New Westminster, B.C. - Today before Judge Josephson, the trial judge, the lawyers for the Defense and the Crown began building the framework of questions that will be put to prospective jurors in June when the trial begins. A consensus was quickly reach ed that due to the amount and prejudicial nature of the pre-trial publicity it would be necessary to go beyond the usual forms of questioning in order to determine how much impact the media coverage had on possible jury members. Defense Lawyer George Wool has called Sergeant Peter Montague to the stand and after answering a few identifying questions concerning the nature of his job and the extent of his involvement with the Gustafsen Lake 'Standoff' as the RCMP media spokesperson, the court was shown a 20 minute video tape of typical TV newscasts in order to emphasize the tone of the RCMP press announcements. Court was adjourned for the day with Sergeant Montague still on the stand. He will face questioning by Defense lawyers tomorrow May 7 at 9:30 am.
Some of the Defenders had not seen some of the television coverage before and were quite surprised at some of the statements. One lengthy press conference was shown concerning an incident on September 4 when the RCMP claimed that one of their unmarked vehicles had been fired on by members in the camp without warning. Corporal John Ward who had taken over Sergeant Montague's duties for a 5 day period went on to say that the RCMP had returned fire. When the RCMP fled the vehicle on foot, they had been "pursued". This incident so alarmed the RCMP that they used it as a justification to send in the Armoured Personnel Carriers. Although this incident was publicized widely over the media, with the Corporal going so far as to call it the '5th' incident involving firearms, it turned out later that the vehicle had not been fired upon at all but had simply run into a tree branch. The RCMP in the vehicle had become so panicked that they began firing in all directions and fled from the vehicle. Although in their own disclosures the RCMP admit this to now be the case, they have not issued a public retraction.
During today's court session, the Crown asked for a ban on publication, stating that it was for the sake of the Defendants. The three Defense lawyers however disagreed, stating that now the Defenders finally had access to the media in a free and open court setting and wanted everything out in the open. The damage had already been done by the pre-trial publicity so now it was time for the media to present the other side of the story. The judge, concerned that the questions that would be put to the potential jury members might be published before jury selection reserved his judgment and asked that the press not publish before he gives his ruling tomorrow afternoon.
During early court sessions, another publicized event was also found to be untrue. The 'red truck' incident alleged to have happened September 11, 1996 was described as having begun with a vehicle from camp crossing a 'perimeter marker' (land mine) and becoming disabled. The two or three occupants supposedly grabbed weapons and fled firing at the RCMP. The RCMP version broadcast on television went on to say that the two APC's at the scene came under heavy fire from camp members. As it turns out in the RCMP's own forensic report, the occupants fled the truck unarmed and went into the lake to swim back to the camp. A dog that was in the truck was killed by the RCMP. The RCMP fired at the unarmed swimmers. The RCMP claim these were warning shots. This very different version by the RCMP was never publicized and the incorrect version never retracted. The occupants in the truck had been going to the lake for water.
The Ts'peten Defenders remain in good spirits especially now that Jo-Jo is out on bail. When the Defenders first came into court, they were asked to sit on the first three rows on one side of the court room. Flo Sampson took her seat but was approached by a sherriff who told her that the section was reserved for the Defendants. She just looked at him and said, 'I am a Defendant.' He was quite surprised. Flo is a beautiful native grandmother and teacher, an elder. During the 'standoff' the world was treated to a view that only sees one kind of strength, one kind of force. As any of the Defenders will tell you, they survived due to another kind of force altogether - one exemplied by the strength of an elder like Flo.
Court resumes tomorrow with more questioning of Sgt. Montague. Jury selection begins June 1, 1996. The Defenders are now looking for a house to rent in the Surrey area for the duration of the trial which is expected to last several months. Copies of the television show Nitewatch - an hour long interview with Splitting the Sky, Bill Lightbown and Trond Halle are available and answer many questions concerning how the RCMP got involved, the land claims issues, the importance of the Sundance and the concern over weapons. There are plans for another public event and more television broadcasts.