CANADA

A standoff moves to the courts

The Gustafsen Lake trial is at the heart of native militancy

CHRIS WOOD July 29 1996
CANADA

A standoff moves to the courts

The Gustafsen Lake trial is at the heart of native militancy

CHRIS WOOD July 29 1996

A standoff moves to the courts

CANADA

The Gustafsen Lake trial is at the heart of native militancy

As political theatre goes, the production currently playing in suburban Surrey, B.C., 30 km southeast of Vancouver, is neither fastpaced nor well-attended. Progress, in fact, is plodding. The plot frequently disappears entirely behind technical dialogue. For all of that, audience members must first pass through a metal detector and submit their belongings to a sheriffs search. Even then, bulletproof glass separates them from the action. And, however short on drama, the B.C. Supreme Court trial of 18 defendants on charges arising from last summer’s armed standoff between native-rights activists and police near Gustafsen Lake is as much street theatre as it is due process of law. Indeed, for its defendants, the outcome of the trial may be secondary to its impact on a growing number of angry, alienated young native Canadians.

Not that the legal issues are trivial. The six-man, six-woman jury must determine the guilt or innocence of 13 men and five women— a mainly native group that includes four white sympathizers—on 14 counts ranging from interference with the lawful use of property to attempted murder. The charges were laid after a tense, month-long standoff in the southern B.C. interior that began last August and stretched into late September.

Tensions soared after two RCMP officers were shot on Aug. 27,

1995, and peaked with a full-scale gun battle on Sept. 11.

Although the two shot Mounties were left with holes in their bulletproof vests, no one was injured in either incident. The conflict ended peacefully only after army units moved in to back up police in an operation that cost an estimated $5.5 million—by far the most expensive police action in B.C. history.

Prosecutors hope to keep the jury’s focus on the alleged criminal acts. “This is not a land-claims hearing,” Crown prosecutor Lance Bernard said when the trial— which is expected to run at least three months—began on July 8. But the lawyers for the accused plan to counter the Crown case by challenging rancher Lyle James’s title to the land where the standoff occurred—and the right of the RCMP to act on his request to dislodge natives who chose the spot for a religious ritual known as the sundance ceremony.

The defence strategy goes to the heart of native militancy, especially in British Columbia. In most of the province, early settlers never concluded treaties with native inhabitants. As a result, native groups now lay overlapping claims to the entire province. And in the heat of last year’s confrontation, standoff leader Jones William Ignace—also known as “Wolverine”—repeatedly rallied his followers with the bat-

tle cry: “Domestic laws do not apply here.” Ignace, who is among those on trial in Surrey, appears to speak for an ever-growing number of natives. Even the normally moderate Ovide Mercredi, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, has called Ignace’s position “the prevailing view” in most native communities. And at the assembly’s annual meeting, held earlier this month in Ottawa, Mercredi called on natives to become more militant in asserting their independence from Canadian law. According to a statement issued by Mercredi’s office, “Every action by a First Nation within its jurisdiction must be recognized as an assertion of its sovereignty and can-

not be made subject to the approval of other governments.” The assembly also announced that it would hold workshops in British Columbia later this year to put that philosophy into action by training native activists in nonviolent civil disobedience.

Another development last week reinforced the impression among many natives that negotiation is futile unless it is backed by confrontation. All five commissioners on a federal agency established after the 1991 native standoff at Oka, Que., tendered their resignations. The commissioners, who had been asked to examine unresolved land claims, complained that their work had been “severely undermined” by Ottawa’s refusal to progress towards land settlements, and said that frustration was creating “unrest” in native communities.

Not all native leaders agree with Mercredi’s stand—let alone the more belligerent actions taken by the militants at Gustafsen Lake. Daniel Watts, co-chairman of the B.C. First Nations Summit, decries Mercredi’s call for civil disobedience and points instead to progress made towards finally establishing treaties in the province. “In British Columbia,” Watts says, “it is confrontation, litigation or negotiation. We’ve chosen the negotiation route.” And, in fact, mainstream native groups have not rallied to the defence of the Gustafsen Lake 18, few of whom had personal ties to bands in the standoff area.

But as optimism that negotiation will achieve real benefits I fades among natives, especially t the one-half of Canadian aboriginals who are under 30, the call to action may become more appealing. Observed Marlene Brant Castellano, a Mohawk living on Ontario’s Bay of Quinte, 65 km west of Kingston, and a former head of native studies at Trent University in Peterborough: “Continuing frustration creates an environment in which rash action is attractive to alienated young men who want to give some meaning to their lives.” Among that group, at least, the defendants on trial in Surrey can expect to be lauded as heroes, regardless of whether they also emerge as convicted criminals.

CHRIS WOOD

SCOTT STEELE

in Vancouver