Mar 12/98: Canada scrambles to contain Gustafsen crisis


The Martlet, University of Victoria Student Newspaper
March 12, 1998
Chris Morabito

The Canadian government has gone into image control mode in response to Mayan outrage over the Gustafsen Lake siege, which occurred on unceded Shuswap territory in 1995.

Canadian officials reportedly met March 1 in Guatemala City with a leading Mayan political organization that has been demanding the release of political prisoners O.J. Pitawanakwat and William Jones Ignace (Wolverine), as well as a public inquiry into the 1995 siege.

Among the Canadian delegation was former Saskatchewan Grand Chief Blaine Favel, who is the newly appointed Counsellor on International Indigenous Issues for the federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.

A source in Guatemala, who cannot be named for reasons of safety, reported that Favel assured the Mayan organization that the native traditionalists at Gustafsen Lake were troublemakers from outside the area who had instigated the conflict and had no support from the Shuswap nation or any other indigenous organization. Favel also presented himself as able to speak on behalf of the major indigenous organizations in Canada.

Favel also reportedly suggested the Mayans voice their concerns to the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), even though many native traditionalists reject the AFN.

Harold Pascal, of the sovereigntist LiL'Wat Peoples Movement, expressed outrage at a federal government employee speaking on behalf of Aboriginal peoples.

"As far as I am concerned," said Pascal, "Favel speaks for the AFN, which is a branch of the Canadian government."

It was in September 1997 that the Mayans wrote to the Canadian government.

"We repudiate the deplorable incidents and violations of human rights of our brothers and sisters of the Shuswap People," they wrote. "We demand of the governments of Canada, that you adopt effective measures to comply with and respect human rights and the rights of indigenous peoples...We will maintain our vigilance over your activities until such time as our demands, the demands of the indigenous peoples of Guatemala are met."

The Mayan organization is just one of many international organizations that have expressed outrage over the events at Gustafsen Lake which saw over 70,000 rounds of internationally prohibited hollow-point ammunition fired at the 20 occupants of the camp. Favel restated the long-discredited NDP/RCMP version of events disseminated during the siege. This position was exposed during the ensuing criminal trial from the RCMP's own video footage to be part of a smear and disinformation campaign directed against the defenders and their supporters.

At the time of the standoff, the Gustafsen Lake defenders received full support from the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, who met in an emergency session on Sept. 11, 1995.

Their "Crisis Bulletin" stated: "Contrary to the statement made by the premier of B.C. on Sept. 5, 1995, that 'the armed occupation at Gustafsen Lake is the action of a handful of violent extremists, without the participation or support of a single band or tribal council,' the people at Gustafsen Lake do have the full support of the delegates attending today's meeting. The delegates in attendance are from all parts of the province."

Apparently, Favel did not inform the Mayan organization about this support. As well, the call for an inquiry into police violence and attempted murder at Gustafsen Lake received the support of more than 140 chiefs from across Canada who signed a petition at last year's AFN convention in Vancouver.

Phil Fontaine, elected Chief of the AFN, promised a delegation of B.C. interior chiefs their demands for an inquiry into Gustafsen Lake would be met by his leadership. Since the election, the AFN has been silent on the issue.

Favel was appointed by Foreign Affairs Minister, Lloyd Axworthy. In an interview with the Martlet Favel made no mention whatsoever of Gustafsen Lake. But he did say that he had gone to Guatemala "to get the lay of the land, to meet the people down there and introduce them to my new context." Favel said there are two main objectives to his position.

"One is to deal with the human rights issues as they affect indigenous people in the global community," he said.

"The second front is to try and develop a coherent trade policy for the government of Canada on indigenous trade.

"There has been a growing interest among aboriginal and business people to participate in trade offshore in the international community," said Favel, "and the priority here [Foreign Affairs] is to continue to advocate for that within foreign affairs and international trade."

Kahn-Tineta Horn is a Mohawk woman and president of the Canadian Alliance in Solidarity with Native Peoples (CASNP). She said Favel's appointment by the federal government means that he simply works for the government.

"It should be made very clear that he's a fraud," she said. "CASNP has been involved with Gustafsen Lake before, during, after and up to the present. And they continue to have our full support.

"It's the old European colonial strategy," said Horn, "to put somebody in power and say they speak for our people."

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