PCBs caused the Oka crisis. At least that’s the theory of Henry Lickers, a biologist who runs the Akwesasne Band Council’s environment department.

“Akwesasne is the most polluted native reserve in Canada,” he says in a recent report in La Presse.

“The St-Lawrence River, where the Mohawks used to fish, is contaminated. The air is so polluted that agriculture has almost disappeared. So if you’re trying to understand the problems of the Mohawks without taking into account the ravages of pollution on their way of life for the last 40 years, you’re wasting your time.”

Lickers said the “incredible changes” in the environment have “killed” the traditional Mohawk way of life. “That [environmental destruction] is the main cause of conflicts between Mohawks—and other tribes—and whites.”

Lickers said Oka occurred in the context of an “environmental crisis” facing all Mohawks along the St-Lawrence. This crisis has contributed to social instability and could lead to further confrontations, he said.

“Across the world, this is going to be a fundamental cause of conflicts in the 21st century, and pollution at Akwesasne is already a classic case.”

The first blow came in 1959, with the opening of the St-Lawrence Seaway, which severely damaged wildlife near the water. Before, the area around Akwesasne used to yield 40,000 muskrat pelts each year.

After 1959, industrialization transformed Akwesasne. A GM plant and two aluminum companies set up shop at nearby Massena, on the U.S. side of the border which runs through the reserve. On the Ontario side, four large factories were built. All these plants spewed massive amounts of chemicals into the St-Lawrence, including deadly PCBs that cause cancer.

Fish that were a big part of the Mohawk diet are now uneatable. This caused dietary problems among Mohawks, said Lister. The average Mohawk now eats too much carbohydrates. Seventy per cent of Mohawks at Akwesasne aged over 35 suffer from hyperglycemia.