Many natives are feeling a new sense of militancy

CHRIS WOOD September 11 1995


Many natives are feeling a new sense of militancy

CHRIS WOOD September 11 1995


Many natives are feeling a new sense of militancy



glare of television camera lights—was doing his best to make peace. Rancher Lyle James, 70, whose 450,000-acre spread in British Columbia’s interior Cariboo plateau had become the site of the country’s latest armed standoff between Indians and civil authorities, had just finished explaining to reporters that he would allow natives to continue to use his property for spiritual ceremonies once the confrontation ended. But one Indian, at least, was having no part of that compromise. Petite and intense, Leahanne Dick, the mother of a 15-year-old girl who joined native squatters on James’s land just days before police sealed off the encampment on Aug. 26, had listened quietly to his halting statement. Now, Dick rose and shrilly demanded to know “who you purchased this land from.” Before she was cut off, she added: “We say this is Indian land, and it is not for sale.” Amid the flurry of more dramatic moments—some of them staged and others clearly impromptu—that characterized last week’s tense showdown between heavily armed RCMP officers and native militants near 100 Mile House, 450 km northeast of Vancouver, the incident passed largely unremarked. But even as a week that began with a fusillade of gunfire dragged on into an uneasy stalemate, the well-meaning confusion of the rangy cowboy in the face of the tiny Indian’s uncompromising anger seemed to capture the broader dilemma facing the country as a whole. As a long summer of native protests from New Brunswick to Quebec, and from

Ontario to British Columbia, draws to a close, most Canadians surely share a common desire to put right the historic wrongs against the country’s aboriginal inhabitants. Pursuit of that goal, however, has exposed the devil in the details. For many natives, what Canadian governments have so far offered is much too little. For many non-natives, what Indians insist upon is far too much. Further complicating the situation are splits between established native chiefs and angry activists impatient with both government foot-dragging and what they see as the complacent attitude of mainstream Indian leaders. Much of the public debate on the issue, meanwhile, is colored by ignorance and misinformation. And as last week’s events at Gustafsen Lake, 35 km west of 100 Mile House, underscored yet again, with each new confrontation the middle ground finds fewer defenders. Certainly, there was scant evidence of the spirit

of compromise last week. Two dozen armed native and non-native extremists remained dug in around a makeshift cabin and several tents deep in the British Columbia interior. Hours of negotiation by radiotelephone with even more heavily armed RCMP tactical units surrounding the encampment had, by week’s end, led nowhere. And even if—or, more optimistically, when—the group did surrender, its members and supporters gave no sign that they were ready to give up their beliefs. To them, the region of rolling hills, dry fir and aspen forests, lakes and rangeland is unceded Indian territory where white men— whether ranchers or police officers—have little welcome 'We say

this is Indian land, and it is not for sale’ and fewer rights. As one of the group’s leaders, William

Ignace, who prefers to be known as Wolverine, repeatedly insisted: “Domestic laws do not apply here.” Wolverine scant evidence of the spirit of compromise

It was a view that the group’s radical Ottawa-based lawyer, Bruce Clark, continued to voice even after members of Wolverine’s self-styled “Defenders of the Shuswap Nation” opened fire on two RCMP officers on Sunday, Aug. 27. Both officers were hit in the back, escaping injury or death only because the bullets were deflected by their Kevlar flak vests. The following day, however, Clark insisted that the Indians’ attack was in no way a criminal act. “Definitely not,” the controversial lawyer asserted. “They are resisting treason, fraud and genocide.” Indeed, Clark said, it was “the RCMP [who] are engaged in a criminal act just by being here.”

Those were far from the first shots to shatter the peace at Gustafsen Lake. In 1992, a year after a local Indian named Percy Rosette first informed James of his intention to perform the spiritcleansing sun-dance ceremony on the remote lakeside—James raised no objection—seven shots were fired from near the dance site through a tent belonging to non-native campers at the lake. Two American natives were arrested, but were later released without charges. In 1994, Rosette and his followers completed the last of the four annual ceremonies in the sun-dance cycle without further incidents. But Rosette remained on James’s land.

Tensions began building on June 13.

After discovering that Rosette had fenced off a lakeside portion of his cattle range, James and several ranch hands served the squatter with an eviction notice—and seized a camp stove and door that Rosette or his followers had taken from a ranch building. The following day, two forestry workers reported that someone had fired shots at them from the area of the Indian encampment. Over the next two months, as more Indians and non-native supporters rallied to Rosette’s side, gunfire erupted near the camp on at least three more occasions. Then, on Aug. 11, an RCMP patrol seized several weapons—including an AK-47 assault rifle and a Glock 9mm semiautomatic—from two Indians at Rosette’s camp. A week later, a shot was fired at an RCMP patrol.

On Aug. 19, police announced that they had finally lost patience with the squatters. “We see this as an act of terrorism,” RCMP Supt. Len Olfert told reporters. “The threat is serious.

We won’t just sit back and do nothing.” Still, the RCMP moved slowly to assemble its forces before moving against the Indian camp. For another week, visitors were allowed along the gravel logging roads that give access to Gustafsen Lake. They found Rosette, Ignace and their followers in a defiant mood. Rosette insisted repeatedly that “this lake and all this land belongs to the Indian people,” and defended the use of weapons against the RCMP. The even more pugnacious Ignace, meanwhile, vowed that police “will have to take us out in body bags.”

Much the same message was delivered, along with a great deal of scornful abuse, to Ovide Mercredi, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. Mercredi visited the camp twice on Aug. 24 and Aug 25, in an attempt to mediate a peaceful end to the standoff. But Rosette and Ignace dismissed the national leader as a “collaborator” with what they regard as illegal white governments. Finally, early on Aug. 26, police sealed off the camp.

The most shocking moments came with the attack on two police officers the following day. As an RCMP spokesman recounted events, the assault occurred as four armor-clad Emergency Response Team members were escorting several forestry workers back to police lines after removing a tree that had been felled as a roadblock. Suddenly, several weapons opened fire from the surrounding bush. Bullets riddled one police vehicle, forcing the two officers inside to flee on foot; as they ran to safety, shots struck both men in the back, bruising and burning them through their body armor. “It had all the earmarks of an ambush,” seethed RCMP Sgt. Peter Montague. “Rounds were coming from both sides of the road.”

The RCMP are engaged in a criminal act just by being here

a full-scale police tactical operation— and widening international attention. For their part, police insisted that they would not allow the standoff to continue indefinitely. But Montague offered no deadline for the Indians’ surrender, and details of what he described as a “multifaceted operational plan” also remained secret.

Hopes for a settlement rose when police, after repeated delays, allowed Clark to enter the camp at noon on Thursday to talk to his clients. Those hopes were dashed six hours later, however, when Clark emerged to declare that the militants were “fearful of being murdered by police.” He added that they would not surrender until authorities agreed to allow an international tribunal to consider their allegations “accusing [Canadian] judges, governments and police of treason, fraud and the genocide of aboriginal people.” Clark said the natives were appealing “to their protector, Elizabeth II” to intercede on their behalf—and might end their action if Ottawa sends a letter to the Queen saying it would not object to her looking at a petition from them. RCMP officials passed the letter on to British Columbia’s attorney general, Ujjal Dosanjh, but he refused to send it further.

As talks dragged on, signs of support for the militants multiplied. A notice board at the inn used by the RCMP to brief journalists was quickly papered in several layers of faxes from native supporters from as far away as Washington, D.C., and England. Among the messages was one from former U.S. attorney general Ramsey Clark, who compared the situation at Gustafsen Lake to earlier— and lethal—confrontations between American authorities and dissidents at New York’s Attica Prison, Ohio’s Kent State University and the Branch Davidian cult compound in Waco, Texas. Despite the intensity of media coverage, however, the messages suggested that the wider world was receiving an often skewed impression of the events at Gustafsen Lake. Many writers, including Clark, plainly believed that the men and women at Rosette and Ignace’s side were members of the local Shuswap First Nation, whose traditional territory includes Gustafsen Lake, and were defending a long-sacred site of deep spiritual significance.

In fact, little of that was true. Of about two dozen people at the camp, several, including Wolverine, were members of distant bands unrelated to the local Shuswap; others were non-native supporters of radical Indian and environmental causes. Even before unleashing a hail of bullets at two RCMP officers, the militants had prompted most local native leaders to distance themselves from their actions. “They have no support from us or our people,” said Alkali Lake band chief Bill Chelsea. He added: “They are making a mockery of our traditions.”

Other local Indians denied that the contested site had any local spiritual significance. “It was used for fishing and gathering berries and that type of thing,” said Agnes Snow, chief of the Canoe Creek Shuswap band. “But not for the sun dance.”

Indeed, the militants’ claim to be “traditional” sun dancers was a frail one. Although experts in native culture assert that the sun dance is a powerful ceremony of healing and redemption in the tradition of Plains

With that, the sun dancers’ wilderness camp became the focus of Indians, it has only recently been adopted by other groups. Among the Canoe Creek Shuswap, insisted Snow, the ceremony was unknown until about 1989, when Rosette began practising it. Even among the Indians of the Prairies, insisted Mercredi, a Manitoba Cree, “the sun dance is about healing, not about a pipe in one hand and a gun in the other.”

In allying themselves with the eccentric personality of lawyer Bruce Clark, the natives simply added to the impression that they occupied the political fringe—a view compounded by Wolverine’s eccentric theories about a so-called New World Order conspiracy. Clark, 51, faces disbarment in his home province after a disciplinary committee of the Law Society of Upper Canada found him guilty earlier this year of professional misconduct. Among the complaints: accusing an Ontario Supreme Court justice of racism, treason and genocide against natives.

Still, the events at Gustafsen Lake could not be dismissed as just the work of a handful of marginal malcontents. At the core of the militants’ angry stand run powerful currents of grievance and despair that are found on many Indian reserves across Canada.

Warned Mercredi, for one: “That anger is there, that frustration is there and that determination to take that kind of action is there.”

In fact, the standoff at the lake shared several features—including militant challenges to the authority of local elected chiefs—with a string of confrontations this summer. In New Brunswick, a month-long standoff over fishing rights on the Miramichi River pitted self-styled “Micmac Warriors” against the more moderate leadership of local band chief Roger Augustine. At about the same time, radical Ontario natives forced the Canadian Forces to withdraw from a former military camp at Ipperwash, near Sarnia, Ont. A week earlier, the inability—or unwillingness—of Chief Jerry Peltier of the Kanesatake Mohawk reserve near Montreal to eradicate several fields of marijuana being cultivated by band members prompted Quebec police to destroy the plantations. And in British Columbia, hardly a week has gone by since early June without at least one native protest or blockade.

A common theme of the confrontations is a belief among many natives that they are—or should be—exempt from the rule of Canadian law. “Not everybody in this country considers themselves Canadian,” observed Chief Joseph Norton of the Kahnawake Mohawks, whose reserve is just south of Montreal. “A lot of people consider themselves the Mohawk nation, the Cree nation, the Algonquin nation.” Agreed Mercredi: “That position is not the minority view. It is the prevailing view: that we have pre-existing rights as indigenous people that supersede the rights of Canada as a nation and that even their claims to our land is subject to our prior title.” Added the chief: “This is what I said to Wolverine in the camp: Tour philosophy is our philosophy in terms of how we see the nature of our rights. The difference is the approach you’re taking. We want to negotiate. You’re prepared to make your point with violence.’ ”

But Wolverine’s approach may well be gaining support among Canada’s native people. Indian leaders and outside observers alike say that unresolved grievances and long-standing frustration with the slow pace of change is fuelling militancy. Notes Norton: “It’s a sad state of affairs. But it seems the only thing the government understands is when people put up barricades. The young and the restless in Indian society are saying, Well, damn it, if they can do it down there, then we can do it over here.’ ”

And, indeed, five years after two dozen Mohawk radicals held both the Sûreté du Québec and the Canadian military at bay for 77 days at Oka, little has changed for Canada’s roughly one million status and non-status native people. Economic and social disadvantages remain deeply embedded in native communities. At the same time, native leaders’ attempts to assert an inherent right to self-government and bring an end to the widely hated federal Indian Act, remain largely unsatisfied. In 1992, Canadian voters rejected a package of constitutional amendments known as the Charlottetown accord; among them was a proposal to enshrine the aboriginal right

‘We see this as an act of teirorism. We won’t and do nothing.1

to self-government. Despite that, polls at the time showed that most Canadians—with the significant exception of British Columbians— supported the measure.

Last month, Indian Affairs Minister Ron Irwin offered natives a legislated alternative to that prospect of constitutional status. But Irwin’s proffered policy on Indian self-government, which would grant native bands powers essentially similar to those of municipalities, falls far short of what many Indian leaders, including Mercredi, insist is necessary. “It’s not a recognition of the inherent right that we fought so hard to get in the Charlottetown accord,” complains the national chief.

But it may be all that most non-native Canadians are willing to support. “Generally, Canadians support native demands,” says Ottawa-based pollster Darrell Bricker, senior vice-president of the Angus Reid Group. “But there is a backlash.” That backlash, Bricker notes, increases with each new confrontation and is especially strong in British Columbia. There, as elsewhere in the West, there is strong opposition to any settlement with natives that would grant Indians legal rights denied to other Canadians. And it goes without saying that few Canadians are likely to accept that native “prior rights” include opening fire with impunity on police. ‘What the native leadership suggests and what the Canadian population is prepared to accept,” Bricker concludes, “are very, very different.”

With little belief in the likelihood of further concessions from white society, growing numbers of younger natives find an irresistible appeal in the potent rhetoric of the likes of Rosette and Wolverine. “They could be called the misfits and the malcontents,” says Paul Tennant, a University of British Columbia political scientist who follows native affairs closely. “Often you have charlatans leading them, but they are certainly in touch with very deep feelings and at least some traditions.” While better-educated natives who are in a position to benefit from accommodation with white society generally support negotiation and compromise, Tennant notes, radicalism has a wide constituency. And Tennant adds a disturbing prediction: “There is a significant potential for many more of these [confrontations] across the country.”

At 100 Mile House, the week ended with hopes for a peaceful resolution, but little else. Lyle James might well be willing to allow future would-be sun dancers the use of his land. But for the militants inside RCMP lines, that was clearly no longer the central issue—if it ever had been. And however the showdown concluded, it was clear that the frustration simmering on Indian reserves poses a continuing dilemma for native moderates—and for all Canadians.