Coming-of-Age During The Oka Crisis

Indigenous History Month highlights the culture and heritage of Indigenous peoples. It is a time to remember how Indigenous people have been treated in the past and in the present.

Beans is a coming-of-age film set against the backdrop of the Oka Crisis in the summer of 1990.  As a young girl named ‘Beans’ navigates the awkward journey of adolescence, the tension of the crisis erupts into violence.

Filmmaker Tracy Deer based the story on her childhood experience of the Oka crisis. The land dispute between the Quebec government and Mohawk community lasted 78 days. It began over a golf course expansion that would cover Mohawk burial grounds. The dispute resulted barricades, gunfire and the death of a Sûreté du Québec police officer. The Canadian military was eventually deployed to end the violence. Soldiers were stationed around the Mohawk community, along with helicopters and military vehicles.

The film opens with 12-year-old Tekahentakwa entering an elite, mostly white school. She patiently pronounces her name for the principal several times, before giving up and using her nickname ‘Beans’ instead. On the way home, we see that people are beginning to gather over the land dispute.

As the story progresses, food becomes scarce due to the growing blockade. Tekahentakwa’s pregnant mother takes them to a grocery store in the city, but they are refused service. A crowd gathers in the store chanting racial slurs and applaud when her family leaves empty-handed. By now, the streets are lined with angry people and threat of violence is everywhere. Beans is overwhelmed with emotion as she tries to process what’s happening to her community.

Adolescence is a tumultuous time for any young person. But to grow up with chaos at your very doorstep is a whole other level of difficulty. Seeing this kind of violence through Tekahentakwa’s eyes sets a tone of frustration and helplessness. As the viewer you can understand why she is then drawn to a group of neighbourhood bullies. To feel a sense of control, in a world out that’s out of control, she starts to emulate the bullies’ behaviour. She dresses provocatively, swears and begins to take pleasure in being mean. Her hardness grows as the film progresses, coming to a head when her family decides to evacuate. There are a series of events that happen where she must decide whether to continue the path she’s on.

The film is interspliced with real news clips that I remember seeing on television as a kid. I recall the gunfire and the military vehicles in the streets. It was hard to believe then that we were seeing something that was happening in Canada. Now, as I rewatch this crisis as an adult and as a parent, it’s even harder to process. Right in the middle of all this, Tekahentakwa’s mother is raising her children. The fear for their safety was real.

What makes Beans such an effective story is that it comes from Tracy Deer’s own experience. It makes us remember that there were real people living through all the violence and hatred. It shaped the lives of all those involved. It is a powerful film that tells a very real story that should not be forgotten.