The Terrible Summer


167 pages
ISBN 1-895629-63-2
DDC 971'.00497





Reviewed by J.R. Miller

J.R. Miller is a professor of history at the University of Saskatchewan,
the author of Skyscrapers Hide in the Heavens: A History of Indian-White
Relations in Canada, and co-editor of the Canadian Historical Review.


Ojibwe journalist Richard Wagamese wrote a regular column on Native
affairs for the Calgary Herald for several years. Those from late 1989,
before the 1990 confrontation at Oka (the “terrible summer” of the
title), until the end of 1991 make up this interesting volume. Wagamese,
who has also published two well-received novels, addresses a number of
issues that are of pressing concern to both the Native and non-Native

Many of the columns deal with the lingering damage that Native peoples
suffer from a variety of causes, as well as with their efforts to
overcome that hurt. A recurrent theme in Wagamese’s treatment of this
topic is the importance of the teachings of the Elders—a path, he
tells the reader on several occasions, that he followed to recover from
addiction and self-destructive anger. Also recurrent in the book is the
issue of Native political leadership, and that leadership’s
interaction with mainstream politicians at the federal level. If
Wagamese is sometimes ambivalent about Native politicians, he is
consistently (and justifiably) critical of federal ministers who raise
Native expectations during a crisis only to dash them when the glare of
publicity subsides.

The Terrible Summer bears out the maxim that journalism is “history
on the run” in both the best and worst senses of the phrase. It is
fascinating to watch Wagamese’s reactions to the Oka confrontation
evolve, from a muted commentary that suggests he does not think this
resistance will last, to disbelief at the heavy-handedness of the
government response, to anger at the failure of the Mulroney government
to fully implement the promises it made to Native leaders during the
crisis. However, Wagamese’s treatment of many topics is marred by the
inaccuracies that often creep into reportage. For example, Kanesatake,
the Mohawk settlement close to the Quebec village of Oka, is mistakenly
referred to as “Kahnawake,” which is the Mohawk reserve on the south
shore of the St. Lawrence opposite Montreal.

Notwithstanding such slips, The Terrible Summer is a book well worth
reading to recapture the national mood before, during, and after the Oka


Wagamese, Richard., “The Terrible Summer,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed April 13, 2024,