Mar 2/97: B.C.'s trial in a giant 'fish tank'


High-profile Indian standoff now draws little attention as court case drags on

Toronto Star
March 2, 1997
Darcy Henton - Western Canada Bureau

[SISIS note: The following mainstream news article is provided for reference only, as an example of how mainstream media treats indigenous resistance to genocide. It may contain biased and distorted information and may be missing pertinent facts and/or context.]

VANCOUVER -- Seventeen months after ending his standoff with police at Gustafsen Lake, B.C., a Shuswap elder who calls himself Wolverine is again squared off against the RCMP.

In a bullet-proof glass cage resembling a giant fish tank, Jones William Ignace is in the midst of a harsh cross-examination of assistant commissioner Murray Johnston, one of the senior RCMP officers who co-ordinated the police response to the 1995 land claims dispute.

"Who is the terrorist here?" Ignace thunders. "I say the RCMP were."

The scene at this trial in a bubble is almost surreal. Six armed deputy sheriffs are stationed strategically around the courtroom to keep an eye on Ignace and 17 other defendants.

In stark contrast to the highly publicized event that prompted it, there has been little media coverage of this eight-month-long trial. The hearing has gone on so long that four defendants have had babies.

One defendant, Glen Deneault, 31, says he was thrown into culture shock when he was forced to move from the B.C. interior to this urban centre with his wife Sherrie and son Tylor. He's anxious to go home.

"We don't like living down here. We're not city people."

Ignace, 65, who along with his 24-year-old son Joseph, has been charged with attempted murder, is representing himself after firing his lawyer. The other accused, who include 13 Indians and four non-natives, face a variety of trespassing, mischief and weapons charges.

No one was killed in the confrontation involving 400 heavily armed police in the B.C. interior's Cariboo region, although a soldier assisting police lost several fingers in a grenade accident and an Indian woman was shot in the arm during a Sept. 11, 1995 firefight. [S.I.S.I.S. note: the woman who was shot was not native.]

Ignace, an organic farmer on his Adams Lake Reserve near Chase, B.C., has been in custody almost continually since the standoff ended peacefully Sept. 17, 1995.

Vowing to fight to the death, he led a small band of spiritual sundancers in resisting eviction from the 100,000 hectare Circle S Ranch, near 100 Mile House. They claimed they were on sacred Indian land.

After several shots were fired in incidents reported by ranch hands and forestry officials, police painted the dancers as thugs and terrorists.

But since the trial began, the five lawyers representing the defendants have used a 50-hour training video shot by police, 50,000 hours of police aerial surveillance video and in some cases, the officers' own notes, to portray RCMP as bungling aggressors.

Ignace, his graying hair tied in a ponytail and his pot belly protruding from under a crimson prison uniform, is cross-examining Johnston about a notation in his diary that hardliners would have to be killed.

The notes indicate a superintendent in charge of the operation "strongly feels that there are a small group -- six warriors -- that will not give up; it will be required to kill the hardliners."

Johnston denies that was ever contemplated.

"There was no plan to kill anyone," he insists.

"Yet, you were talking about it," Ignace retorts.

So tense is the exchange that when another defendant steps up to offer Ignace some input, deputies nervously rise to their feet.

Already, the trial has led to some stunning revelations about the way police conducted the operation that cost taxpayers more than $5.5 million.

Among the most shocking has been testimony that police snipers were ordered to fire at a camp occupant who was walking in a previously agreed-upon safe zone. They fired three shots, but missed.

"Based on the events of the day before and the previous shootings of our members, I authorized the members across the lake to shoot at the individual," Inspector Roger Kimbel testified last month. He said he only realized later that the shots were fired in a no-shoot zone.

Kimbel told the court he intended to have the man killed. He agreed, however, with defence lawyers that the officers were operating under rules of engagement that permitted them to shoot only to protect themselves, fellow officers or innocent bystanders from immediate danger.

He said he made a note to check on the legality of the shooting with a crown lawyer, but later decided it wasn't necessary.

"I was quite comfortable with my decision and decided not to follow up on it," he said.

An internal police investigation has been launched into the sniper shooting in the safe zone, but it has been suspended pending the trial.

The court has also heard that:

* As negotiators were preparing to send in Indian elders to try to broker a peaceful end to the dispute, police blew up a truck containing two camp occupants and then rammed it head-on with a 15-tonne armored vehicle.

* A police media release claimed the occupants of the truck fired upon officers as they abandoned the vehicle, but officers at the scene have testified that they did not see the suspects carrying weapons. Police admitted, however, that they shot a camp dog.

* Forensic evidence revealed that damage to a police vehicle that RCMP claimed was hit by gunfire was likely caused by it striking a tree branch.

* Police released to reporters the criminal and juvenile offender records of several suspects they thought were in the camp before any arrests were made. In several instances, they guessed wrong.

* Police assured B.C.'s attorney-general they would employ unarmed military armored vehicles for transportation only, but later used the armed vehicles in attack situations.

* Camp occupants repeatedly called police to report they were being surrounded by armed men in camouflage outfits, but were not advised that the men approaching them were police. An Indian was charged with shooting at them. Audiotapes of the calls to police for help were erased.

* Police have no record of the amount of ammunition officers fired during the standoff. One officer estimated 10,000 to 20,000 rounds. Police recovered about 100 spent bullets from the Indian encampment.

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