Demands grow for Gustafsen Lake inquiry
By Fernando Arce
TS’PETEN TERRITORY – A group of Indigenous nations are asking the Canadian government to lead a national inquiry into the RCMP’s violent response during the 1995 Gustafsen Lake Standoff, better known to Indigenous people as the Ts’Peten Standoff.
During the 31-day confrontation, the RCMP deployed more than 400 officers against less than two dozen indigenous Sun Dancers who claimed the site was sacred and unsurrendered Secwepemculecw (Shuswap) territory.
Elder William Jones “Wolverine” Ignace and the Ts’Peten Defence Committee sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Attorney General and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould on Jan 4, 2016. They hope that an inquiry revealing the truth of the month-long confrontation between police and indigenous land defenders will help Canadians better understand the underlying issues of sovereignty and territorial jurisdiction.
“The issue is that we’ve never given (the state) jurisdiction over us because we’ve never surrendered our land,” said Kanahus Manuel, communications spokesperson for the Ts’Peten Defence Committee. “The average Canadian citizen needs to realize that Canada was formed all around us, without us ever surrendering our territory.”
The letter gave Trudeau and Wilson-Raybould a deadline of Jan. 17 to reply, which they did not meet. However, on Saturday, Jan. 23, after Wilson-Raybould’s first public lecture since her election last October, members of committee confronted her about the missed deadline.
Instead, Wilson-Raybould, who had finished speaking at Simon Fraser University’s School for Public Policy, deflected the question by talking about the need to make missing and murdered indigenous women a priority, Manuel said.
“We’re not saying that it shouldn’t be,” she added. “But we feel like she’s avoiding the issue (…) because she never made a statement (…) The racist police system (and) the judicial system that attacked our people at Gustafsen Lake is the same system that is allowing missing and murdered indigenous women to be rampant across Canada.”
Much of what happened at Gustafsen Lake is not very well known by people who were not directly involved due to the level of media-manipulation the RCMP was able to get away with.
At the time, the media, being physically blocked by barricades set up by the RCMP from entering the camp where the indigenous protesters were, were forced to report only what the police were telling them. An inquiry into the matter, Manuel said, would help clarify the facts of what really happened during those 31 days between Aug. 18 and Sept. 17, 1995.
“The average Canadian citizen is not aware of how deep the Canadian government went in order to eliminate native resistance,” Manuel said.
BIGGEST PARAMILITARY OPERATION IN CANADIAN HISTORY
From Aug. 18 to Sept. 17, 1995, 450 RCMP officers and less than two dozen indigenous land defenders faced off in the ancestral, unceded homeland of the Secwepemc people, near 100 Mile House, in the southern-interior region of British Columbia. Though a local non-native farmer had set up his ranch there, the region had been the site of the annual Sun Dance ceremony since 1989. By 1995, however, tensions with the rancher boiled over and the RCMP intervened and set up a perimeter around the site.
On Sept. 11, 1995 the RCMP escalated the conflict it when it detonated explosives in an access road that was in the agreed-upon no-shoot zone used by the protesters to get supplies like food and water, blowing up a supply truck in the process. The driver and his passenger, along with a dog, escaped the blast, though the dog was killed by the RCMP as they shot at the fleeing protesters through the dust.
A gun battle between the RCMP, who by that time were in Armored Personnel Carriers, and some of the land defenders ensued.
Nearly 77,000 rounds of ammunition were fired by the RCMP and one woman was shot in the arm, according to Gord Hill, an indigenous writer and activist who narrates the events in a video called Gustafsen Lake Standoff in five minutes.
The RCMP operation cost taxpayers more than $5 million, with little more than half of that going towards overtime pay, and the rest towards equipment like helicopters, nine Armed Personnel Carriers borrowed from the armed forces, explosives and ammunition.
The standoff ended on Sept. 17, after the remaining 12 Sundancers left the area under the guidance of medicine man John Stevens.
Many of these details have gone unrecognized by the public due to the media black-out surrounding the events.
A MEDIA BLACKOUT
Outside of academic papers like Ben David Mahony’s 2001 thesis for the Department of Native Studies at the University of Lethbridge, in Alberta, the details of Gustafsen Lake have been seldom documented or recounted.
Little is therefore known of how far the RCMP went in order to manipulate the media–namely the CBC – into only reporting their interpretation of the events.
This allowed outright lies to be passed off as facts, such as reports of a hostage-taking situation and the protesters alleged demands for a spiritual leader’s advice in exchange for a surrender. Both of these claims were proven to be false in the court documents that emerged during the 1996-1997 Gustafsen Lake trial, according to Mahony.
“The CBC ombudsman’s report makes it clear that the RCMP engaged in severe and unethical manipulation,” he wrote.
Indeed, in an RCMP internal training video introduced into court on Jan. 6, 1997, then Chief RCMP negotiator Sergeant Dennis Ryan and Staff Sergeant Peter Montague, the Chief RCMP Media Liaison officer, can be seen and heard discussing a “smear and disinformation campaign” during a meeting about the standoff.
“Is there anyone who can help us with our smear and disinformation campaign?” asks Sgt. Ryan, to which Staff Sgt. Montague responds: “Smear campaigns are our specialty.”
According to Settlers in Support of Indigenous Sovereignty, a grassroots group which has archived many of the documents and testimony produced in the trial, much of that video was banned to the public by Justice Bruce Josephson.
In 2000, a U.S. Federal Court judge appeared to agree with those facts. Justice Janice Stewart ruled against an extradition request by the Canadian government of James Pitawanakwat, one of the protesters who was driving the exploded truck on Sept. 11 and who has been living in exile since 1998, when he was only 27 years old.
“(Pitawanakwat) claims, and the government has not disputed, that the Lake Gustafsen standoff escalated into the largest Canadian police or military operation on land since the Korean War,” Justice Stewart wrote in her ruling. “In addition, (Pitawanakwat) has submitted uncontradicted evidence that the Canadian government engaged in a ‘smear and disinformation’ campaign to prevent the media from learning and publicizing the true extent and political nature of the events.”
For his part, Pitawanakwat, now 44, hopes an inquiry will also allow him to finally return home.
“Living in exile…had it’s beautiful qualities,” Pitawanakwat said over the phone. “I got to be married and have children and enjoy that aspect of freedom. But the hard part that was killing me was not being able to go home and visit my family, bury my dad, mourn properly with my family. This has been detrimental emotionally.”
The Prime Minister’s Press Office did not reply to our requests for comment.