[SISIS note: numbers in square brackets indicate footnotes.]
The mainstream media coverage of the Gustafsen Lake standoff is a case study in misinformation and propaganda. The mainstream media served to limit discourse on Native sovereignty and Indigenous land rights issues and primarily operated as a defence of, and apology for, the genocidal policies of the dominant culture. Using specific examples from The Province, The Vancouver Sun, The Times Colonist and The Globe and Mail newspapers, I will argue that the result of this suppression/omission of crucial information is the perpetuation of the genocidal policies of the Canadian state with virtually no sustained political outcry by the majority of Canadians.
The mainstream news media is involved in the production of history. However, it rarely explores issues beyond the headlines: they often negate broader histories in favour of up-to-date news that ignores larger historical concerns. The lack of historical memory and the (re)writing of history in the news has a propaganda effect which serves to reinforce paradigms informing the dominant culture. The issue of media as a propaganda tool is addressed in the book Manufacturing Consent:
The mass media serves as a system for communicating messages and symbols to the general populace. It is their function to...inculcate individuals with values, beliefs and codes of behaviour that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society. In a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest, to fulfil this role requires systematic propaganda.The idea of 'the manufacture of consent' is not unique to Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman - in fact it was originally articulated by those who were practising disinformation campaigns in the service of private corporations and dominant state interests.
We are not passive receptors of this propaganda. Alternative media, critical thinking, and grassroots activism all serve to resist the dominant ideology. Basically a process of negotiation, the tension between the dominant ideology and the resistant cultures, exists within the hegemonic or dominant ideological system. This process of negotiation should not imply that there is an equal power relation between the dominant and the oppressed groups. This process of hegemony can not be abstracted from the larger issues of class and control of the means of production. Ownership of the means of production has an enormous impact on the construction and manipulation of history within the newspaper media.
A particularly revealing example of how news media can manipulate and distort history is an article in the Times Colonist entitled "History of land dispute goes back to 70's." The article is concerned with providing a "history" of the events preceding the RCMP siege of the Ts'Peten defenders at Gustafsen Lake in the summer of 1995. By choosing the title "History of the land dispute," this article is constructed as an authoritative, objective 'truth'; instead of a newspaper writer's selective opinion on some events surrounding Gustafsen Lake. The bias of the author is made clear by the choice to begin the history in 1970 where he or she states, "Lyle James of Montana buys 182,000 hectare ranch near 100 mile house for $1.1 million." This immediately attributes the rightful claim of ownership to the white settler and completely erases the sovereigntists' contention that this land is beyond the treaty frontier. By selecting 1970, he or she ignores centuries of "ownership" of the land by Indigenous peoples and constructs a history in which the Indigenous peoples have no right to occupy the land which "belongs" to the white rancher. The land question in British Columbia is integral to understanding what happened at Gustafsen Lake as the land claimed by American rancher Lyle James had never been ceded by the First Nation of that territory, by treaty or otherwise. This legal fact is essentially impossible to determine from reading most mainstream accounts of the "History" of Gustafsen Lake.
In the Times Colonist "History" article, the chronology presented by the author ignores the fact that the Defenders had been seeking legal redress to the issue of the land question long before the stand-off was created by the invasion of RCMP. The chronological list of events serves to create the impression that this is the "true" history: what is ignored or left out ceases to be relevant in the production of the truth. According to the article, in 'WINTER 1995', "James visits the site, finds [Percy] Rosette living there" and then 'JUNE 1995' he serves eviction notice. The first part of this 'history' ignores the fact that the Defenders had issued a petition to the Queen for an independent, international, third party tribunal to decide on the legal issues surrounding their claim as early as January 3, 1995. The demands and legal ground that the Defenders were invoking was also explicitly laid out in an eight page letter sent from Bruce Clark to Staff Sergeant M.P.Sarich who was the NCO-in-Charge at 100 Mile House. This letter was also sent to The Governor General of Canada, the Prime Minister of Canada, The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, and the Commissioner of the RCMP, among other interested parties. The Times Colonist "History" article does not mention the Defenders demand for an independent tribunal until AUGUST 19 where it states, "Natives say the land belongs to them..." , thus obfuscating the legitimacy of their claims. This obscuring of the Defenders position was also evident in an article the Province ran which quoted, without rebuttal, a police officer as stating, "This doesn't fit any kind of mode - no one can really determine what they want or just what the issues are."
The way in which the 'history' of the conflict was covered in the Times Colonist was not an exception. The Province ran a similar history in the form of a sidebar that traced the situation back only two months. The Vancouver Sun cites June 1995 as the root of the stand-off when it was reported that someone shot at forestry workers in the area. None of these articles covered the issue of Native sovereignty or attempted to put the conflict into a larger historical context.
The newspaper accounts do not allow Indigenous peoples to have their own voice in the supposed history. Despite the public availability of their petition to the Queen and Privy Council, and their communication through their lawyer, the majority of mainstream articles only published what the RCMP stated in press releases and press conferences. This privileging of the RCMP as the holders of the truth is disturbing.
The issue of how the news media obtained their information during the conflict is of paramount importance for exposing how the media was complicit in obfuscating the issue. After the dispute ended a Vancouver Sun article revealed an interesting fact: "...for several weeks, the media were blocked from seeing just about anything of the police operation at Gustafsen Lake and largely became dependent on daily RCMP briefings for reports on events." This fits into the propaganda model of Chomsky and Herman who cite, "...the reliance of the media on information provided by the government, business, and 'experts' funded and approved by these primary sources and agents of power" , as one way in which the media helps perpetuate and disseminate propaganda.
The media is not monolithic and as such there are cracks, or fissures in the narrative. One example is the Globe and Mail, which ran a commentary piece by Tony Hall, professor of Native American Studies at University of Lethbridge. Hall generally is only published in alternative magazines, however, the Globe and Mail published his piece that supports the Defenders' legal claim. Hall describes Bruce Clark as "a scholar with a reputation for depth and originality", which contrasts with the generally disparaging portrayal of Clark. Hall also argues that, "The perogatives of native liberty are especially broad and clear in those parts of the country, such as most of B.C., where Indian title and jurisdiction remain unceded or unmodified by Indian treaties." That this article was a guest commentary is significant in that it allows the Globe and Mail to claim balance, which reinforces the illusion of free speech and a democratic debate on the issue. However, it is an anomaly and is inconsistent with the primarily negative and slanted articles published before and after this commentary.
The coverage of Gustafsen Lake is problematic, not just because of its distorted history, but also in how the mainstream media represents difference as other. These representations serve the interests of the dominant culture just as the representation of Indigenous Nations as other has served to perpetuate and legitimate white supremacy. Manipulation of language is one of the tools used throughout the mainstream media's coverage to create an intolerant view of Native peoples in general and of the Defenders in particular.
The word choices in describing the Defenders reveals the mainstream media's bias. By invoking the word "rebels" to describe the Gustafsen Lake Defenders it preys on the fears of native insurgency in a white settler nation. In addition, in the Times Colonist 'History Article,' the RCMP are quoted as calling the natives "terrorists:" no alternate view is provided. The word rebel is used eight times; nowhere are the defenders described using their traditionalist self-described name (Ts'Peten defenders), or with any neutral term, such as Gustafsen Lake Defenders. One extreme example of media bias and sensationalism is the headline that ran in the Vancouver Sun, "Rebel Indians 'fanatics'" apparently quoting then Premier of BC, Mike Harcourt. Mostly based on rumour and innuendo, the article links the Defenders to far-right groups in the United States and "New World Order" conspiracists. These articles are not anomalies. A selection of seven articles from the three largest BC newspapers (plus one from the Globe and Mail) reveals the biased nature of the newspapers word choice (see table 1.).
The nature of the language used to describe the Ts'Peten Defenders is important to an analysis of the coverage as the repeated usage of negative and loaded terminology creates a propaganda effect that establishes something as true through persistent repetition.
In his book Agents of Repression, Ward Churchill paraphrases Malcolm X to describe the potential effect of this kind of propaganda: "If you are not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed and loving the people who are doing the oppressing." The constant use of negative descriptors to represent the Gustafsen Lake Defenders serves to construct the state apparatus as passive or benevolent and acting only in society's interest against the "terrorists". This was clearly articulated by B.C's Attorney-General, Ujjal Dosanjh when he said, "The state retains the inherent right to use force." That his statement is so easily accepted - not questioned, or its ramifications not explored - exposes the lack of critical analysis and complicity by the media. Murder, genocide, terror and violence is not named as such when perpetrated by the state.
Academics were also complicit, for example, University of Victoria professor Norman Ruff backed up the state's actions and the Attorney-General's comments in particular: "One of the best things that happened to the NDP is Ujjal Dosanjh...He has been patient, but has reiterated his message that there is one law for all British Columbians." Ruff uncritically supports the government and shores up the ahistorical view of 'one law for all Canadians'. This is despite the fact that as a political scientist he should be aware that B.C. is largely beyond the treaty frontier. Howard Adams, a Metis activist and academic states:
...eurocentric historical interpretation of Indians, Metis and Inuit are used to justify, conquest and to camouflage government mechanisms in maintaining oppression. The authentic history of Indians and Metis has been hidden or falsified by establishment academics who use distortions and stereotypes to obscure the harsh political and colonial practices of the state.The newspaper media chose to quote Ruff's consciously or unconsciously ignorant statements instead of consulting the Defenders or their supporters or other academics more knowledgeable about Indigenous Nations and sovereignty. It is clear, the media was looking for favourable quotes, not real debate.
Due to the space constraints of this article, many issues remain to be explored - the alternative media's role in countering the mainstream's distortions, the gendering of the conflict, how smaller towns and cities papers covered the event, the coverage (or more accurately the lack of coverage) of the nine month trial is extremely important in deconstructing the media complicity and silence on the issue of genocide and sovereignty (see Roundtable, and Damage Control articles in this issue). This case study can serve as a starting point, or reference point for more detailed analysis. This article is a way to deconstruct some of the mainstream myths and distortions regarding sovereigntists in general and the Ts'Peten Defenders in particular.
|Rebel||Squatters||Terrorist||Militants||Renegade||Radical||Total # of negative terms in article|
|T-C / RCMP Study Intervention / Aug 22, 1995|
|VS / Indians Fear Police Assault / Aug 21, 1995|
|Province / Bloodshed Feared / Aug 21, 1995|
|VS / Indian Rebels Plan 'to leave in Body Bags' / [no date in table]|
|T-C / Standoff at Critical Point / Sep 14, 1995|
|Province / Rebel Indians 'fanatics' / Aug 24, 1995|
|G&M / Military arms seized from natives in BC / Aug 21, 1995|
T-C=Times Colonist VS=Vancouver Sun G&M=Globe and Mail
2 Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, Manufacturing Consent p.1-2.
3 Walter Lipman, who is often cited as the father of public relations, wrote two books on how to manipulate public opinion: Public Opinion (1922) and The Phantom Public (1925).
4 Canadian Press, "History of land dispute goes back to '70s" Times Colonist, September 14 1995, p.A3.
7 Bruce Clark, "Petition re: jurisdiction" January 3 1995. This petition was sent to the Chief Justices of Canada and B.C., Alberta, Ontario and Quebec and the grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations. The text of the petition outlined the legal position of the Defenders based on the Royal proclamation of 1763, sections 109 and 129 of the Constitution Act, 1867 and section 35(1) of the Constitution Act, 1982, all which support the basis of the legal claim that the majority of B.C. is unceded untreatied land and the Crown has no legal claim to them.
8 Bruce Clark, "Letter to Staff Sergeant M.P. Sarich Re: Tamanawas Site", August 8, 1995. Tamanawas refers to the site of the Sundance at Gustafsen Lake.
9 Canadian Press, "History of land dispute goes back to '70s" Times Colonist, September 14 1995, p.A3.
10 The Province, "Bloodshed Feared" (August 21 1995) p.A5.
11 The Province, "Two Months of Trouble", August 20 1995,p.A5.
12 Mike Crawley, "Indians fear police assault', Vancouver Sun, (August 21 1995), p.A1.
13 Mark Hume, "Selected media get look at Zulu" Vancouver Sun, September 18 1995, p.A3.
14 Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, Manufacturing Consent p.1-2.
15 Tony Hall, "Commentary", The Globe and Mail, (September 5 1995).
16 Peter O'Neil and Mike Crawley, "Rebel Indians 'fanatics'", The Vancouver Sun (August 24, 1995), p.A1-A2.
17 Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall, Agents of Repression: The FBI's Secret War Against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement (Boston: South End Press 1990) p.262.