"What they are expressing in terms of sovereignty and aboriginal rights are, from my perspective, not extremist. I don't think we are squatters or trespassers in our own homeland."The images seemed vaguely familiar as they were broadcast on the CBC evening news. Canadian soldiers and police, riding in armoured personnel carriers usually seen in photos of Bosnia or Somalia, surrounding an isolated encampment. Behind the razor wire were the "Indians", bandannas covering their faces, wearing camouflage jackets and carrying guns.
- Saul Terry, Union of BC Indian Chiefs
"They have no legal right to be there and there is no land claims process for that area. This is simply a law enforcement issue."
- Bruce Thompson, office of the BC Attorney General
For the second time in five years, the Canadian government has sent the police and army of the nation against a small group of native people defending their rights to the land.
For almost two weeks, about twenty men and women "the Defenders of the Shushwap Nation" have been besieged by over one hundred Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). The Defenders have been camped on the land of a local cattle rancher, Lyle James, by Gustafsen Lake in the interior of British Columbia. They claim that they are asserting their right to the site as a sacred area, a site for Tamwanas "sundance ceremonies."
The BC government, with most of the local media in tow, has been quick to paint the situation as a problem of "law and order". Staff Sergeant Peter Montague, the local RCMP commander on the scene, has called the Defenders "terrorists, criminals and thugs". Both the Attorney General, Ujjal Dosanjh, and the Premier, Mike Harcourt, have categorically denied that the Defenders have any legitimate claim to the site.
Brent Thompson, a spokesperson for the Attorney General, said "we regard this as a problem for the RCMP, and we have complete confidence in their sensitivity and care in this issue."
"They have no legal right to be there," he continued, "and there is no land claims process for that area. This is simply a law enforcement issue."
In reality, however, the situation is much more complex.
This June, at the end of this year's sundance, James discovered that the Defenders had remained behind. He tried to evict them, but they refused, and the dispute began a slow but steady escalation to armed stand-off.
The RCMP was quick to move into the area and establish an effective blockade.
A news-release posted to the Internet by an observer in the area, Ernie Yacub, summarised the RCMP tactics: "[they] surrounded the camp with a heavily armed SWAT (Emergency Response Team)". Later reports suggested that reinforcements with dogs and more guns had moved into the area.
The RCMP has banned anyone from going into or out of the camp, including Bruce Clark, the lawyer for the Defenders. As well, the RCMP, in control of the only radio-phone link to the Defenders camp, has allowed little contact with family or friends of the Defenders. Aside from manoeuvers on the ground, the RCMP started air manoeuver tactics. "They have been harassing the camp with low- level helicopter flights, provoking the expected rifle fire [from the Defenders]" says Yacub.
Reminiscent of Oka, Rstandard psychological warfare tactics have begun "depriving [the Defenders] of sleep, food, communication, hope," concluded Kahn-Tineta Horn, from the Canadian Alliance in Solidarity with Native People.
Tensions were further escalated by the shooting of two RCMP officers last week. While trying to clear a log from the front of the barricade, the two officers were hit by several rounds but were not injured due to their body-armour.
The Defenders' lawyer, Clark, claimed the next day that the RCMP had started the shooting. Although the incident remains vague, what is clear is that the RCMP actions have so far not resulted in a peaceful settlement and have probably served only to provoke the lightly armed Defenders inside the camp.
"One wonders how a peaceful settlement is possible when the police are demanding an unconditional surrender, have cut off communications, and are preparing to launch an armed assault on the camp whenever they deem necessary," said Yacub. "Where are their mediators and conflict resolution experts?"
For Weisberger, Gustafsen Lake is "one more striking demonstration of the necessity of treating all Canadians equally under the law." This thinly-veiled racist attack on the inherent rights of the province's native people was echoed by the national Reform Leadership, who called for "quick action" to resolve the problem -- not ruling out the possible use of armed force by the RCMP. After a summer of conflicts between native groups and the province, the Gustafsen Lake situation has become symbolic of the NDPUs inability to improve native-non-native relations.
In 1992, one of the NDP's main election promises was to quickly resolve outstanding land claims, which cover the vast majority of the province. Their inability to do so has become a political liability. "The NDP has gone out and promised the sun, the moon, and just about everything in-between to the aboriginals," said Garry Farell- Collins, the Liberal House Leader. "Now they realise they can't deliver - economically or politically."
In response to these opposition attacks, the NDP has suddenly moved from dialogue to force as the means to settle native grievances. Saul Terry, leader of the BC Union of Indian Chiefs, agrees that many people have been using Gustafsen Lake as justification for a "get tough" policy.
The NDP has done this by consistently portraying the Defenders as criminals and contending that their claims are illegitimate. Attorney General Dosanjh has stated that "there is no logic in attempting to deal with [the Defenders]" in a political discussion. Dosanjh has been repeatedly supported by Premier Mike Harcourt in his decision to allow the RCMP to resolve the situation. Harcourt has stated that his "patience is wearing very thin."
The BC government has received luke-warm support for their actions from the national and local native leadership.
The local band council, the Cariboo Tribal Council, agreed with Dosanjh that there is "no significance to the cattle ranch land" being claimed by the Defenders. As well, they have condemned the Defenders for rejecting "all governments and laws... including the First Nations governments."
The Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Ovide Mercredi, visited the camp over the weekend in an attempt to resolve the dispute. Although he condemned the use of violence, he rejected Dosanjh's characterisation of the Defenders.
"The individuals are not terrorists," he said. "They are people with strong convictions...they are not criminals."
Although many native leaders disagree with their tactics, they concur with the beliefs of the Defenders.
"What they are expressing in terms of sovereignty and aboriginal rights are, from my perspective, not extremist," said Saul Terry. "I don't think we are squatters or trespassers in our own homeland."
Unlike the rest of Canada, the territory of British Columbia was never signed away in treaties by native groups. Under the Proclamation of 1763, the working constitution for the Canadian Colonies until 1867, native nations retained all title to their land until relinquished in treaties. This never occurred in the territory now known as British Columbia.
In a letter to the RCMP Staff Sergeant Peter Sarich, Bruce Clark outlines his legal argument for the Defenders. Since the land was never ceded to the Canadian government, he argues, it is illegal under the Proclamation and subsequent international law, for the government to exercise any power, such as the RCMP, in the area. Ironically, Clark is arguing for the exact same thing as the Attorney General. His main concern is to "uphold the law"; however, he views the British Columbian and Canadian governments as the illegitimate forces, not the Defenders in their makeshift camp. Clark explains that he and his clients are simply "doing their duty as the law defines it...to resist continued trespassing of Canadian authorities on native land" and the Defenders are "prepared to have their lives forfeited for it."
"Thousands upon thousands of Indian lives have been, and are being, lost," he wrote in response to a Vancouver journalist.
These lives have been lost precisely because native communities have been "invaded and terrorised treasonably, fraudulently, and genocidally. The high mortality rates of natives in our country are a consequence of the legal establishment's crimes. My clients' intent at Gustafsen Lake is to save many lives at the risk of their own. That is heroism not terrorism."