May 23/97: Fast-track land claims

"Without question the provincial government will attempt to exploit the peaceful resolution [at Gustasfen Lake] and suggest that it's evidence that the only process that will work is the BC Treaty Commission process."
Stewart Philip - Penticton Indian Band;
Vancouver Sun, Sept. 18, 1995
[Please note: The following mainstream articles may contain inaccuracies and outright disinformation. They are provided for reference only -- S.I.S.I.S.]


-- It's the lesson of Gustafsen Lake, observers say

The Province
Friday, May 23, 1997, A20
Holly Horwood - Staff Reporter

BC politicians are being urged to get on with land-claims resolutions to avoid another Gustafsen Lake crisis. "Time will tell whether we've learned anything," says 100 Mile House Mayor Donna Barnett, whose rural community reeled under the 30-day armed standoff in the summer of 1995.

"I think it's very important to get on with fast-tracking the (land) negotiation process, get the provincial and federal government on side and get on with it. Otherwise, we're just hurting everybody, stopping economic activity and creating great uncertainty across BC."

Three natives, including militant leader Jones William (Wolverine) Ignace, and one non-native face a maximum of life in prison for their role in the 1995 siege at Gustafsen Lake. Eleven others were convicted of wilful mischief and face up to 10 years in jail. Three were acquitted.

A Shuswap chief also urges quick relief on land claims -- but not under the existing system. "The BC treaty system is not the solution," says Chief Arthur Manuel of the Shuswap Nations Tribal Council, whose jurisdiction includes some of those convicted in the standoff.

A new land claims process must grapple with issues of aboriginal title and adequate land use to protect natives' economic and social needs, says Manuel. "If we want peace and security, land issues are the key issue. Peace means being able to live side by side in dignity. You can't do that on a postage (stamp) sized reservation." He cautions: "If there's a lesson for the public (from Gustafsen) it's that Indian people in general feel these deep feelings of injustice.

"There's some people prepared to take drastic action when they feel they're being oppressed, for lack of a better word. We can't condone or endorse it. We can't look at it as actions of our own... but the feelings are there."

Standoff Players Could Face Traditional Justice

Traditional native justice is being considered in sentencing 15 individuals convicted in the Gustafsen Lake trial. The lawyer for Glen Denault, who was convicted of wilful mischief in the 1995 siege, says he'll likely file an application for the "sentencing circle" before Justice Bruce Josephson during sentencing submissions on June 6.

Primarily used for non-violent offences involving aboriginals throughout Canada and elsewhere, the system brings all parties together in attempts to heal and restore relations. "It would involve the RCMP, (rancher) Lyle James, the accused, families, members of local bands, the community such as the chamber of commerce," lawyer Manuel Azevedo said.

He said he expects others now facing jail sentences -- including non-native Suniva Bronson -- will also join in the application. Meanwhile, Crown counsel Lance Bernard says he is pleased with Tuesday's verdict, which ended with 39 acquittals and 21 convictions of mischief and weapons offences.

"It confirms the participation of 15 persons in the standoff... and subjects them to a significant range of penalties," Bernard said in a statement yesterday. The 30-day standoff ended peacefully on Sept. 17, 1995. Two RCMP officers shot in the back on Aug. 28 were saved by their bulletproof jackets. Bronson also took a bullet in the arm in another incident on Sept. 11

Letters to The Province: provedpg@southam


Victoria Times-Colonist
Monday, May 26 1997, Page A2
Steve Mertl - Canadian Press

Aboriginal leaders see a clear message in the marathon Gustafsen Lake standoff case: Speed up treaty settlements or risk future confrontations.

"I think that in the long run, as long as governments fail to address these long standing grievances, these kinds of situations and incidents will continue to arise," says Saul Terry, head of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs.

"There may be opportunists on both sides that may take advantage of any given situation that may present itself." That's perhaps the only unambiguous conclusion to come out of 10 months in court and more than $10 million in legal and policing costs. The trial ended last week with 15 of 18 people convicted of a range of charges from mischief to weapons possession and assaulting police officers. Sentencing will take place next month and the Crown is demanding jail time for everyone.

The motives of almost everyone involved in the 1995 armed standoff over Cariboo ranchland claimed as aboriginal territory have been held up as suspect. Criminologist Simon Ekstedt says Gustafsen Lake suffered from fuzzy optics from the beginning. The federal and BC governments politicized it, says the Simon Fraser University professor. A succession of high-profile mediators, including Grand Chief Ovide Mercredi of the Assembly of First Nations, tried to broker a settlement.

Meanwhile BC Attorney General Ujjal Dosanjh talked tough and the RCMP tightened their grip on the site, sending heavily armed officers on scouting probes into the camp. Ekstedt compared the approach to the standoff between US authorities and armed religious fanatics at Waco Texas, another criminal incident with political implications. "You do things to make it worse," says Ekstedt, an expert on aboriginal justice who is writing a book on Gustafsen Lake. It's the difference between investigating an alleged criminal event and going to war."

It seemed clear after two intense fire-fights between the squatters and police, land-claims issues should have taken a back seat. But Ekstedt said camp leader Jones Ignace (Wolverine), even after he surrendered, thought the group's political concerns had been pushed forward. "To realize that wasn't the case in the end was a real shock," said Ekstedt, who interviewed Ignace after his arrest.

Local First Nations and mainstream aboriginal leaders disavowed the renegades early on. Chief Antoine Archie of the nearby Canim Lake band says most don't regard them as heroes or martyrs. "All Indians don't think alike," says Archie, who was among those who felt pushed aside by outsiders during attempts to end the standoff. But Terry says aboriginal people still see some relevance in Gustafsen Lake to decades of apathetic responses to their claims. "These people are sort of a mark along the historical path that shows that nothing's been done to resolve the land question in BC," he says. "Take a look at this federal election," adds Chief Ed John of the BC First Nations Summit, which represents groups involved in treaty talks. "Where do you see the Indian issues now? So our people get the message that the political people in this country don't give a damn until they see a situation like Gustafsen Lake or Oka or Ipperwash."

John said he doubts jail terms for the Gustafsen Lake renegades sets the stage for a summer of native blockades in British Columbia. But he says the drawn-out trial and mixed verdicts should signal to Dosanjh that the hard line doesn't work.

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