowly missing her heart by one centimeter. She was only 14 years old and terrified, especially when she was hauled away by soldiers, all the while trying to protect her four-year sister. The shock of the situation made her realize only later that she was bleeding. (Photo below)
Was she armed? No.
Did she physically threaten the soldier or anyone else in the vicinity? No.
This was part of the bigger scene on September 26, 1990, in Oka, Quebec, just west of Montreal. Waneek Horn-Miller was only 14 years old. She was carrying her four year-old sister, Kaniehtiio, from the centre where she had been cooking and delivering meals for the Mohawk warriors who’d been manning the front lines against the Canadian Army and Quebec provincial police for several months. Her run-in with the soldier moments later almost cost her life. A subsequent human rights suit filed by her years later was turned down because of her inability to identify the solider.
The Oka Crisis, which had begun in March 1990, was over the expansion of a municipal golf course and the construction of condos on Mohawk burial ground in a heavily forested area. Mohawks from the Kanesatake reserve claimed this land as theirs. After blocking a small road that led to the golf course, and subsequently ignoring a court injunction to remove the blockade, the situation deteriorated quickly. (Other blockades went up by First Nations across Canada in support of the Oka blockade.)
On July 11, 1990, the Quebec Provincial Police stormed the blockade resulting in the death of Corporal Marcel Lemay. As Mohawks stated in a documentary over two decades later, you could feel and hear the bullets whizzing by. Corporal Lemay’s widow, in a documentary in 2014, wept when she met with First Nations’ women, realizing the brutality they had been subjected to by the police and Canadian army and how wrong the dispute had been handled by everyone involved.
On August 20, three days after Quebec’s premier gave the green light to Canada’s army, some 4,000 soldiers, with over 1,000 tanks, Grizzlies, helicopters, trucks, artillery pieces and other equipment moved into place. Of this number of soldiers, 1,000 replaced the provincial police who had surrounded the Mohawk barricades. At that point, Mohawk negotiators suspended negotiations.
In one of Canada’s darkest periods since Confederation in 1867, on August 28th white people stoned a convoy of 75 vehicles carrying mostly First Nations women and children as they attempted to evacuate the area, fearing an invasion of the military. The RCMP and military did virtually nothing to stop the barrage of rocks. This video is painful to watch but it vividly shows the gauntlet that First Nations people had to navigate to escape a violent situation.
In this compilation video from the CBC, anchorman Knowlton Nash does the narrating. It shows the Canadian army moving in to remove the last of 12 barricades. The situation gets extremely tense as the soldiers get too close to First Nations burial grounds. The Mohawk warriors are ready to take action against the soldiers who won’t back down. And then something remarkable happens. First Nations women enter the scene to stop an imminent battle. With no weapons and just using their bare hands, they force their male peers to back off.
And that brings us back to Waneek Horn-Miller’s almost fateful encounter with an over-zealous solider on September 26, 1990, the day the Oka Crisis finally ended. Women and children, caught in the midst of fired up Mohawk warriors and soldiers, became, as we’ve seen in many war zones, the victims.
Since the Oka Crisis, Waneek Horn-Miller has proven to be an extra-ordinary leader. At the 2000 Sydney Olympics she was the co-captain of Canada’s water polo team. She also received international attention for posing nude on the cover of TIME, using a water polo ball as strategic cover.
Horn-Miller uses her role as a motivational speaker and host on the APTN network to educate Canadians about aboriginal history, mistrust and how Canada and First Nations peoples can reach reconciliation. And at the Toronto Pan Am Games in July 2015, she served as the assistant Chef de Mission. (Photo below)
Horn-Miller is married to Keith Morgan, a four-time Olympian in judo and now medical doctor. She has two older sisters, one a physician, the other a professor. And her little sister, Kaniehtiio, whom she was carrying on September 26, 1990, is a Gemini-nominated actress. Horn-Miller states: “Every time I wanted to quit I would envision my little sister’s face and say, ‘I’m not going to quit for her.’ ”
In an interview published in the Ottawa Citizen in December 2015, the last question posed to Waneek Horn-Miller was “Why does Canada need every citizen to be an engaged citizen?” (The preceding question dealt with how Canadians could play a more active role in improving the lives of indigenous peoples.) Her reply to this final question was eloquent and visionary:
“We can’t rely on other people to make the world what we want it to be. Get out there and learn and do; that’s the best way you can hand down a good country to your kids.
We are creating a utopia: a multicultural society with love and tolerance. It requires constant work and navigation on everyone’s part, but together we can create a Canada without indigenous and non-indigenous conflict. That is the future I want for my children, everyone’s children.”
In a white, male-dominated society, filled with leadership stereotypes, we tend to forget the many strong female leaders in our midst. And we especially forget those who are members of our First Nations and Inuit communities and their struggle to be heard and respected.
Waneek Horn-Miller is a true warrior leader.
The Oka crisis is a very dark period in Canadian history. It should never have escalated to the point of the Quebec Provincial Police getting involved, resulting in the death of a police officer. Having the Canadian Army later enter the situation proved that politicians didn’t have a clue on how to respond properly to legitimate First Nations concerns. And it was all over the expansion of a golf course which would have encroached onto First Nations’ land. The golf course expansion never happened.
Have we learned anything?
I want them to remember me as the most courageous fighter, leader, and water polo player to have ever lived.
– Waneek Horn-Miller
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