A professor searches for new meaning in one of the country’s most iconic photographs
It all began with the click of a camera.
On September 1, 1990, Canadian Press photographer Shaney Komulainen snapped a photo of two men face to face that would become one of the country’s most enduring images.
The stare down between soldier Patrick Cloutier and warrior Brad Larocque at the height of the Oka crisis is burned into the nation’s memory. The word alone – Oka – brings many people back to that summer when a violent dispute erupted over the Quebec town’s proposed expansion of a golf course near a sacred burial ground on Kanehsatà:ke Mohawk territory.
The image is emblematic of a nation divided. Conflicted.
One photo: multiple interpretations
Now, on the 24th anniversary of the end of the crisis, a study from the University of British Columbia reveals the different ways in which Canadians have read the photograph, finding that a picture may be worth a thousand words, but it may not have a singular meaning.
“People project onto this image what they want to see,” says author Rima Wilkes, a sociology professor whose study was published this year in the journal, Nations and Nationalism. “You can think it’s just a photograph and they don’t lie, but you can interpret it any way you want.”
Wilkes argues many non-Indigenous people read the photograph as a symbol of Canadian peacekeeping. However, she says this reading is misguided given what actually took place.
“It’s a photograph that shows the Mohawks bigger and stronger than the Canadian soldier,” says Wilkes. “Despite the fact that there was 2,500 soldiers there who outnumbered and outgunned 50 Mohawks. It’s so opposite of what it was really like.”
The ‘little soldier’ and the ‘angry warrior’
Wilkes’ study traces the history of the photograph, which first ran in newspapers across the country in 1990. Cloutier and Larocque, who was first misidentified as another warrior named Lasagna, became famous overnight. At the time, Cloutier was heralded as a Canadian hero and promoted to master corporal. The Globe and Mail went as so far as comparing him to “the man who stared down a Red Army tank in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square last year.”
Quebec media were also quick to emphasize Cloutier’s Quebecois roots with La Presse describing him as “the little soldier staring unblinkingly at the angry Warrior.”
But the hero constructed by the press would be quick to fall. Cloutier was caught with cocaine in 1992 and discharged from the army a year later after being found guilty of impaired driving and leaving the scene of an accident. In 1995, he starred in a pornographic film, Quebec Sexy Girls II: The Confrontation, which parodied the events at Oka.
In her study, Wilkes notes: “In contrast to the lavish praise heaped upon Private Cloutier, mainstream media had little praise for Larocque despite his role in supporting the Mohawks of Kanehsatà:ke or for his restraint in the face of several hundred years of colonialism.”
Larocque, who is of Anishinaabe heritage, was a student at the University of Saskatchewan and travelled to Oka to support the Mohawk warriors.
For many Indigenous peoples, Oka marked a turning point.
“What the Mohawks did is rather remarkable,” Wilkes says. “They stood up to the army. There were so few of them and they said no to occupation.”
The events at Kanehsata:ke lasted for 78 days, ending on September 26. Flanked by armoured tanks and with guns drawn, the army eventually moved in on the land, destroying blockades set up by the Mohawks.
Twenty-four years later, the relationship between the Canadian government and Indigenous peoples remains on shaky ground. The image of Cloutier and Larocque face to face frequently reappears in media stories often unrelated to Oka, like the Six Nations conflict in Caledonia. Indigenous organizers also use the image as a symbol of strength and resistance at various events.
No matter how the image is read or understood, it endures.
“I think the image will become more uncomfortable over time,” Wilkes says. “We like to think of ourselves as nice Canadians, and the image plays up that idea. But it shouldn’t have been read like that to begin with.”
Video: Rima Wilkes talks about the power of images