Dec 18/97: Clipping-One last stand


A Supreme Court decision adds more weight to calls for a Gustafsen Inquiry

Monday Magazine
December 18-24, 1997, p. 14
Sherryl Yeager

[S.I.S.I.S. note: The following mainstream news article may contain biased or distorted information and may be missing pertinent facts and/or context. It is provided for reference only.

Please see the first part of this series, and the commentary that resulted from it, at Please be aware as well that S.I.S.I.S. has informed the Monday editor of a number of factual errors in the article below -- including statements attributed to S.I.S.I.S. As of December 30, 1997, there has been no public correction of errors, nor has the editor printed any of the letters sent to Monday correcting the errors in the Yeager articles.]

Two imprisoned Gustafsen Lake standoff participants hope to appeal their convictions on the grounds the BC government had no jurisdiction to pit the RCMP and military against their small band of native-rights activists. And in a small irony, a Supreme Court of Canada ruling last week in an unrelated case boosts their position. Jones Ignace and James Pitawanakwat presently face several years in prison. Ignace, also known as Wolverine, received the heftiest sentence of the 18 people charged after the armed standoff: four and a half years for mischief endangering life and discharging a firearm at police. He was acquitted of attempted murder.

Ignace was seen by police and Crown lawyers as a ringleader for the Gustafsen Lake group, which was protecting sacred Sundance grounds on a cattle ranch just outside of 100 Mile House in the late summer of 1995. Four hundred RCMP officers and military personnel were brought against the small band that refused to leave the site. Pitawanakwat, also known as OJ, is serving three years for mischief endangering life and possession of a weapon. The majority of the protesters were convicted of mischief to private property and given much lighter sentences. Last week, Canada's highest court ruled that a decade-old land claims case brought by the Gixsan and Wet'suwet'en of northern BC must be retried or negotiated to a satisfactory resolution. A BC court had found that first nations' aboriginal title was extinguished at the time of colonization.

The Supreme Court justices disagreed finding that aboriginal title can't be extinguished by any less than the federal government. The decision echoes the argument of Ignace, controversial lawyer Bruce Clark, and 20% of BC's first nations, who believe the province has no jurisdiction over aboriginal people where treaties have not been signed. But supporters of the imprisoned standoff participants see the Supreme Court decision as a small victory, and even as further proof of the judicial system's efforts to stymie the cause of native people. "In the last 10 years, we have been raising the issue of jurisdiction so many times in different arenas - with the justice of the peace, in provincial court, in international courts. [Ignace] and I were making plans on how to raise it again in Supreme Court before Gustafsen Lake," says Harold Pascal.

Pascal is a gravekeeper for the LiL'Wat first nation, which has traditional territories in the Whistler-Pemberton area. Like Ignace, Pascal has argued worldwide for native sovereignty, often working with Clark. "We as indigenous people came to a conclusion about our rights and the priority for getting them entered in international law long before Clark," says Pascal. "He came along and was someone who agreed with us, and he has been smeared into oblivion." In court, Clark has challenged BC's jurisdiction over first nations' land more than 30 times, and was repeatedly told the question had been decided by the Gixsan-Wet'suwet'en case. With the Supreme Court's ruling last week, the argument must start at the beginning and aboriginal people are caught in the legal loop, says Pascal. "It's an obvious conspiracy on behalf of the judicial community on the issue of jurisdiction," says sovereigntist Bill Lightbown.

Meanwhile, the sovereigntists are optimistic a public inquiry into the Gustafsen Lake standoff will eventually be called. "There is so much stuff, that is so dirty, it IS going to happen. It has to happen. From the Prime Minister all the way down - it involves the media and its campaign of hate propaganda, to the amazing disappearance of the media in the trial, to the denial of counsel of choice, to the amount of firepower that was discharged, to shooting an unarmed woman," lists Victoria-based activist John Shafer. Key among the issues supporters want an inquiry to address: Why did RCMP sharpshooters fire on unarmed camp inhabitants who were in an agreed-upon safety zone? (This was captured on police surveillance tape.) Why were powerful plastic explosives used to blow up a camp truck that was heading out to meet a negotiating group? (Also captured on tape.) What was the extent of the involvement of the military, and why was military force condoned by the federal government? Why were 400 police officers and the military called in to arrest less than 20 people? Why did police not correct erroneous releases to the press, such as claims camp inhabitants stalked them through the night after shooting out a truck mirror, when their own investigation revealed the mirror was broken by a tree branch?

While there is international support for an inquiry, Shafer and his fellow members of Settlers in Support of Indigenous Sovereignty (S.I.S.I.S.) are barely being heard in the halls of BC's legislature. Along with thousands of signatures on petitions, S.I.S.I.S. has received letters of support for an inquiry from indigenous rights groups in Switzerland and Belgium, the Green Party of the European parliament, the Centre for Constitutional Rights in Munich, and the Mayan people in Guatemala. And although many sovereigntists view the Assembly of First Nations as a collection of puppet-governments toadying to the feds, they're pleased the assembly's delegates have passed a resolution calling on their leadership to lobby for an inquiry.

Lightbown says the media isn't pursuing the story about the need for an inquiry because it doesn't want the extent to which it was suckered and complicit in the police operation exposed. Asked why the media would come to the inquiry when reporters rarely appeared at the months long Gustafsen Lake trial, Shafer replied, "I don't care if the media come. They are pathologically inclined to lie on this issue. One of the things that is going to come out is to what degree members of the media were actively involved in information gathering for the RCMP."

Those demanding an inquiry believe a conspiracy to suppress the Gustafsen Lake camp inhabitants reached as high as the prime minister, who authorized the Canadian army's role in the standoff. They believe the purpose of the all-out armed show with police and military was to prove the NDP government was not soft on native activists and to raise the party's standing in the polls. The underlying motivation uniting the police and various political parties around the standoff is racism, Shafer says plainly. He and Lightbown argue racism is also the reason the provincial Liberal and Reform parties are not calling the NDP to account. Since the New Democrats are the traditional supporters of human rights, when they trample them, the Liberals and Reformers become their allies rather than opponents. "It's not just the government, it's the state that's feeling threatened. The state is academia, the business community," [etc.] says Shafer.

S.I.S.I.S. members even hope an inquiry will answer such small "p" political questions such as why non-natives with links to environmental groups were in the camp. Shafer argues that environmentalists don't want aboriginal people to regain control over their land, because that could mean resource extraction. And while the sovereigntists insist the camp inhabitants were united during the police siege, they are suspicious that the environmentalists were not with them from the outset. On Dec. 4, Monday reported on a group of prominent standoff participants who say there is now a rift between those who stood at Gustafsen Lake to defend native religious freedom, and sovereigntists like Ignace and Pitawanakwat. "It's amazing how people changed - these now peaceful and spiritual people were some of the most aggressive proponents of other methods. Let's just leave it at that," Shafer says.

The lobbyists for an inquiry are gathering little support from other official agencies. Although they want human rights abuses surrounding Gustafsen Lake exposed, the Human Rights Commission has not accepted their complaint. Lightbown says just one example of the disregard for human rights was the removal of evidence. During the trial, police officers admitted firing 22,000 rounds of ammunition, but could not account for an additional 77,000 rounds that were ordered. Lightbown believes the shots were fired into a grove of trees near the activists' encampment during a firefight between Ignace and police in armoured personnel carriers. "They clearcut all the trees after the standoff, but before the media tour. All the small trees were mowed down. They cut out that evidence and burned the cabin down to keep hidden how many rounds they fired."

Lightbown adds that supporters combed the camp area with a metal detector and recovered only 108 shells fired by the inhabitants. He believes only a higher spirit prevented the standoff participants from being injured or killed by the superior firepower of the police or the military. It is perhaps the greatest irony that while first nations people call into the wind for an inquiry into Gustafsen Lake, a dose of pepper-spray on university students protesting the APEC conference at UBC last month is bringing heat on police and Prime Minister Jean Chretien. Lawyers, politicians and the media are alleging excessive force. At APEC, though, the weapon was cayenne, and the silencing was taking away signs. At Gustafsen Lake, it was snipers' bullets and a legal argument that has yet to be heard.

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