Gustafsen standoff hurt democracy
Vancouver - Native protesters who took up arms against the RCMP during British Columbia's Gustafsen Lake standoff in 1995 were given tough prison terms yesterday by the BC Supreme Court. Warning that armed protests undermine the democratic principles of Canada and must be deterred by the courts, Justice I.B. Josephson ordered the incarceration of 13 people for periods of six months to 4 1/2 years.
"What separates the Gustafsen Lake standoff from other forms of civil protest and even unlawful civil disobedience was the threat of violence to prevent their removal from the land should their demands not be met," wrote Judge Josephson in his judgment. Judge Josephson noted there are land-claims disputes across Canada, but that natives do not resort to such armed violence to make their points.
"When rhetoric is swept aside, it was camp occupants who introduced weapons and violence to the standoff at Gustafsen Lake," he wrote. "It was that, not an act of trespass that required a massive response by police which strained their resources to the limit." The sentencing ends a 10-month trial that followed the occupation of ranch land in the BC Interior by a small, fringe group of natives and their supporters. Claiming the land was sacred and had never been ceded to the Crown, members of the group fired at police who tried to remove them.
The RCMP spent 5.5-million and brought in more than 400 officers to bring the protesters to justice. It was the largest such operation in RCMP history. The standoff lasted 33 days. The prison terms were immediatelely denounced by supporters of the militants, who include both native and non-natives. They screamed obscenities and called for a public inquiry into the conduct of the trial.
Bruce Clark, the lawyer who defended many of the protestors, said he will appeal the sentences. "I feel sick to my stomach, I feel hollow," said Shelagh Franklin, who was given a one year jail term but will be allowed to serve her time in the community because she gave birth during the trial. But native leaders didn't see the Gustafsen Lake protesters as martyrs.
Ovide Mercredi, who had to deal with the controversy during his tenure as national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said the militants knew what they were getting into. Mr. Mercredi added that the group's leader, Jones William Ignace, known as Wolverine, represented an extreme political element that should not be embraced by natives or others. "He's not a fool," Mr. Mercredi told reporters. "He's a very intelligent man. And when you get involved in incidents like that, you have to live with the results."
Mr. Ignace was sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison for mischief causing danger to life, discharging a firearm at police, preventing arrests of others and possession of weapons for a purpose dangerous to the public peace. The jury had earlier acquitted Mr. Ignace, and his son Joseph, of attempted murder charges. The RCMP's response to the Gustafsen Lake standoff has been under scrutiny for the past two years in British Columbia, with many wondering whether police overreacted. But the court appeared to side with the RCMP response, noting that if they had ended the controversy quickly there might have been deaths.
"They wisely chose a course calculated to minimize that risk," the judge said. "This required patience and the costly deployment of hundreds of officers working in shifts to contain this remote and isolated area."
Edward Dick was given a three-year prison sentence for mischief endangering life and an 18 month concurrent sentence for weapons possession. James Pitawanakwat was sentenced to three years in prison for mischief endangering life and a two year concurrent sentence for weapons possession.
The court gave Suniva Bronson a sentence of two years less a day for mischief endangering life, plus a one year concurrent sentence for weapons possession. Sheila Ignace, who also gave birth during the trial, will serve a six-month sentence in the community. Robert Flemming received seven months and two years probation. Seven others convicted of lesser mischief charges were handed sentences of six months in jail and 18 months probation.
Prisoners' backers promise retaliation and call for inquiry
Enraged natives vowed reprisals after 13 participants in the Gustafsen Lake standoff were sentenced to jail yesterday.
"This is going to lead to nothing less that general mayhem," said David Dennis of the Native Youth Movement at a protest outside the Assembly of First Nations conference. "Something big is going to happen. When I hear that someone who was defending their rights is going to jail, I feel angry, I feel frustrated. Something's going to blow up," said Dennis at the emotion-charged protest.
Dennis did not say what the movement's next steps will be, but he said blockades are not out of the question.
The jail sentences came after one of the longest criminal trials in Canadian history and nearly two years after the 31-day armed standoff between natives and police at Gustafsen Lake, near 100 Mile House.
Jones William Ignace, also known as Wolverine, the standoff's leader, received 4 1/2 years in jail for mischief endangering life. That is in addition to 22 months he has already spent in custody. James Pitawanakwat was sentenced to four years for mischief endangering life, and Edward Dick received three years for the same charge. Lesser mischief charges ranged from nine months in hail to six months to be spent in the community.
Defence lawyer Harry Rankin was outraged when native supporter John (Splitting the Sky) Hill spat on fellow defence lawyer Sheldon Tate. "We were up in the rotunda being interviewed, and that Mohawk from the U.S. came shouting at me, so I threatened to whack him with my cane," Rankin said last night. "He started screaming and raving like a lunatic at Tate and then he spit on him." Rankin said Hill is "an idiot who wants everyone else to be a martyr, but not him."
Rankin was representing Suniva Bronson, who received a sentece of two years less a day. Tate was acting for Percy Rosette, spiritual leader of the sundancers, and his wife Mary Pena, who each for [sic] six-month sentences.
More than 140 chiefs signed a petition at the AFN conference demanding an inquiry into "excessive force and attempted murder against the Indian people."
[Former] AFN National Chief Ovide Mercredi said those involved in the standoff knew the consequences of their violent actions. "Wolverine knew what he was getting into," said Mecredi. "you don't have to use a gun to be a leader. If you use a gun, those are the consequences."
Two others involved in the standoff, William and Joseph Ignace, were acquitted of attempted murder. The sentencing hearing took two months.
Native Indian supporters call for a public inquiry into police actions during the standoff
Angry protests and calls for a public inquiry erupted Wednesday after a BC Supreme Court judge gave 13 participants in the Gustafsen Lake standoff sentences ranging from four and a half years in prison to six months, to be served in the community.
Native supporters cried out "bull----" as Justice Bruce Josephson handed down the sentences in a heavily secured courtroom, after one of the longest criminal trials in Canadian history. They thrust their fists into the air as the convicted were taken into custody, and then condemned the trial around a drum circle outside the court.
The heaviest sentence was imposed on 66 year old Jones Ignace - the leader of the armed group within the encampment - who was given four and a half years in prison for mischief causing actual danger to life and for discharging a firearm at police. Josephson said Ignace would have been sentenced to eight years if he hadn't already served two years in jail, before the trial.
He allowed two defendants, Shelagh Franklin and Sheila Ignace, who had borne children during the lengthy trial, to be released to serve their sentences in the community in order not to separate them from their children. Within minutes of the sentences being handed down, supporters were demanding a public inquiry into the RCMP's actions, particularly the force's attempts to shoot the protesters at Gustafsen Lake and the use of plastic explosives to blow up a truck occupied by two of them.
Attorney-General Ujjal Dosanjh said he would not comment on sentencing until after the 30-day appeal period has elapsed. RCMP Staff Sergeant Peter Montague also declined, saying: "Sentencing is entirely up to the courts."
Franklin, who will serve 12 months in the community, said the jailing of her comrades made her feel sick. "We're seeking an inquiry into what went on. This government is complicit in genocide. This is an abortion of justice."
Outside the Vancouver Trade and Convention Centre, where Canada's Indian chiefs were holding elections to choose their next leader, protesters dressed in military fatigues and Indian costumes pounded drums. "We must call for a public inquiry," said Bill Lightbown, who spoke for the protesters during the standoff. "Our people are not afraid of a public inquiry and we want the truth to come out."
Lyle James, on whose ranch the standoff took place, said from his home Wednesday night that he hopes the sentences "will be a deterrent so those who went in as sympathizers realize that they should get into something like this."
Josephson said he accepted that all the accused "genuinely believe in the justice of their cause." Many "continue to justify their actions as an attempt to advance native culture and spirituality.
"But that is not what this case is about. When a cause, no matter how just it is perceived to be, is advanced with the unlawful use of weapons, violence and threats of violence in a manner designed to compel a course of action upon government... a failure to adequately deter and express society's denunciation of this serious breach of our democratic society's most basic values can only serve to foster a move in the direction of anarchy."
Also sentenced were:
- James Pitawanakwat, 25, three years for mischief causing danger to life and one year for possesion of a weapon to be served concurrently.Photo: Lawyers Blamed-dozens of angry supporters of the Gustafsen Lake protesters hurled abuse and slurs at defence lawyer Harry Rankin, accusing him and another defence counsel (Sheldon Tate) of selling out their clients.
- Edward Dick, 23, three years for mischief causing danger to life and 18 months for possession of weapon to be served concurrently.
- Suniva Bronson,30, two years less a day for mischief causing danger to life and one year for possession of a weapon to be served concurrently.
- The rest were sentenced on a charge of mischief to private property. Ronald Dionne, 32, got nine months imprisonment, Robert Flemming, 34, seven months. Six month terms went to Flora Sampson, 54, Percy Rosette, 58, Mary Jane Pena, 49, Glen Deneault, 31, Grant Archie, 35, Brent Potulicki, 23 (for whom an arrest warrant was issued) and Trond Halle, 32. Sheila Ignace will serve six months in the community.
SURREY, British Columbia (AP) - The leader of a band of armed Indian militants who confronted hundreds of policemen during a month-long standoff in 1995 was sentenced Wednesday to 4 1/2 years in jail.
Twelve other defendants in the case also received jail terms, concluding a trial that dragged on for a year while focusing on aboriginal grievances against police and government officials.
William Jones Ignace, the leader of the standoff, was convicted of mischief, endangering life and assaulting a police officer. Sentences for the other defendants ranged from four years to six months.
The charges originated from a dispute over private ranch land in British Columbia's rugged Cariboo region. The natives said the land was sacred territory and refused orders to leave after conducting a sundance ceremony.
By September 1995, at the peak of the standoff, about 400 Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers were at the scene, equipped with stun grenades, automatic rifles and armored personnel carriers borrowed from the army. The police operation cost an estimated $3.7 million.
The standoff, which ended when the defendants surrendered peacefully, included one shootout in which thousands of rounds of ammunition were exchanged in 45 minutes.
The sentences were delivered in a heavily secured courtroom, after one of the longest criminal trials in Canadian history. After a jury brought down convictions in May, the sentencing hearing took two more months.