The Ts'Peten Defenders have looked forward to having their day in court. After going twice to the United Nations, as well as to various gatherings and meeting about Shuswap land issues, and after spending almost a year in jail, William Ignace (aka Wolverine) sees the Gustafsen Lake trial as another way to get the truth out. But with the trial in its third week, mainstream media coverage has yet to happen.
Reporters for the mainstream media were present during Crown Counsel's questioning of American cattle rancher Lyle James but were absent for Harry Rankin's cross examination for the defense. Reacting to the scant media coverage in an interview on Bad News, a CFUV activist radio program, Wolverine said, "The newspapers are in the hip pockets of the corporations and the truth doesn't sell papers."
"I'm here because the NDP wanted to kill Natives to get votes," said Wolverine.
Following the largest police operation in B.C., costing close to $5 million, the trial promises to be no small event. The estimated cost per day is around $50,000 and the end is not in sight. The presiding judge commented that the trial, conducted as it is, will last until Christmas. In response defense attorney George Wool said, "Well, merry Christmas, then," further stating that the trial would last as long as it had to in order to get the truth.
Crown counsel has done its part in helping to slow things down at the trial. Disclosures from the prosecution relating to RCMP witnesses have included copies of their notes from selected dates during the "standoff" when it was clear that these officers were involved with the operation before and after the disclosures dates and had kept extensive notes. After disclosing copies of all of the notes, the Crown expected to have heard 14 witnesses by the end of day four of the trial and had instead heard six.
The full testimony of the officers is crucial to proving the defense's contention that the "standoff" occurred due to an escalation of events brought on by the RCMP and Lyle James last summer.
The RCMP witnesses have been evasive, however. The Crown's first witness, Constable Ken Tassell, assigned as the file coordinator for Gustafsen Lake, testified that on August 17, 1995 he was asked to drive ERT officers from the Kamloops detachment to Gustafsen Lake. Although he remembered the exact time that he picked up the team (4:11 pm), he could not remember who gave him the order to drive the team to the lake.
Tassell repeatedly told the court that he had no direct knowledge of the information he shared with the team during the hour long drive although all RCMP reports regarding Gustafsen Lake had crossed his desk. After the fifth defense lawyer cross examined him, Tassell admitted that he shared his knowledge of Gustafsen Lake with the Emergency Response Team (ERT) members.
Tassell's testimony also revealed that the RCMP had three Native officers working in the area but pulled them from their duties before the ERT squads arrived on Aug. 17, increasing tensions dramatically.
Crown witness Constable Brian Flemming also showed reluctance to implicate his superiors on cross examination. Flemming had gone to Hinton, Alberta on Sept. 3, 1995 and spoke with John "Doc" Hill who gave him the address of John Stevens, the medicine man for the camp who eventually brought about a peaceful settlement to the "standoff" on Sept. 17. Flemming stated in court that he did not visit Stevens and did not take any notes while in Alberta. Consequently, Flemming said that he did not pass Stevens' name on to his superiors.
George Wool questioned Flemming with regard to any knowledge he had of the highly publicized "shooting incident" that took place on Sept. 4 in which RCMP officers claimed that their truck had been shot at and they had been stalked through the bushes by natives all night. In fact, the officers accidentally hit a tree branch in their truck and panicked. The incident was used by the RCMP to justify the introduction of the military and armoured personnel carriers into the area. Flemming said that he had no knowledge of the incident.
During the trial as well as the "standoff", the Ts'Peten Defenders have made it clear that this is a land rights issue.
At the beginning of the "standoff", the Defenders issued a press release with demands for a peaceful resolution to the conflict, including a request that an independent third party investigate illegal selling and leasing of native lands on unceded territory in Canada. A 1763 Royal Proclamation vowed to protect all unceded Indian territories from encroachment by Crown subjects. The proclamation was validated in 1982 when the constitution was ratified.
Lyle James testified that the Defenders erected fences and a cabin on the Sundance site at Gustafsen Lake. The fences were erected in order to keep the grazing cattle from defecating on the sacred ground and the cabin was for maintenance of the grounds and for cooking, though James saw it as a breach of the agreement he had with the Sundancers.
The agreement entered into evidence at the trial states that the property in question belongs to the James Cattle Company but that the Sundancers may use it if they do not erect any structures. This agreement is allegedly between James and Percy Rosette, Faith Keeper of the Sundance, but the paper in evidence is not signed by James or witnesses and only marked with an X next to Rosette's name.
Although James denied any dispute of ownership of the land, he admitted on the stand that the paragraph in the agreement stating that the land belongs to the company addresses the question of land ownership.
James testified that on June 13, 1995, he and 10 ranch hands arrived at the Sundance site to serve an eviction notice. The notice, drafted in February, had a deadline time which had already passed making it impossible for the Defenders to comply.
John "Doc" Hill said the ranch hands "pulled out rifles and threatened to kill them [the Sundancers]. One of them pulled out a bullwhip and said, `This is a good day to string up some red niggers.'" Lyle James has testified that one of the ranch hands had a bullwhip but was just playing with it.
James testified that neither he nor his ranch hands had any confrontations with the Sundancers, although he preferred to believe his ranch hands' claims of innocence over the Natives'.
Although James denied that there were any politics involved in the "standoff", he testified that he met with several politicians including MLA Dave Zirnhelt and Jack Weisgerber, head of the B.C. Reform Party.
Wolverine sees the entire process as political and feels he is being held for political reasons. "How much longer is the genocide going to continue in this country?" he said. "Is this how politicians will get elected in the future? Bump off a few more of our people?"