The summer of 1995 will be remembered by many B.C. residents as the summer of native discontent. A series of native blockades around the province reached a climax on August 19th when the RCMP announced that a group of terrorists had taken over private land on a remote lake near a town called 100 Mile House. What followed became known as the "Gustafsen Lake Standoff", involving over 400 RCMP police officers, military Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs) and an army of journalists from across Canada. By the end of its peaceful resolution on September 17th, 1995, eighteen adults and two youths had been arrested and charged with a variety of offenses ranging from mischief to attempted murder. B.C. Attorney General Ujjal Dosanjh told the public afterwards that "there is no other side to the story, there is only one side to the story and that is that a very serious criminal investigation was being very legitimately pursued by the RCMP in a peaceful fashion." A year later, the public and a jury finally learned that there was indeed another side to the story.
On July 8th, 1996, the Gustafsen Lake trial began in a high-security courtroom in Surrey, B.C. and eight months later on February 12th, 1997, the Crown finally concluded its case. Before the Defense begins its case on February 19th, the jury will have a week off to ponder the testimony of 77 Crown witnesses whose evidence revealed how the RCMP escalated a land dispute into a deadly standoff.
At the beginning of the trial, the jury heard from Lyle James, the 70-year-old rancher who claimed to own the land in dispute. James testified that he had an agreement with Percy Rosette, a Shuswap faithkeeper, allowing him to use a few acres of land by Gustafsen Lake for sacred Sun Dance ceremonies. Apparently, all went well until James learned that a fence had been built to keep cattle from defecating on the sacred Sun Dance grounds.
James sought legal advice on how to evict Percy Rosette and his family from a small cabin that had also been built on the land. James balked at the cost of getting the court order his lawyer and the RCMP suggested he get and decided instead to take the law into his own hands. He escalated the tension on June 14th when he and 12 of his cowboys (one of them cracking a bullwhip) served Percy an illegal home-made eviction notice. Defense lawyer Sheldon Tate suggested that the whole standoff might have been averted had James acted in a civilized manner and allowed the matter to be heard in court.
Shelagh Franklin, a non-native representing herself, questioned James on the legitimacy of his deed to Lot 114. Throughout the trial, she and Wolverine (William Jones Ignace) have maintained that most of B.C. remains unceded native land and that the 1763 Royal Proclamation protects native land from encroachment by settlers. They claim that because the Shuswap nation never sold or treatied their traditional lands, the land still belongs to the natives and James was in fact in possession of stolen property. They also claim that the RCMP was breaking the law because it didn't have the jurisdiction to arrest anyone on unceded lands. Lyle James maintained that he didn't have a speck of doubt that the land was his because he paid for it.
The jury next heard from three different native constables who were sent to the camp during the summer to ease the tensions. Cst. Andrew testified that he found the people in the camp very friendly and he enjoyed drinking coffee and talking with them. He said he never feared for his safety and admitted that he even left his gun in his car because he was asked to do so by the camp occupants. Andrew also said he had brokered a meeting between all the parties of the dispute to take place on August 21st. But before this happened, Andrew and the two other native officers were pulled and an RCMP Emergency Response Team (ERT) was sent in to the camp to conduct a reconnaissance.
Jurors heard testimony from the ERT members on how this probe was "compromised" when they were discovered sneaking around the camp at 6 a.m. on August 18th. Cst. Wilby, the Kamloops ERT leader, claimed that a native in camouflage said something in a native dialect to him and then fired a shot that passed closely by him. The five ERT members then ran out of the area. The next day at a press conference in Williams Lake, the RCMP reported that an officer on patrol was shot at. What they didn't say was that the ERT team members were dressed up in camouflage, carried assault rifles, and failed to wear any markings to identify themselves as police officers. Defense lawyer George Wool suggested to Staff Sgt. Porter that the armed men might have been mistaken for rednecks or white supremacist militiamen. Porter conceded that it didn't occur to him at the time, but admitted that this was possible.
Wool also suggested that the RCMP was more interested in creating a crisis than in investigating the Wilby shooting when they organized a press conference in Williams Lake on August 19th. Wilby admitted he was surprised to learn that no effort was made to cordon off the area as he expected would happen if an officer was shot at. Instead, Superintendent Len Olfert, the Kamloops SubDivision Commander, told the assembled media that terrorists had taken over private land belonging to Lyle James. His justification for the terrorist label was the display of weapons seized by Fisheries officers on the Fraser River a week earlier on August 11th. Olfert claimed that one of the men charged in that incident had a connection with the Gustafsen Lake camp. What he failed to mention was that the weapons were found thirty miles away from the camp. Wool suggested that roadblocks were not set up because the RCMP wanted to lure radical elements, hippy protesters and malcontents to the camp through the news conference and then once those elements had arrived in the camp, they would seal off the area and declare it a standoff. Meanwhile, fishermen, campers and media were free to enter the Gustafsen Lake area which the police had declared dangerous and full of terrorists.
The bulk of the evidence heard during the trial centred on the epic three-hour gun battle of September 11th, 1995. Eighteen ERT officers and four army personnel testified to paint a clear picture of police aggression. Around noon that day, a video camera-equipped airplane, called "Wescam" or "Eye in the Sky", had spotted one of the camp pickup trucks being filled with water bottles. The police knew this truck was used as general transport by the camp for getting firewood and water. The truck was "a target of opportunity" and if they had a chance, they would take it out. On the 11th they decided to do so.
The night before, members of Vancouver's ERT team laid down "datasheet" explosives on the main logging road in anticipation of "disabling" the truck. Jury members physically reacted as they watched Wescam video of the truck being blown up. The video showed the red truck going down a logging road. Suddenly, a plume of dust and smoke rockets eighty feet skyward and the truck stops dead. As the dust clears, the camp dog, which was in the back of the truck, walks around in a daze. Out of the dust, a 13-tonne APC appears and slams into the disabled truck. The petrified dog runs away from the "Bison" (APC) and is shot dead by ERT members standing at the side of the road. Cst. Arthur testified that Sgt. Debolt shot the dog and when the dog continued running, Debolt told Arthur to "put the dog down", so he shot it too. Jury members shook their heads in disbelief.
Vancouver ERT members discovered that the occupants of the truck had disappeared in the dust thrown up by the "disabling device", which most officers asserted was not a land mine. Cpl. Mercer and his police dog tracked the two occupants to the lake and saw them wading across trying to get back to the camp. The Bison went to intercept the occupants and waited for them on the other side of the lake. Cpl. Preston testified that as he stood in the Bison hatch, he fired two shots in front of the camp members to get their attention and then ordered them to put their hands up and come to shore. He claims the shots were warning shots and not fired directly at the people in the water. He admitted that there is no criminal code provision that allows for warning shots and that a person can only shoot at someone in self-defense or in defense of others.
Cpl. Maloney said that as the people in the lake were coming to shore with their hands up, bullets began to strike the side of the Bison. The driver, Private Conners, said he turned the vehicle around and saw someone in a treeline fifty metres away. He then heard an officer order him to "eliminate the shooter." Warrant Officer Bidwell claimed he saw two people in a treeline and ordered his driver to go after them, but denied telling him to "eliminate" them. He claimed that one of the people was Wolverine (William Jones Ignace). Conners pursued the person through the woods and testified that the person would periodically turn around and shoot at the Bison as he ran away. Conners admitted that he would have done the same thing if an APC was chasing him.
The Bison then hit a tree which disabled the vehicle's steering. Conners was able to get the Bison into a clearing and they called for help. Another Bison arrived, filled with the Kamloops ERT team, and officers from both vehicles testified that they heard hundreds of bullets strike their vehicles. They tried to get the personnel from the disabled Bison to cross six feet of ground to enter the other Bison, but after only one man got across, they decided it was too dangerous and called in two more Bisons for help. During all this, ERT members stationed across the lake in different locations were firing in the direction of the Bisons, some from distances as far as 1,500 metres away - a distance far in excess of the operational range of the RCMP M-16s. More than one officer agreed that some of the fire the Bisons took could have been RCMP "friendly fire". Despite claims by some of the members that hundreds of rounds hit the Bisons, forensic scientists determined that only 26 bullets hit the disabled Bison.
Defense counsel suggested that what some ERT members actually heard was other ERT members in nearby Bisons firing thousands of rounds into the surrounding bush. Officers described this as "cover fire", which consisted of firing into a general area whether a target existed there or not. To date, the RCMP have not admitted how many rounds were fired that day, but police estimates range from 3,000 to 7,000 rounds. At one point in the massive barrage, police had to break open crates of army ammunition in the Bisons because they had run out of RCMP ammo. Cst. Wilby admitted he even used a military fully automatic C-7 assault rifle because his own semi-automatic M-16 had jammed.
The disabled Bison was eventually towed away by one of the other Bisons, but not before a non-native woman, Suniva Bronson, was shot in the arm by a police bullet. Amazingly, despite the incredible amount of police ammo that filled the air, only the camp dog died that day. The public was never told about the dog nor about the shot woman.
The jury heard more evidence of police aggression and bungling when witnesses described the following day's attempted murder of a camp occupant who had gone to the lake to bathe. On the morning of September 12th, Wescam spotted a male walking away from the camp towards the water. RCMP sniper Cst. O'Gorman, positioned across the lake, asked permission from "Zulu", RCMP field headquarters, "to make the guy's day unpleasant". O'Gorman testified that his partner, Cpl. Wyton, told him that Inspector Kembel, the field commander at Zulu, had given the "green light" to shoot the camp occupant. However, RCMP command had failed to inform Kembel that a "safe zone" had been created days before and as far as the camp knew, this included the wash area that the male was walking to. Regardless, the sniper team across the lake attempted the shot.
The jury watched more Wescam footage showing the man from the camp walking towards the water. He suddenly runs and dives for the ground, rolling into a deep rut on a dirt road. O'Gorman testified that he had taken the 1,100 metre shot and the bullet had fallen ten feet short. He said that Wyton then grabbed the .308 sniper rifle off him and took two more shots, despite not being able to see the man anymore. The man in the "safe zone" lived and made it back to the camp.
Kembel described the incident as unfortunate in that he wasn't told about the safe zone. It was only hours after the attempted shooting that the coordinates of the safe zone were broadcast to the rest of the ERT members in the field. It was the first time they had heard about a safe zone which the camp had known about for two days as an area where their safety was guaranteed. The public was never told about this shooting.
Despite the incredible events of September 11th and 12th, the public was only given a sanitized and twisted version of what happened. Media relations officer, Sgt. Peter Montague agreed on the stand that what he told the public on September 11th wasn't entirely correct, particularly the statement that the occupants of the disabled truck fled with weapons and then fired at police. Montague said he learned on the morning of the 12th, from police dog handler Cpl. Mercer, that this was not true. When asked by Defense lawyers if any official retraction was made to the public, Montague said he thought he had mentioned it to some media, but couldn't recall for sure. He agreed that he never saw a retraction published or aired.
Defense lawyer Don Campbell found eighteen more errors in Montague's September 11th press statement, but Montague clarified this. He said there were 18 "minor inconsistencies" and "two serious errors". Defense lawyers argued that the RCMP press statement inaccuracies were not accidental, but were part of a strategy to discredit and smear the camp occupants. Key evidence of this strategy included video taken by an RCMP civilian cameraman, Norm Torp. Torp's 46 hours of video taken during the standoff was the focus of much deliberation and in the end only a dozen minutes were admitted as evidence. A portion of this was of an RCMP meeting discussing media strategies. RCMP negotiator Dennis Ryan is seen asking Sgt. Doug Hartl, "Have you found anyone to help us with our disinformation or smear campaign?" Ryan told the jury that he was just using earthy language and apologized for the inappropriate comment. The video also shows Peter Montague wryly stating, "smear campaigns are our specialty." Montague claimed he was being ironic and was making a joke. His proof that he didn't mean it was the fact that there was no smear campaign. Defense lawyers had another point of view. They cited the fact that on September 11th, Montague released criminal records of people suspected to be in the encampment, but which also included records of people not in the camp. Don Campbell suggested that these people's records were included because they were longer than the few camp members' records. Wool brought it to the jury's attention that a youth record was even released. Montague claimed that he never knew he released a youth record, but admitted that he never verified any of the information that he was given by other officers.
A press release of September 5th was also under scrutiny by Defense counsel. On that morning, media liaison officer Cpl. John Ward told the media and public that RCMP members had been shot at and stalked throughout the previous night by natives from the encampment. He explained that APCs supplied by the army were being used to rescue the Victoria ERT team. The ERT team claimed that a bullet had hit the side mirror of their Suburban and they believed they were being shot at, so they fired their weapons into the surrounding bushes as the Suburban raced out of the area. The jury heard from forensics expert Brian McConaghy that when he examined the "shot mirror", he found no evidence that it had been hit by a bullet. He thought it more likely the mirror was hit by a tree branch. Head investigator, Insp. Gary Bass, admitted that he had no evidence of any officers being stalked through the bush by natives, but claimed that the Victoria ERT team still believe they were fired on.
Montague testified that he never corrected Ward's press statement, claiming he was away at that time. He claimed he was never asked to correct it, so he didn't. Montague's sidestepping and polished excuses reflected most of the RCMP witnesses who took the stand. They had trouble recalling events, pointed fingers at superiors, feigned ignorance and generally came off as armed civil servants trying to protect their pensions and the reputation of a crumbling institution called the RCMP. The only officer who did take responsibility was Supt. Len Olfert, but he seemed to have no knowledge of the details of his officers' actions.
Eight months ago, the jury, like most of the public, thought they had a pretty good idea of what the Gustafsen Lake "standoff" was about. It was the RCMP's largest and costliest operation in Canadian history and the Mounties came off looking like heroes who once again, got their man. Now after hearing the Crown's case in what is turning into B.C.'s longest jury trial, the jury and the public may have to reevaluate not only their thoughts on what happened in the summer of 1995, but also their thoughts on the national police force they depend on to protect them.