Media lessons from Gustofsen Lake

How important is independent media in times of conflict? Probably the most audacious example of police manipulation of mainstream media comes from the Gustafson Lake standoff of 1995.

We all know, or at least heard of, the clashes between Onkwehonwe people and the Canadian government in Burnt Church, Oka, Ipperwash and even Caledonia, but there was another clash at Gustofsen Lake in the British Columbia interior in the summer of 1995 that followed the same ill-advised template designed by police, government and army for engagement during Native protesters which was employed at Oka in 1990.

It was a time before social media, the internet and Facebook really took hold, and as such, many Canadians never heard about it, or never got the real story even if they did. That is because the events of Gustafson Lake were suppressed and skewed so badly at the time, and the files were quietly stowed away from the public eye ever since.

The response of the police, provincial and federal governments, was shameful at best, and attempted murder at worst.

The template of how to deal with a Native protest was employed at Gustofsen Lake and followed through Ipperwash and at least the beginning of Caledonia. Thanks to the Liberal led inquiry into the death of Dudley George at Ipperwash and its recommendations, the atmosphere at Caledonia seemed to change in the middle of the crisis. Although still tense, and at times dangerous, Caledonia pails in comparison to what happened at Gustofsen Lake.

The issue began with a group of Secwepemec (Shuswap) people upon what they believed was their traditional territory and a ceremonial Sundance. The Shuswap negotiated with rancher and land-holder Lyle James in 1989 to hold their annual ceremonial Sundance on the site which they believed is sacred.

At first James agreed and for several years there was no issue. But in 1995, James objected to the Sundancers staying on the site longer than the usual ceremonial time and ordered them off.

They were also not to build any kind of permanent structure on the land, but the Sundancers erected a fence to keep James’s cattle from defecating within the Sundance ceremonial site. James was not happy with that.

Camp spiritual leader Percy Rosette, insisted the site was unceded and sacred to his people and refused to relent when ordered off. The police and government took the ranchers side immediately and hatched a plan to remove them by force.

Some reports say there were only 18 people occupying the site, including women and children, while others say there may have been as many as 30, but no more.

The Crown contended that the defendants unlawfully occupied private property belonging to James, and that Native protesters intentionally shot at police, or hid those who did, to advance a political agenda.

That is how what has been called the “largest paramilitary operation in Canadian history,” began.

Jones William Ignace, also known as “Wolverine”, and John Hill, also known as “Splitting the Sky”, became the spokespeople for the occupants. ‘Wolverine,’ a flamboyant activist, told police that the only way he would be removed from the Sundance site would be in a ‘body bag.’ It seems police and the government took his warning seriously and prepared for an assault against the Sundancers. Other First Nations people, however, including the local elected chief and council, distanced themselves from “Wolverine” and “Splitting the Sky”.

Following the government’s increasing involvement in the situation, the RCMP role as peacekeepers and observers, which they had initially taken, suddenly changed to an order for approximately 400 tactical officers, which, like at Oka, Ipperwash and Caledonia, upped the anti considerably.

A single gunshot was fired over the heads of intelligence gathering police units in camouflage who were mistaken for ranchers sent by James to remove them himself.

Earlier, some hostile ranchers served a trespass notice, and threatened to hang “a red nigger,” if they did not leave. This kind of rhetoric was not uncommon to the region, which also hosted an active White Supremacist population.

That, in a nutshell, is what triggered the armed standoff.

In August of 1995, the Sundancers put out a media release to inform the public, explaining their actions and their intent, which reads as follows:

“The Shuswap people, who remain true to the Creator and the Land of our Ancestors, seek a peaceful resolution to a crisis which has been going on for 139 years.

Domestic laws, which we have had no hand in signing, do not apply here. Tribal councils of so-called “chiefs” paid by the Government of Canada do not speak for us.

We have never ceded or sold our territory. Anyone claiming title to our stolen lands should be compensated by the government of British Columbia and our lands returned to us. The legal precedence protecting our rights as Indigenous Peoples have never been heard. We agree to lay down our arms after receiving a guarantee of diplomatic immunity from prosecution for all members of this camp, and audiences with our representative Bruce Clark and the Queen’s Privy Council and Governor General of Canada. The purpose of these hearings must be a formal ruling of the legitimacy of claim.

We believe that when the true Canadian law is applied it will be clear who are the true caretakers of this land.”

Most media were unfamiliar with the back-story of the standoff and were not inclined to research the protester’s claims. Police liked that situation and began a misinformation and disinformation campaign with regular media conferences containing exaggerated and unfounded statements, while keeping media away from the protesters, the site, and the truth. Meanwhile, they were falsifying records and reports to paint the Sundancers as wild and violent criminals and terrorists.

One incident, which was brought up in the trial of several of the protesters months later, was that an RCMP vehicle, which they informed the media was shot up by the violent Native protesters was a lie. It was discovered in testimony that police had shot up the SUV themselves to provide an excuse in order to justify the use of a military response using armoured military vehicles.

In all, the unnecessary and heavy-handed action cost Canadian taxpayers $5.5 million and involved 400 heavily armed RCMP special forces backed up by Army helicopters and armoured personnel carriers.

The whole thing climaxed September 11th, 1995 when, as RCMP reports themselves confirm, around 7,000 live rounds of ammunition were fired into the camp in a 45 minute barrage, despite the knowledge of women and children present in the camp.

One independent journalist reported that he was taken aback at the trees and vegetation that was cleared to the ground by the barrage of bullets into the camp. Fortunately, the Sundancers and allies were dug in and waited out the 45 minute wave of lead.

The Sundancers eventually gave up under such odds and several were arrested including Wolverine and Splitting the Sky.

The trial records were revealing as the truth finally began to come out. Film evidence shot by police themselves showed that police used land mines against a pickup truck with Natives in the back, driving peacefully down a road near the camp. The media release sent out through the cooperating media said they were armed and aggressive, however, the film shown as evidence in court clearly shows they were not armed or aggressive. Another clip shows an unarmed man being shot by police sharp shooters while he was walking, by himself, towards the lake. Once again, the media was told the man, a non-native supporter, was armed with a rifle but the film evidence refuted that claim.

These videos and others have since been made available on YouTube.

Wolverine and his supporters argued that Canadian courts have no jurisdiction over disputes involving Indian land never ceded through treaties, but to no avail. The frustration of the trial caused defence lawyer Bruce Clark to be disciplined by the Bar Association and was sentenced to serve two months in jail for contempt of court after calling the proceedings a “kangaroo court.”

He was replaced by defence lawyer Don Campbell, who called for a public inquiry. “I think that one thing we learned was that this was an avoidable situation, that this could have been easily resolved by careful negotiations at the time,” Campbell said.

“We stood on constitutional and international law, which the judge refused to hear,” Wolverine said in a statement from jail published in Maclean’s Magazine through an intermediary. “We were wrongfully convicted. That’s fraud, treason and genocide.”

In the end, Wolverine served five years in jail for his part in the standoff.

Gustofsen Lake would have been handled much differently had cooler heads prevailed and if Native concerns were taken seriously by police and governments. It would also have been reported differently had the media not been refused access to the protesters and the truth. In retrospect, the media should not have cooperated as fully as the RCMP expected them to, and should have insisted they be given access to the Sundancers to get the complete story.

At one point a senior police officer is captured on video bragging that “smear campaigns are our specialty.”

Hopefully, the lessons from Gustofsen Lake have finally been learned by both media and police and any future conflicts will not follow the mistakes made at Gustofsen Lake, Oka, Burnt Church, Ipperwash, Caledonia or anywhere else on Turtle Island.


Facts about the Gustofsen Lake Standoff:

1) Eight land mines were also used, at the same time as the Canadian government was campaigning internationally against the use of land mines.

2) the unnecessary action cost Canadian taxpayers $5.5 million and involved 400 heavily armed RCMP backed up by Army helicopters and armored personnel carriers.

3) “Smear campaigns are our specialty,” – Peter Montague, RCMP and Chief Media Relations Officer for BC Solicitor-General.

4) Some 7,000 live rounds of live ammunition were pumped into the camp. It is a miracle no one was killed.

5) The Royal Canadian Mounted Police launched one of the largest police operations in Canadian history, including the deployment of 400 tactical assault team members, five helicopters, two surveillance planes and nine Armored Personnel Carriers.

6) The RCMP kept journalists well away from the site and some reporters became uneasy that the only side of the story being told was that preferred by the police. The RCMP deliberately presented the occupiers to media as “terrorists,” “militants,” “criminals,” and “thugs.”

7) Fourteen indigenous and four non-native allies were charged following the siege, fifteen of whom were found guilty and sentenced to jail terms ranging from six months to eight years. The leader of the occupation, William “Wolverine” Jones Ignace, was found guilty of mischief to property, mischief causing danger to life, possession of firearms and explosives, discharging a firearm at police, and using a firearm to assault police officers. Three of the defendants appealed the verdicts on the grounds that the Canadian courts have no jurisdiction over the lands where the Gustofsen Lake standoff took place, which they claimed remain unceded indigenous land. The Supreme Court of British Columbia refused to hear the appeal.

8) According to Janice Stewart, a magistrate justice of the U.S District Court in Oregon, “The Gustofsen Lake incident involved an organized group of native people rising up in their homeland against an occupation by the government of Canada of their sacred and unceded tribal land.” She also asserted 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 these events”.

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