written by Settlers In Support of Indigenous Sovereignty (S.I.S.I.S.)
On May 20, 1997, when the Gustafsen Lake trial jury convicted 15 people of mischief and mischief endangering life, several jury members wept openly. It was an emotional response which mainstream reporters remarked upon with bafflement, but which anyone who had actually followed the trial found all too fitting.
The official sources -- government, police, mainstream media, and BC's comprador native elite -- maintain the month-long siege was story of Indian renegades and squatters, who every summer held a ritual illegally on private land, and in 1995, inexplicably refused to leave. Yet the trial testimony revealed instead disturbing documentation of collusion by those official sources to perpetuate the genocide at the heart of the Canadian state.
Gustafsen Lake was the largest RCMP operation ever; it included the largest land battle involving Canadian Forces since the Korean War, and led to the longest and costliest criminal trial in Canadian history. At the same time that the OPP were closing in on Stoney Pointers at Ipperwash, Ontario, in central BC 400 police and soldiers used dog teams, airplanes, helicopters, APCs, land mines, and fired 77,000 rounds -- including hollow point ammunition -- at a handful of Secwepemc traditionalists and their allies. Astoundingly, only one defender was wounded and none of them were killed, a phenomenon they attribute to the protection of the Sundance site.
The seeds of the crisis were sown in January 1995, when a group of native traditionalists had their lawyer, Bruce Clark, draw up a petition to Queen Elizabeth II. This was the latest in a series of efforts to have the question of jurisdiction over unceded native land brought before an impartial, third-party tribunal -- efforts which have been stonewalled dozens of times in Canadian courts and have taken traditionalists like Wolverine to the World Court at the Hague and to the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Peoples.
Their case is built on the rather obvious principle, accepted in international law since the 16th century, that since Natives are human and were here first, they have jurisdiction -- that is, their land is subject to their government and their laws -- until they relinquish it by treaty. Yet Canada has usurped jurisdiction over huge areas where it has made no treaties, notably virtually all of British Columbia. It has used this illegally assumed jurisdiction to commit genocide: prohibiting the core structures of aboriginal religion and nationhood, imposing Indian Act Band Councils in place of the traditional governments, forcing Native children into residential "schools" and white foster homes, fraudulently selling or granting permits for resource extraction on Native land, and imprisoning or even executing those who resist. A fail-safe mechanism to prevent this has existed since the early 18th century in the form of a special constitutional court in Britain mandated to hear jurisdictional disputes between indigenous nations and the colonies, but it has fallen into disuse thought it was never disbanded.
It was this court that the petitioners asked the Queen to convene in 1995, confident that it would find in their favour. Such a ruling would unmask Canada's continuing colonial practices and seriously challenge corporate and state exploitation of unceded lands. Canada requested that the Queen not convene the court, and apparently decided to settle the matter by force of arms rather than rule of law.
One of the petitioners was Percy Rosette, Faithkeeper of the Sundance and burial grounds at Ts'Peten (Gustafsen Lake). For some years he had been having troubles with Lyle James, the American rancher to whom BC has sold over 180,000 hectares of Secwepemc land. According to RCMP command, meetings about the Sundance at Ts'Peten began "with some intensity" in May, 1995. On June 13, they escorted James and several truckloads of ranchhands to the Sundance site. Armed with rifles and cracking a bullwhip, the cowboys threatened to "string up some red niggers," desecrated the site, and delivered a hand-written note styled as an "eviction notice", while the cops waited down the road.
Unaware of the RCMP's participation, Rosette reported the hate-crime to them. They replied it was a civil matter between himself and the rancher, and they would not get involved. Rosette turned to friends and allies to protect the sacred site and declared that they would resist all efforts to remove them until the underlying issue of jurisdiction was finally addressed.
BC's NDP government, long criticized for being "soft" on Native issues, saw their popularity soar as Premier Mike Harcourt accused Sundancers of being "cultists" and Attorney General Ujjal Dosanjh insisted it was neither a land or a native rights issue and made bellicose statements about using force against those "thugs" and "terrorists". Mainstream media enthusiastically participated in the RCMP's self-described "smear and disinformation campaign" with coverage so ugly that US National Public Radio featured it in a show on racist propaganda. Reporters even used their access to the people involved to do espionage work for RCMP until police besieged the camp, cutting off communication, food, water and medical supplies.
While RCMP told the public they were doing everything to negotiate, the commanders wrote in their notes "we need to clean them out entirely and not have any hanging issues similar to what occurred at Oka," and "it will require the killing of the hardliners." They praised the "restraint" of officers under fire, but forensics, testimony and videotape indicated that police repeatedly fired at Sundancers unprovoked. Most dramatic are the aerial surveillance videos showing a police sniper firing long-distance at an unarmed man in an agreed-upon safe zone on Sept. 12, and the Sept. 11 police ambush in which a camp truck on its way to fetch drinking water was exploded by a command mine, rammed twice by an APC, and its occupants were fired upon with their hands in the air. One APC driver testified he was ordered to "eliminate" Secwepemc elder Wolverine, who was then charged with attempted murder for trying to shoot out the tires of the pursuing 14-ton vehicle. Most of the 77,000 police and army rounds were shot that afternoon. Altogether, about 100 shells were attributed to the camp.
For 10 months, the jury watched cop after cop give evasive and implausible testimony and getting tangled up in their own lies. They saw JoJo Ignace, Wolverine's developmentally disabled son, led in from jail with cuts and bruises from beatings by guards. They heard self representing defendants Wolverine, OJ Pitawanakwat, and Shelagh Franklin and their counsel of choice Bruce Clark -- jailed on contempt of court for attempting to represent them against the wishes of the BC Law Society, and appearing as witness, not counsel -- speak passionately about Native culture, jurisdiction and sovereignty, and the Canadian judiciary's willful blindness to the law protecting them.
But the jury listened when Judge Josephson used the last four days of the trial to deliver a biased and distorted synopsis of the evidence. He barred them from considering every major defence argument, insisted they ignore the laws Clark presented to them, and steered them to convict. Though the jury did acquit on the most serious charges, they were unable or unwilling to defy his authority entirely.
The Crown is seeking unprecedented 2-5 year jail terms for the simple mischief charges, 5-10 years for 3 of the defendants convicted of mischief endangering life, and 16-23 years for Wolverine, in prison without bail since October 1995. "Asserting the court has no jurisdiction" is cited as an "aggravating circumstance," indicating clearly that the Defenders are to be held for political reasons.
Supporters are demanding freedom for the Ts'Peten Defenders, a third party tribunal to examine the jurisdiction issue and an independent public inquiry into all aspects of the Gustafsen Lake crisis. As Wolverine told the judge, "the Crown admitted there was no purchase and no treaty. So how can you claim to have jurisdiction? Is the Queen involved? The Prime Minister's office? The Attorney General of Canada? We want to see how deep the corruption goes."