The Spiritual Stand at Gustafsen Lake


By Trond Halle

The following article will be appearing in a future issue of "Strong Hearts", a 'zine put out by the Rod Coronado Support Committee in Arizona.

The summer of 1995 will be remembered in British Columbia, Canada, as the summer of native discontent. Although native blockades sprung up all over B.C. and throughout eastern Canada, the RCMP and the media chose to focus their attention on a small area in B.C.'s remote interior. On August 19th, 1995, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) held a press conference in Williams Lake and declared that native terrorists had taken over private land on the shores of Gustafsen Lake, near a town called 100 Mile House. They said that a police officer on patrol had been shot at by camp occupants and displayed three firearms seized a week earlier from two people fishing on a river 30 miles away from the camp. The police claimed that one of the two people was connected with the camp and that this was proof there were terrorists at Gustafsen Lake with criminal agendas.

I watched that press conference on TV in Vancouver and I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I had just spent the past month at Gustafsen Lake and considered many of the people there my friends. They were peaceful, spiritual people - not terrorists. I knew that the RCMP were preparing the public for an armed assault on the camp with the kind of language they were using. There wasn't a moment to lose, so my soul mate and I headed back to Gustafsen Lake - seven hours northwest of Vancouver and out in the middle of B.C.'s vast and mostly unpopulated interior.

I didn't realize at the time that I wouldn't return to Vancouver for over a month. I never imagined that I'd be in the middle of a standoff surrounded by 400 tactical police officers and eight Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs); survive a three-hour gun battle in which the RCMP fired thousands of rounds; or that a month later, I and 17 other people would be arrested on "criminal charges". I also never imagined that the resulting jury trial would last more than eight months. Had I known all that, I still wouldn't have changed a thing. My friends were going to be assaulted because they were protecting a sacred Sun Dance site. I may not be a native, but I know the difference between right and wrong. Plagued by a conscience and a semblance of integrity, I had no choice but to go and help the faithkeeper and his family.

As I write this, the epic trial continues. It began on July 8th, 1996 and on February 12th, 1997, the Crown (a.k.a. the State) finally wrapped up its case, which involved the testimony of 77 witnesses (mostly cops). On February 19th, the Defense gets its turn at bat. Because the trial is still happening, I can only give you a rough outline of events.

My personal involvement began months before Gustafsen Lake became a household word across Canada. In June, 1995, my mate and I had been helping Bear Watch - a group opposing trophy hunting - by getting in the faces of rich hunters with our video camera as they tried to shoot docile black bears in clearcuts. As the hunting season ended, we heard about another call for help. A Shuswap faithkeeper and his family had been threatened by a rancher and his cowboys, who were now threatening to disrupt the annual Sun Dance ceremony held near Gustafsen Lake. The faithkeeper was hoping some non-natives with video cameras would act as a deterrent, so within days, my mate and I were at the Sun Dance grounds armed solely with a video and stills camera.

There we met Percy Rosette, the Shuswap faithkeeper and caretaker of the Sun Dance grounds. He explained to us in broken English how seven years earlier, he and three others went on vision quests to find out how to rekindle the spirituality of the Shuswap Nation. They headed off into separate directions, but all ended up at the same area - Ts'peten (a.k.a. Gustafsen Lake). This was a traditional fishing area - the lake was created in the 19th century by natives who dammed a creek. Percy said that the Sun Dance had taken place for years with the reluctant acceptance of American rancher, Lyle James, who claimed to own the land where the ceremonies took place.

James testified in court that he became upset when he learned that a fence had been erected around the Sun Dance grounds to keep his cattle from defecating on the sacred site. Thinking he was in a turf war, he sought legal advice on how to evict the "squatters". He balked at the cost of getting a court order, which his lawyer and the RCMP suggested he get, and instead went with 12 of his cowboys to the camp and served Percy an illegal home-made eviction notice on June 14th, 1995. He denied to the jury that he was acting aggressively, despite admitting that a cowboy was cracking a bullwhip during the notice serving. He also denied that any of his cowboys said, "it's a good day to string up some red niggers."

My mate and I arrived at Ts'peten a few weeks after this and remained there throughout the summer. The Sun Dance took place without incident. During this period, native RCMP constables would come to the camp every few days to drink coffee and talk with the dozen or so people who came to protect Percy and his family. The constables testified that they never saw any weapons in the camp and never feared for their safety. They even left their guns in their cruisers during these visits, respecting the rules of the sacred grounds. Constable Andrew told the jury that he had brokered a meeting for August 21st with all the concerned parties and was hopeful that an agreement could be reached regarding the use of the grounds for the Sun Dance.

Unfortunately, the white management of the RCMP had different plans. On August 18th, three days before the meeting was to take place, a covert five-member Emergency Response Team (ERT) stalked through the woods around the camp at 5 a.m. carrying assault rifles, wearing camouflage and with their faces painted green. Team leader, Constable Wilby, testified that a man wearing camouflage said something to him in a native dialect and then a shot rang out. Wilby claimed that the bullet narrowly missed him. The ERT team ran out of there and the next day, the RCMP told the media that an officer on patrol was shot at by terrorist camp members. They failed to mention that the officer was part of a covert ERT patrol and that he wore no markings identifying himself as a police officer. A Staff Sergeant, Ken Porter, admitted to the jury that it never occurred to him at the time, but realized now, that the ERT team could have been mistaken for white supremacist militiamen.

When we got up to the Sun Dance grounds following the "terrorist" alert by the RCMP, the media had also arrived. Percy's close friend, Wolverine (William Jones Ignace), told the media that it wasn't the natives who were breaking the law here - it was the RCMP and the B.C. government. He said it was still native land and according to the 1763 Royal Proclamation, the government had no legal right to sell unceded or untreatied land. (Most of B.C., including all of Shuswap country, never entered into treaties with the colonial government.) "How can we be called squatters on our own land?" Wolverine asked. He also said that the RCMP did not have the jurisdiction to come on to native land. Not surprisingly, the media failed to report his legal arguments and instead focused on the impending confrontation.

On August 26th, the roads to the area were cordoned off, media were told to leave and communications with the camp were severed. The media got what they wanted - a standoff had begun.

For a month inside the camp, little changed. We ate well, drank coffee around the campfire and prayed for protection. On the outside, the RCMP built up its forces, brought in APCs from the Canadian military, and manipulated public opinion with a media smear campaign designed to demonize the camp. The Gulf War tactics of "manufacturing consent" worked and rednecks demanded police action.

On September 11th, the police decided that the time for action had arrived. Aircraft equipped with video cameras spotted a red truck leaving the camp area to get water and the RCMP command ordered the truck to be "taken out". Explosives were laid down on a logging road while two dozen ERT members waited in ambush. The pickup truck hit the "disabling device" and a massive explosion stopped the truck dead while throwing up a plume of dust and smoke eighty feet into the air. Jury members were physically shaken as they watched this on video taken from the aircraft. They couldn't believe that the RCMP were doing this on a public road in the backwoods of Canada. The jury got an even bigger shock when the video then showed an APC appearing out of the smoke slamming into the truck. The camp dog that was in the truck ran from the APC in fear and was gunned down by ERT members on the side of the road. Jury members shook their heads in disbelief and one of them refused to watch the dog being killed again as the video was replayed numerous times.

Fortunately, the truck occupants survived the explosion and escaped into the bush under the cover of the dust and smoke. An APC tried to intercept their return to the camp, but was fired on by someone in a nearby treeline. The truck occupants made it back to the camp as the APC took off after the person in the treeline. Before the 13-ton vehicle could run down that person, who one military officer claimed was Wolverine, the APC hit a tree and disabled its steering. Three more APCs arrived to rescue the stuck APC. Occupants of that APC claimed they heard thousands of bullets strike their vehicle, but forensic experts counted only 26 bullet strikes. Defense lawyers suggested that what these ERT members actually heard were the thousands of rounds being fired by police in the other three APCs.

Though the RCMP won't admit how many rounds they fired that day, ERT members testified that they fired 3,000 to 7,000 rounds into the surrounding forest, despite not having any targets. All I'll say is that at one point in the day, I was drinking coffee around the campfire with some of the elders and the police were still firing. I didn't know what they were shooting at, but I guess it made them feel safer as they hooked up their disabled APC and drove out of there with their tail between their legs. Amazingly, only one person was injured that day. A non-native woman was shot in the arm, but not seriously.

On September 17th, on the recommendation of the medicine man, John Stevens, the camp occupants finally came out. ERT members were a little surprised to see that only 21 people came out of the camp, mostly youths, women and elders. Eighteen people (four of them non-native) were charged with mischief and possession of weapons dangerous to the public peace. Wolverine and his son were also charged with attempted murder.

British Columbia and the RCMP will never forget Gustafsen Lake. Neither will I. In the face of incredible odds, I saw the bravest hearts I'd ever seen in my life. Percy has reminded me more than once that it wasn't us making the stand at Ts'peten - it was the spirit of the ancestors working through us. Without our prayers and the prayers of medicine people from all over Turtle Island, the outcome would have been vastly different. I thank the Great Spirit for all the support we got then and continue to receive today. All my relations.

In loving memory of Idaho, the best camp dog there ever was.

P.S. As the trial began, my mate and I both received summons from Wildlife Conservation officers for interfering with a legal bear hunt. It's a hell of a twisted world out there when Conservation officers protect hunters, and natives are called squatters and trespassers in their own country.

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