Two years after British Columbia and Canada mounted the largest paramilitary operation in Canadian history against a small group of Shuswap Traditionalists and non-native supporters on sacred, unceded, sovereign Shuswap Sundance and burial grounds at Gustafsen Lake, and after the longest criminal trial in Canadian history, during which dramatic revelations emerged of shocking abuses by police and government officials, the Ts'peten Defenders are in jail, the demands for a public inquiry go unanswered by the authorities, and the "smear and disinformation campaign" conducted by the state and its media continues.
This is best demonstrated by the following article from the August 18, 1997 edition of the news magazine British Columbia Report.
In March 1885, Metis leader Louis Riel seized a parish church in Batoche, Saskatchewan, armed his supporters, and demanded the surrender of nearby Fort Carleton. The ensuing stand-off, known as the North-West Rebellion, lasted two months and resulted in Riel being hung for treason. While debate still rages over the severity of his punishment, the quashing of Riel's insurrection was a landmark act for the fledgling Dominion of Canada and sent a message to rebel Indian bands that the rule of law would prevail.
These days, the rule of law is very much in doubt. From Oka, Quebec, to Ipperwash, Ontario, natives who attack police are granted something approaching immunity by the courts. In the latest instance, the majority of protesters convicted in the 1995 Gustafsen Lake armed blockade near 100 Mile House were sentenced to prison terms of six months or less. Critics fear that the judiciary's apparent double standard for native offenders will only encourage further violence. Stiffer deterrents for native insurrectionists, they say, including refusal to negotiate land claims with bands involved in blockades, are necessary.
The Gustafsen Lake blockade grew out of ownership claims put forward by the Alkali Lake Indian band on the private land of nearby rancher Lyle James. Mr. James had permitted some band members to use his land for a "Sundance" ceremony in 1990. But the native visitors repaid his generosity by permanently occupying the site and firing on campers at the lake. In June 1995, Mr. James served the squatters an eviction notice which they ignored. The conflict escalated in August when the natives fired at a Mountie. The bullets missed, but the RCMP set up a blockade and two other officers were shot on August 27, saved only by their bullet-proof vests.
Controversial native-rights lawyer Bruce Clark arrived the following day to rail against the RCMP's show of force, prompting one BC chief to label him a "wing-nut." The stand off culminated with a massive exchange of gunfire on September 11 when Indians once again opened fire on police. The Mounties discharged 20,000 rounds in an attempt to keep the armed protesters at bay. Apparently subdued by the shoot-out, as well as the arrival of a South Dakota native spiritualist who urged an end to the conflict, the remaining 18 rebels - four of them non-native sympathizers - surrendered on September 17.
At that point, the dispute was transferred to the courts. Clark went berserk, throwing papers at a judge and cursing the sheriffs who restrained him. After a court-ordered psychiatric examination he was held in contempt, a judgment later upheld by the BC Court of Appeal. Last week, the Supreme Court of Canada denied him leave to further appeal. Equally bizarre was the behaviour of the BC Supreme Court jury in May that found 15 of the 18 defendants guilty on a variety of "mischief" and firearms charges. As they entered the courtroom, the foreman and three other jurors were carrying eagle feathers, an apparent display of solidarity with the defendants that police psychologists later diagnosed as "traumatic bonding."
During the sentencing hearing, defence lawyers unsuccessfully petitioned Justice Bruce Josephson to permit an aboriginal "sentencing circle" to determine penalties for the convicted. Some of the defendants were themselves opposed to the idea, including James Pitawanakwat, who along with 66 year old ringleader William Jones (Wolverine) Ignace and two others, was convicted on the most serious charge of mischief causing actual danger to life. Pitawanakwat said he was in the clutches of a colonial system and would do his own sentencing, prompting Mr. Justice Josephson to retort "I might play a small role in the sentencing if you don't mind."
A small role indeed, some might say. The stiffest sentence he handed out was 4 1/2 years imprisonment to ringleader Ignace. Pitawanakwat and the two others guilty of mischief causing actual danger to life, an offence punishable by a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, received sentences of two to three years. The remainder all received six-month sentences, and two were permitted to serve their terms in the community. Vancouver lawyer Norman Mullins, who has represented a number of non-natives in suits with Indian bands, believes the sentences were suitably tough. "I think a lot of them thought they were going to get off scot-free," he says. "They'll think twice now."
But Martin Brown, director of the Victoria-based Citizens Voice on Native Claims, calls the ruling disappointing and argues its only lesson is that native protesters can break the law with near impunity. "That's not a message that should be sent to any British Columbian when we're in the midst of negotiating land claims," he says. The Gustafsen Lake stand-off is merely the latest of a number of armed conflicts across Canada where native protesters have either walked away uncharged or with paltry sentences. In 1990, native Indians erected a blockade at the Canadian Forces Camp in Ipperwash,claiming ownership of the site.
In May 1995, the standoff intensified with the fire-bombing of a training building, an assault on a military police officer, and the ramming of two military police vehicles by natives driving a bus. An Ontario judge later dismissed charges against the driver, maintaining he was "unarmed" and did not intend to endanger life.
In July 1995, the Adams Lake Indian Band blockaded a road 30 miles northeast of Kamloops, preventing non-natives from driving across reserve land to their homes on private property. When a group of non-natives, one an off-duty RCMP officer, followed a private road onto the reserve, they were halted by three armed Indians, one of whom put a rifle to the officer's head. After the constable flashed his badge a tense 30-second standoff ensued. The native finally lowered his weapon but no charges were laid.
Beginning in November 1994, the Penticton Indian Band similarly blockaded access roads to Apex Alpine ski Resort for three years to protest its planned expansion. They claimed it would have a negative environmental impact on their land. And despite documentation giving clear title to Victoria, they also claimed ownership of the Green Mountain access road. By July 1966, the NDP government's refusal to enforce former premier Mike Harcourt's promise to end the roadblocks eventually forced the resort into receivership. Last month, receiver Arthur Anderson Inc. announced it was reconsidering a joint-venture bid involving the Upper and Lower Similkameen Indian Bands. Meanwhile, the Penticton band is vowing to renew its blockades of the expanded resort.
Mr. Brown observes that many of the native insurrectionists do not represent the mainstream of aboriginal politics. Indeed, the Adams Lake band is one of a number of interior bands who are boycotting the BC Treaty Commission process, demanding instead "nation to nation" negotiations directly with Ottawa. Mr. Brown says the federal government has an obligation to refuse any dealings with those bands. As for blockading bands involved in the treaty process, he says they should be dumped to the back of the line. "BC has an obligation to say if you break the law, you won't make it to second base," he says.
With respect to judicial leniency with native blockaders, Mr. Brown says the courts are guilty of a double standard. "When you shoot at a police officer, you should expect to go to jail for a very long time.
B.C. Report Ltd.