SURREY, B.C. - In the last two years there have been two significant trials that make an interesting study in contrast, one in the US and one in Canada. One was the murder trial of O.J. Simpson. This trial was played out in the public arena. The other is the Gustafsen Lake Trial in British Columbia. This trial has been closed from the public.
What was it about the first trial that had the media so engaged? Not only was it televised from beginning to end, but it was reported continuously on the news and on current events shows. After the verdict, television stations scrambled to be the first to have lawyers and jurors as guests. There was hardly a pause between the trial aftermath and the almost daily reporting of the civil trial which followed.
At the time the O.J. Simpson trial was going on, British Columbia had its own real-life drama playing out in the interior of the province at a place called Gustafsen Lake. The events as they were reported by the media were every bit as gripping and suspenseful as the famous white Bronco ride. Toward the end of the native standoff at Gustafsen Lake, British Columbia law enforcement agencies had 400 ERT (Emergency Response Team) members and several armoured personnel carriers from the military at the site, trying to bring the standoff to an end. It is unlikely that a day went by during the final month of the standoff without intense radio and television coverage. When the standoff finally came to an end, something seemed to change. The people who were in the camp became uninteresting and unimportant. The attention shifted to a lawyer, Bruce Clark, who had been at Gustafsen Lake on one occasion and was representing many of the accused.
The trial for the eighteen defendants arrested at Gustafsen Lake began in July of 1996 and is now into its ninth month. Unlike the O.J. Simpson trial, and even though the story was one of the top news stories almost every day, there has been little coverage of the trial. There was one day that the courtroom was almost full. It was a day that could have brought the trial to a halt. The jurors, who had originally been led to believe that the trial would last approxiametely three months, had been sitting about five months and had not yet heard all of the crown's witnesses. There was talk in the lobby outside the courtroom door that one or more of the jurors might drop out, which would have caused a mistrial - in this case, a loss for both sides.
The judge canvassed the crown and defence attorneys for an estimate of how much more time they would need. The response was that Christmas time might be pushing it some, but it was not impossible. The judge appealed to the jurors to stick it out. There has been the odd other occasion when a media person has attended the trial, but for the most part, it is covered by supporters of the defendents. Reports are made available through co-op radio, small independently owned newspapers and over the internet. The public, for the most part, thinks that there is little of importance in this trial.
The Contempt of Court charges against Clark are quite a different matter. When the people who were at Gustafsen Lake - and some who were not - were arrested, and appeared in court to seek bail and release from custody, Clark was the lawyer who represented most of them. He did not wish to argue that his clients should be released on their own recognizance. Instead, he wanted to argue that the court had no jurisdiction because it sat on unceded indian territory.
According to Clark's testimony under oath, he pushed a piece of paper toward the courtroom staff and that as the paper slid from a raised portion of the desk to the working surface of it, the paper hit one of the staff members on the arm. For this he was charged with Contempt of Court. Upon his release, he left the area and failed to show up for a court appearance to deal with the matter. The consequence, of course, was that a warrant was issued for his arrest. All of this was covered in the mainstream media.
The public, for the most part, saw Clark as a fool, a buffoon or an eccentric who had lost touch with the reality of the day. While Clark was out of the area, the Gustafsen Lake trial went on without hardly a whisper. When it was mentioned, attention would be drawn to the length of time the trial had been going on. Of course, it didn't take much to have the public equate this information with the amount of money such a trial would cost.
When the crown wrapped up its case against the accused, a new energy arose in the courtroom - Bruce Clark would be returning to British Columbia to defend at least one of the accused, Mr. Ignace - also known as Wolverine. The fact that Clark was coming to town was newsworthy and it had the media out in force.
There were no stories about the Gustafsen Lake trial and the issues that the natives were trying to raise. There were no stories about Clark's previous appearances in the courts of British Columbia to represent other native sovereigntists. The only thing that made the news was Clark's re-appearance in British Columbia.
British Columbians watched as Clark descended the steps of the aircraft and proceeded to turn to his right. An R.C.M.P. officer placed his hand on Clark's shoulder and Clark turned in the opposite direction. Accompanied by the R.C.M.P. officer, Clark walked to a waiting patrol car which took him to a police lock-up. The nightly news carried the televised story of Clark's arrest. The next morning, the media continued its coverage by keeping the public informed on Clark's whereabouts.
Clark was flown to 100 Mile House where he appeared before a judge and was sentenced to three months in jail. Clark filed an appeal, and it was reported in the news. When the announcement came that a decision on the appeal application would be announced, the mainstream media reported it, and they reported that the appeal had been denied. Clark remains in jail.
Clark has been refused an "occasional appearance certificate" which would allow him to act as counsel for Mr. Ignace. Instead, he was brought from 100 Mile House to Surrey and is incarcerated in the Surrey pre-trial centre while he testifies as a witness for Ignace. Like Ignace and another accused, Clark is brought into the courtroom each court session, just before the judge and jurors enter, wearing the prison issue red sweatsuit. He presents his testimony in a well-researched, well-organized, articulate manner.
Almost nine months of testimony, much of which would shock the world, remains unreported. The human rights of an entire identifiable group of people have been ignored no less than the human rights of those who marched in Tienamen [sic] Square. The media considers the event not newsworthy. What is considered newsworthy, however, is the portrayal of a qualified lawyer - the only one willing to present the native issue - as a fool, a buffoon and an eccentric. To the public, the most important event since the summer of 1995 and a native standoff at Gustafsen Lake, British Columbia is the shaven head and peculiar-looking glasses on a goofess lawyer. It is not reality. It is perception. However, when the public knows no difference, it becomes reality - but it is not "truth".
Copyright by Noreen Gale; may be redistributed if unedited