A few weeks ago the Two Row Times ran a two part series on the 1995 standoff at Gustafsen Lake, B.C. It was a republishing of stories filed years ago by Six Nations’ Doug Whitlow who was working as a journalist with a University Newspaper in B.C. at the time.
The incident took place under then Prime Minister Jean Chretian’s Liberal government. As former Indian Affairs Minister, under Pierre Elliott Trudeau, it is assumed that he would have been quite familiar with the circumstances surrounding the military style attack on a small group of Sundancers.
This week we received word that “Wolverine” — a.k.a. William Jones Ignace — one of the main principals in the conflict, has sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asking for a public inquiry into the Gustafsen Lake matter, a story many Canadians have probably never heard of.
We will let the media release tell the story. It begins:
Under Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, Canada’s largest paramilitary operation was carried out on the sacred Sundance lands at Ts’Peten in 1995. Armoured personnel carriers, .50 calibre machine guns, land mines, and an astonishing 77,000 rounds of ammunition were directed at the land defenders. There was also a police note by Chief Superintendent Johnston stating: “There are six hardliners in the camp WHO WILL REQUIRE KILLING.”
“We cannot be afraid anymore, the time for this inquiry into Gustafsen Lake has come to let the people know what happened to us and continues to happen to us,” says the 84-year-old activist.
With that, the text of the letter to the Prime Minister was released:
The Right Honourable Justin Trudeau
Office of the Prime Minister
80 Wellington Street
Ottawa, ON K1A 0A2
The Honourable Jody Wilson
House of Commons
Ottawa, ON K1A 0A6
December 30, 2015
Dear Mr. Trudeau,
My name is Wolverine. I am also known as William Jones Ignace. I am an 83-year-old father, grandfather and great grandfather, and an Elder of the Secwepemc nation in what is called British Columbia. I am a farmer. This past summer I cultivated eight acres of organic food to nourish the people in my nation and other nations as well. I am a long time defender of the inherent jurisdiction of Indigenous peoples to steward our traditional homelands.
Today I am writing to you to request that you initiate a federal public inquiry into the events surrounding the month long standoff at Ts’Peten (Gustafsen Lake), British Columbia in 1995, an event which cast a deep shadow on the relationship between the Canadian government and Indigenous nations, which to this day has not been adequately investigated.
In 1995, after a long history of peaceful attempts to have Secwepemc sovereignty respected, Indigenous people from the Secewpemc nation and their supporters took a stand on sacred Sundance lands at Ts’Peten, a.k.a. Gustafsen Lake. The incident began after a local white rancher, Lyle James began demanding that the sacred Secwepemc Sundance Camp leave land to which he claimed ownership. Approximately 24 Sundancers set up camp to defend Ts’Peten. I was one of those people.
Beginning in August 1995, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) surrounded the Ts’Peten Defenders. Over the next month police, politicians, and media escalated the situation to make the siege the most expensive and largest domestic military operation in Canada’s history: armoured personnel carriers, .50 calibre machine guns, land mines, and an astonishing 77,000 rounds of ammunition were directed at the land defenders. In the course of the standoff, RCMP shot at unarmed people and at people in negotiated no-shoot zones. RCMP Superintendent Murray Johnston expressed the belief that a resolution to the standoff would “require the killing” of the defenders, including myself. Although this thankfully did not come to be, the unjust and violent actions carried out against the Secwepemc people during the siege remains strong in our memories to this day.
Despite the 20 years that have passed since the Ts’Peten standoff, the core issues that so forcefully clashed against each other remain at the forefront of the hearts and minds of Indigenous people. That is our right to self-determination, autonomy and protection from the dispossession of our lands and territories. According to the Royal Proclamation of 1763, Aboriginal Title to land exists inherently and will continue to exist until it has been ceded by treaty with the Crown. The land on which the Ts’Peten standoff occurred was, and remains to this day, unceded territory. The land at Ts’Peten was never handed over by the Secwepemc Nation to Canadian control through treaty or otherwise, and is therefore land that cannot have been sold to settlers by the Canadian or British Columbian governments. The use of Canadian paramilitary forces against the people of the Secwepemc nation asserting our inherent jurisdiction and title over our own territories therefore is a serious abrogation of the Nation to Nation relationship between the Canadian government and the Secwepemc Nation.
This abrogation has yet to be properly investigated, and remains one of the largest stains on relations between Indigenous nations and the Canadian state. A public federal inquiry is long overdue into the actions of the RCMP, the Canadian government and the provincial government of British Columbia.
In recent months, Mr. Trudeau, you have called for a renewed Nation to Nation relationship with Indigenous nations, promising a new era of recognition, rights, respect, co-operation and partnership, rooted in the principles of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. According to that Declaration, Indigenous peoples have the right to be safe from being forcibly removed from their lands and territories. Even now, aggressive resource extraction and the destruction it inevitably brings regularly occurs on Indigenous lands without the consent of Indigenous peoples. Indigenous lands which, according to the very agreements that founded the nation of Canada, do not belong to Canada to be given away without the free prior and informed consent of the Indigenous people of those lands who never relinquished their rights. In order to build this Nation to Nation relationship, Indigenous peoples must know that they can continue to pursue peaceful processes for protecting their sovereignty, without the threat of state sanctioned violence being used against them. The use of police and RCMP intimidation and force as a method to settle land claims in favour of the Canadian national and provincial governments is antithetical to the creation of a healthy and just partnership between nations. If Indigenous people are prevented from asserting their rights to sovereignty, true reconciliation cannot occur.
The time has come to honour your commitment to Indigenous people, and to a reconciliation between our nations. An inquiry into the Ts’Peten standoff would demonstrate that the Canadian government is truly committed to a new era of respectful, Nation to Nation relationships in which the wrongs of the past are thoroughly understood and acknowledged, ensuring that threats, intimidation, defamation and force are never again used against Indigenous people in Canada.
Wolverine, William Jones Ignace