Jul 17/97: Push for inquiry in Ontario; BC silent on Gustafsen


Monday Magazine
July 17-23, 1997, Page 5
James MacKinnon - Editor

"The questions that must be answered are about what led to that fracas. Who made the decision and why? What was the chain of command?"

Heard in the BC legislature, these words would be music to the growing number of people who believe politics and official screw-ups led to the 1995 Gustafsen Lake standoff between native sundancers and the RCMP.

But that quote did not ring through BC's halls of government. They are the words of Ontario New Democrat Bud Wildman. He, supported by his Liberal peers is demanding a public inquiry into the 1995 police killing of native activist Dudley George during an occupation of Ipperwash Provincial Park.

The call for an Ipperwash inquiry is meant to express outrage. As Wildman knows, Ontario's solicitor-general will not consider an inquiry while the issue is before the courts - and police sergeant Kenneth Deane, found guilty of George's death, plans an appeal.

In BC, as 15 Gustafsen Lake activists await sentencing, calls for an inquiry would be similarly rejected. Here, though, no politician has even raised the possibility. Meanwhile, evidence that the Gustafsen "crisis" was an extreme and ultimately embarrasing police action has grown from molehill to mountain.

Comparisons to Ipperwash are inevitable. There, Sgt. Deane was sentenced to a two year term "in the community" - that is, as a free man. That's about the same amount of time that Gustafsen Lake activist Jones Ignace (a.k.a. Wolverine) spent in prison before he was convicted.

Ignace's continuing stay behind bars is much more closely linked to his political stance than to any actual threat to the public. Ignace is a native sovereigntist; he believes that because his Shuswap nation never lost its land by war or treaty, Canadian governments - and their courts - have no authority over it or him.

This is by no means an uncommon political position within BC's first nations, given that almost no land in this province is covered by treaty. In fact, such notables as Ovide Mercredi have declared sympathy for the sovereigntist stance - and continue to walk free.

Ignace remains in prison because he will not reject political beliefs that many others hold without punishment. Does this make him a political prisoner?

There's no question about one thing: Ignace's politics guarantee that no compromises will be sought on his behalf - unlike in the case of officer Deane in Ontario. For "mischief causing actual danger to life" and other, lesser charges, Ignace could face another 15 to 20 years in the clink.

That's a high price to pay for a circus that could have been over before it started. According to a report buried in the Vancouver Sun last week, RCMP officer Bob Wood quit the force after peaceful talks at Gustafsen Lake ended in a "botched-up mess."

Wood was one of three native officers who tried to negotiate an end to the controversial sundance encampment. His team was pulled off the case just before a planned resolution meeting.

Then came the bullet from which all the madness escalated. On August, 18, 1995, the RCMP sent in a camouflaged emergency response team. The sundancers expected peace talks - not RCMP cowboys in the weeds. Statements in court suggest they thought the police team was a group of redneck thugs. One sundancer allegedly fired a rifle toward the officers. Another called the RCMP to report the trouble.

Within a month, the standoff had escalated to the point where the use of armoured personnel carriers and land mines struck many as a reasonable response.

Compare that with a report filed by constable George Findlay before he and the other native officers were cut out of the action. "It should be noted that the writer established a good rapport with these Sundancers and I believe some trust," Findlay wrote. "4 eagles were seen to circle the [Sundance] arbor area and the Sundancers believed this was a good omen. This occurred while writer was shaking hands and leaving."

Today, Findlay speaks cautiously about the police response that followed. "Maybe we did the wrong thing, maybe we did the right thing. Thank God, nobody died," he told the Sun.

Deaths are bad PR. In Ontario, under a right-wing government, a man died and there are calls for a public inquiry. In BC, under a left-wing government, an old man nears two years in prison and has yet to be sentenced, and we learn that the largest police action in Canadian history might have been avoided. And there is silence.

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