Interview by Fiona Jeffries
The media silence surrounding the events of the RCMP siege on Aboriginal people at Gustafsen Lake, British Columbia in the summer of 1995 and the ongoing trial of activists arrested there speaks to a much larger complicity in the process of attacks on Aboriginal rights in this country. The connections between the violence against indigenous people at Gustafsen Lake and what we read and write about Latin America are striking.
A rancher operating his business on land illegally taken, and an over zealous police force apparently acting in the rancher's interests with the collusion of the political establishment typify the kind of onslaught indigenous people are facing daily throughout Latin America.
After several years of holding ceremonies at the same site without conflict, the sundancers were besieged by one of the biggest police operations in Canadian history. After leaving the camp peacefully the defenders were arrested, charged and brought to trial. One of the main leaders, Wolverine, was denied bail throughout the lengthy proceedings.
Defendants were convicted on some charges and now await sentencing. Supporters are calling for a public inquiry. Fiona Jeffries of Latin America Connections interviewed Bill Lightbown, a Kootenai Elder, sovereigntist, and social justice activist for over 40 years, he is a spokesperson for the Ts'peten Defence Committee. He is a founding member and former President of the United Native Nations.
Lightbown: The assault on Aboriginal people at Gustafsen Lake did not start in August 1995, the whole process began in January when Sundancer organizers and now defendants Percy Rosette and Jones Ignace (Wolverine) signed a legal document demanding a third party tribunal to look into the issue of unceded territory there. Under cross-examination by defender Shelagh Franklin, Len Olfert, RCMP operational commander admitted that there was a plan put together in May to make it look like the whole affair was started by the Aboriginal people there. Lyle James (the rancher who claims ownership of the land) had no previous concern about the sundance taking place, but was brought into the process by the RCMP, who started the initial confrontation.
Early on, the climate was set for a confrontation by the police through James. At one point one of the ranch hands who confronted the sundancer organizers threatened,"this would be a good day to hang a red nigger". They used him as a conduit for their own agenda, which was to delegitimize any jurisdictional argument surrounding the legality of land tenure in this province. The police orchestrated the escalation of violence which despite the propaganda, was perpetrated solely on their part throughout the siege.
LAX: Those of us who watched the event on TV witnessed the surprising level of military force used by the RCMP. Why would the RCMP raise that kind of force to get 18 women, men and children off a piece of land?
Lightbown: There is a so-callled treaty making process going on in BC right now and many nations involved are expressing discontent in the process, as it is increasingly exposed as a tool to codify and contractualize the relationship of aboriginal people to the land. It is designed as a method which will sign away forever the existing rights referred to as "aboriginal rights" and replace them with "treaty rights."
It is important to understand the political and cultural implications of re-defining rights in this way. The Canadian Constitution includes in it the rights of Aboriginal people and it also includes the Royal Proclamation which states clearly that the colonial governments cannot claim jurisdiction over any land that has not been signed away by treaty. Since only two treaties have been signed in BC, it is clear that the BC government has assumed ownership of land illegally.
When the Constitution [Act] was created in 1982 it gave protection to aboriginal rights forever and this can only be changed through amendments to the constitution and only upon agreement by Aboriginal people.
There are 1100 hours of footage of the siege taken by RCMP cameras. Here we can see clearly all the incidents that were created. It's ironic that the RCMP taped their own criminal activity and were caught in numerous lies on the witness stand due to this footage. They shot up their flak jackets in a shooting range and then stated the holes were from the camp, they also shot up their Suburban vehicle in an attempt to frame the defenders.
In another incident, a camp truck was blown up with two sundancers and a dog on their way to get water. They were in a no-shoot zone and it was clear from the footage that the members were going to get water as it shows them loading the water containers. It's a miracle that they weren't killed by the explosion, sharpshooters did kill the dog as it was running from the explosion. According to court testimony when the truck blew up [by a "land mine" as reported by Oct.8, 1996 Globe and Mail] that was a green light for the RCMP to start shooting, they shot 77,000 rounds that day. Afterwards, the police ordered James to log that tract of land in order to destroy evidence of such clearly unwarranted police violence.
In the police notes it became obvious that the orders to shoot people came through the BC government and the final decision to issue personnel carriers came from the Federal government. The official cover-up by the Provincial and Federal governments, the media and the RCMP have now reached the courts. The judge has been complicit by disallowing evidence presented in court.
As for the trial itself, I have never seen such an abuse of the court process. The Judge consistently disallowed evidence without reason and informed the jury not to consider evidence presented by Dr. Bruce Clark (who was on the stand for three weeks), OJ Pitawanakwat, Wolverine and Shelagh Franklin who are all representing themselves. He also told the jury that when considering the testimony they had to assume the rancher owned that property that the Sundance was on, and for this reason they would have no choice but to find everyone guilty of private property violations - Lyle James doesn't own that property and the Judge knows it.
Judge Josephson ordered that the arguments of sovereignty and jurisdiction could not be raised. He also ignored the Colour of Right defence [the honest belief of the defendants they had a legal right to use the land] which had never failed in a legal case involving Aboriginal people and would have succeeded had it been allowed [The Judge also disallowed the defence of self-defence and again gave no explanation.]
There have been numerous contraventions of the judicial process on the part of the Judge, and over 100 legal justifications to throw the case out of court altogether. These are all reasons why the media are staying away in droves. The contradictions are too transparent.
LAX: Could you comment on the role of the media throughout the whole process?
Lightbown: First I need to place the media's complicity from the start of the siege to the trial itself within the wider historical context within which all this is taking place. There is no question of an ongoing process of genocide in this country. The most obvious perpetrators are the politicians, the police and the judiciary. The second most serious offender in this process is the media because it is most responsible for informing the public. Their deliberate racist attitudes towards aboriginal people makes them complicit. The media consistently goes out of its way to make us look like idiots or outlaws.
In BC it is worse because through the land-claims and so-called treaty process it's becoming increasingly apparent that the majority of territory in BC is unceded and therefore occupied illegally. The media was complicit in encouraging hostility against Aboriginal people in BC and support for killing everyone in the camp. There is no question that the media misrepresented everything that was going on at Gustafsen Lake.
Almost every time Sgt. Montague held a press conference, which was sometimes twice a day, I would follow with another where I would explain to the media what was going on. They must have a mountain of tapes and notes of that. Where is all that information? The media knows who the aggressors were. There was media from all over the country at the site - around 80 reporters at any given time. Some truthful reporting managed to get out back east and in Edmonton, and more probably would have if the media had not been so tightly censored by the police too!
LAX: The defenders and supporters are demanding a public inquiry into the whole affair, can you explain the role an inquiry could play?
Lightbown: A public inquiry is the most practical. There should be a third party arbitration - if the government is right then it shold not be afraid of that. So far there is no indication that this will happen however. In the appeal we refer to the demand that came out of the camp: that they were prepared to withdraw or leave at anytime as long as a third party arbitration was to take place. This demand was to go to the Solicitor General, then the Lieutenant Governor and finally the Queen.
Instead the RCMP sent it to Ujjal Dosanjh (BC's Attorney-General) who killed it there, stating this was not a land or rights issue but a law and order issue. We are prepared to go into proper legal processes and the government is afraid because it will expose the illegality of not only what happened at Gustafsen Lake, but also the whole issue of land and aboriginal rights.
We cannot possibly get a public inquiry unless the information gets out to civil society who should be demanding an inquiry. We'll be concentrating on getting information out to the public both in Canada and internationally - this is the role the media SHOULD be playing if they have any interest in exposing the truth.