This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on June 2, 1997
Gustafsen Lake Standoff: 15 Charged
The trial took 10 months, its drama unfolding daily behind floor-to-ceiling bulletproof glass in the highest-security courtroom in British Columbia. Spectators passed through a metal detector before entering the B.C. Supreme Court in Surrey, a southeast suburb of Vancouver. Authorities deemed the precautions necessary given the event under review: a month-long armed standoff culminating in a spectacular firefight in which, amazingly, no one was seriously injured. When the dust settled at remote Gustafsen Lake in the B.C. interior in the summer of 1995, police charged 14 natives and four white supporters with 60 offences, including two counts of attempted murder. Last week, after weighing the testimony of 86 witnesses, considering 278 pieces of evidence, and deliberating for nine days, the six-man, six-woman jury reached its decision. Choking back tears and holding an eagle feather, a sign of strength among aboriginal people, the jury foreman, himself of native ancestry, delivered the verdicts: a total of 39 acquittals - including the attempted murder charges - and 21 convictions. With sentencing scheduled to begin next week, that ended one of the longest and most complex criminal trials in Canadian history. But the attitudes of racism and native-white distrust that the case exposed left a bitter aftertaste.
The Crown contended that the defendants unlawfully occupied private property belonging to a rancher, Lyle James, and intentionally shot at police - or aided and abetted those who did - to advance a political agenda. The accused maintained that the disputed lakeside campsite was sacred territory, never ceded by natives, which they occupied peacefully each year in order to hold a spiritual ceremony known as the Sundance. In 1995, some natives stayed on the land longer than usual. Defence lawyers told the court that the Sundancers became fearful after hostile ranch hands, serving a trespass notice, threatened to hang "a red nigger." They said the occupiers fired warning shots in self-defence when unknown intruders - who later turned out to be members of an RCMP reconnaissance team dressed in camouflage gear - neared the site.
In the largest paramilitary operation in B.C. history, costing an estimated $5.5 million, 400 heavily armed RCMP officers surrounded the camp, backed by helicopters and armored personnel carriers supplied by the military. On Sept. 11, thousands of rounds were discharged in a 45-minute blaze of gunfire. Six days later, the natives and their supporters, who had no backing from any mainstream native organization, surrendered.
The jury acquitted 12 of the 16 defendants accused of mischief endangering life, but convicted them of the lesser charge of mischief to property over $5,000 - punishable by jail sentences of up to 10 years. Three of the accused were totally exonerated, including 25-year-old Joseph (JoJo) Ignace, who has the intelligence of a six-year-old child as a result of fetal alcohol syndrome. He and his father, William (Wolverine) Jones Ignace, 66, whom the Crown called "the apparent leader of the armed standoff," faced the attempted murder charges. Wolverine could still spend life in prison after being found guilty of mischief endangering life, weapons possession, discharging a firearm to resist arrest, and using a firearm in the commission of an indictable offence. Three co-defendants - natives James (O.J.) Pitawanakwat, 25, and Edward Dick, 23, and white supporter Suniva Bronson, 30 - also face possible life imprisonment after the jury convicted them of mischief endangering life and weapons charges.
Throughout the trial, Wolverine and his supporters argued that Canadian courts have no jurisdiction over disputes involving Indian land never ceded through treaties. Instead, they say such matters should be heard by an impartial third-party tribunal. It is a controversial view, shared by native-rights lawyer Bruce Clark who spent two months in jail during the trial on contempt charges after calling an early Gustafsen hearing a "kangaroo court." The defendants also accused the police of dirty tricks. Defence lawyer George Wool - a retired RCMP officer who wears black cowboy boots under his robes - introduced an RCMP training video shot during the standoff in which officers openly discuss "disinformation" and "smear campaigns." But the officers testified their words were meant in jest, and denied suggestions they were plotting to manipulate the media and discredit the natives.
After last week's verdict, Sgt. Peter Montague, the RCMP media relations officer assigned to Gustafsen Lake, insisted that police acted responsibly. "We were dealing with a group of people who took the law into their hands and resorted to violence to do that," he said. "It's our mandate, our responsibility, to go in there and deal with those very serious situations." But others remained skeptical. "As far as I am concerned, the real tragedy here is that the convictions and the acquittals really aren't going to speak to the conduct of the RCMP when this was going on," said 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." Added Campbell: "I hope that if the RCMP takes anything away from this, it is that these things do not need to be escalated into a paramilitary operation."
Wolverine, who has been held in custody since his arrest, remained defiant in the wake of the convictions. "We stood on constitutional and international law, which the judge refused to hear," he said in a statement released to Maclean's through an intermediary. "We were wrongfully convicted. That's fraud, treason and genocide." To many Canadians, including natives who favor negotiation over confrontation, Wolverine is now simply a convicted criminal. But to a group of supporters who stood and raised their fists in an angry salute as he left the courtroom, he has become a martyr to the cause, a true political prisoner.
Maclean's June 2, 1997