Vancouver - Sixteen months after the gunfire between police and native rights advocates ended at Gustafsen Lake, the battle continues in a fortified BC courtroom. It cost the RCMP more than $5 million to negotiate an end to the 30-day standoff at a remote campsite in 1995 with 18 arrests, two for attempted murder and the rest for minor weapons charges and mischief.
The BC Supreme Court trial already has involved 106 days of testimony and the defence has yet to call a witness.
The Gustafsen siege risked heavy casualties, new martyrs for the more radical element among North American Indians and a major disruption of relations between Indians and non-Indians in Canada.
The trial has equally sweeping dimensions. The cost, including defendants legal aid and accomodation and court services and security, already may exceed $2-million.
It takes place inside a bulletproof cage crowded with armed deputies. A spectators gallery occasionally displays a circus atmosphere, with about a dozen or so onlookers offering a running and often critical commentary on what they hear.
It also centres on contradictory interpretations of what the standoff was about: a thwarted police investigation or a conspiracy to trample ancient Indian rights.
The attempted-murder charges relate to a shot fired at officers early in the siege. Despite thousands of shots exchanged later, no one was killed at Gustafsen Lake.
Crown Attorney Lance Bernard has called dozens of witnesses, including the registered owner of the land, RCMP strategists, and snipers and media handlers, and officers planted in the defendants cells. He plans another week of testimony, and then the defence takes over.
But the increasingly wan-looking jurors who enter the courtroom each day with bulging notebooks may find the defence presentation unexpectedly brief.
Lawyers for some of the defendants believe that they may have already shown that the RCMP and politicians conspired to paint the defendants as terrorists and to justify a military assault on them, and thus bury the legitimacy of their claims to the lake.
"We 're effectively finished here," defence lawyer Donald Campbell said in an interview last week.
"I don't think we'll need many more witnesses," colleague George Wool agreed. "This will end by March." The four defence lawyers and some of the defendants acting on their own behalf have advanced their arguments by subjecting Crown witnesses to intensive cross-examinations.
The defense team repeatedly has raised questions and made remarks about possible cover-up, conspiracy, intimidation and political motivations.
They have subpoenaed thousands of hours of police communications logs and videotape, and questioned officers about their recorded remarks made during firefights, in strategy sessions and in their notebooks.
The defense has produced evidence of confusion and anger in the police ranks. It has raised the likelihood that some officers were caught in their own crossfire. It has shown that at least one RCMP-reported shooting never occurred. The jury has seen a snippet of videotape where RCMP officers refer to a smear campaign. The RCMP's battle commander, Len Olfert, has testified that the force released to the media juvenile criminal records of people believed to be in the camp. He has admitted he was recorded privately calling the Indians' lawyer, Bruce Clark,"a goddamn snake."
But despite the frustrations of erratic negotiations with the camp occupants, Supt. Olfert said, the RCMP did not plot to kill the Indians or publicly discredit them, to inflame the public or to intentionally mislead the media. Other officers have similarly testified.
In a revealing exchange last Monday, Supt. Olfert said the standoff "may have been seen by some in the camp as a land issue, but we [initially] were pursuing a very serious criminal investigation " into who was shooting at the RCMP.
Jones William Ignace, also known as Wolverine, who faces an attempted murder charge and is defending himself, responded: "No, we were standing on the truth, [about their claim to the land], and on the law [Indian's constitutional rights] and it was you who were terrified and called us terrorists." Mr. Justice Bruce Josephson has repeatedly told Mr. Ignace that his constitutional questions are irrelevant. The 65 year old Shuswap Indian has repeatedly told the judge that the court lacks jurisdiction over India rights and he is being muzzled. Mr. Ignace's lawyer Harry Rankin withdrew without explanation before Christmas. Glen Kealey, an Ottawa based conspiracy theorist who is well known for his allegations of corruption in the Mulroney government is Mr. Ignace's courtroom adviser.
The defence strategy clearly is to portray "at least some sort of police conspiracy," through the questions the defence is allowed to put to Crown witnesses, Mr. Bernard said in an interview.
But Supt. Olfert and other witnesses have been even clearer in their denials the Crown attorney added. "I am satisfied that the relevant evidence...has gone before the jury."
His scheduled final witnesses will address the alleged smear campaign and the police strategy of seeking a non-violent end.
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