Gustafsen Lake Standoff
The Gustafsen Lake Standoff was a confrontation between the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and the Ts'peten Defenders in the interior of British Columbia, Canada, at Gustafsen Lake. The standoff began on August 18, 1995, and ended on September 17, 1995. The RCMP operation would end up being the most costly of its kind in Canadian history having involved 400 police officers and support from the Canadian Military (under Operation Wallaby). The predominantly indigenous occupiers believed that the privately owned ranch land on which they stood was both sacred space and part of a larger tract of unceded Shuswap territory.
The Sun Dance and early occupation
The 1995 Sun Dance was the sixth Sun Dance to be performed at Gustafsen Lake. Sun Dances began at the site after Faith Keeper Percy Rosette and other Shuswap elders had a vision of the site. The site is located at the head of Dog Creek, near 100 Mile House, British Columbia. The specific location of the lands were in District Lot 114, Lillooet Land District, at approximately Coordinates: .
Rosette approached ranch owner Lyle James about conducting the ceremony at Gustafsen Lake. James agreed to allow the ceremony to take place for four years as long as no permanent structures were erected at the site. The Sun Dance continued in 1994 and James discovered that Rosette and his partner Mary Pena had taken up permanent residence at the site sometime late in 1994. At this time, Rosette was also in contact with veteran indigenous rights lawyer and supporter of indigenous sovereignty, Bruce Clark. Clark's January 3, 1995, petition to the Queen was signed by representatives of indigenous religious communities from across Canada including Rosette and Alberta medicine man John Stevens. The petition sought an international inquiry into the subject of the occupation of unceded indigenous territories by the Canadian government. At this point the RCMP operated as mediators between the James Cattle Company and the occupiers.
In June 1995, people from the Secwepemc (Shuswap), other indigenous, and non-indigenous supporters joined Rosette and Pena at Gustafsen Lake in preparation for the Sun Dance to take place in July. The situation intensified when James presented occupiers with an eviction notice after they erected a fence to keep defecating cattle from the ceremonial area. James believed the occupiers were staking their territory. The situation was complicated by allegedly armed and racist ranch hands who impaled the notice on a sacred spear. The occupiers believed their religion was under attack. Although guns were already present at the camp, the 1995 Sun Dance leader, Splitting the Sky called for an armed defensive stance. The involvement of local elected Shuswap leadership further aggravated occupiers who saw elected leadership as a functionary of the Canadian state. Initial press releases from the occupiers in June and July called Sun Dancers to the site, claimed their right to practice their religion was being violated, and re-asserted the belief that the grounds were part of a larger tract of unceded indigenous land. Shots were also allegedly fired toward forestry workers working in the area. The incident led the RCMP to secure the area.
On August 18, 1995, Emergency Response Team (ERT) members were discovered on the site's perimeter and shot at by occupiers who felt an RCMP invasion was imminent. The RCMP continued to negotiate with the occupiers through local elected leadership and, then, national Assembly of First Nations (AFN) Grand Chief Ovide Mercredi without success. On September 11, RCMP detonated an "early warning device" in an access road to the camp which disabled (broke the front axle) a truck being driven by occupiers. The incident resulted in a firefight that made use of the military-loaned Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs). Non-indigenous occupier Suniva Bronson was shot in the arm during the shootout and would be the only injury in the extensive exchange of bullets. On the following day an unarmed man crossing a field designated as a no-shoot zone was shot at by police sharp shooters. Police later admitted to this mistake. The standoff ended peacefully on September 17 when the few remaining occupiers left the site under the guidance of medicine man John Stevens.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police launched one of the largest police operations in Canadian history, including the deployment of four hundred tactical assault team members, five helicopters, two surveillance planes and nine Armoured Personnel Carriers. 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. By the end of the 31-day standoff, police had fired up to 7,000 rounds of ammunition, disabled a supply pick-up with buried explosive, and killed a dog. One of the indigenous leaders claimed that at least one of the shooting incidents blamed on them in fact occurred when two APCs fired on one another when their view was obscured. The operation was the largest paramilitary operation in British Columbia history and cost $5.5 million.
Fourteen indigenous and four non-native people 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 Gustafsen Lake standoff took place, which they claimed remain unceded indigenous land. The Supreme Court of British Columbia refused to hear the appeal.
One of those convicted was James Pitawanakwat, who was sentenced to three years in jail for endangering life. He fled to the United States when he was released for parole, and successfully fought extradition to Canada to complete his sentence, becoming the only Native ever granted political asylum in the United States. According to Janice Stewart, a magistrate justice of the U.S District Court in Oregon, "The Gustafsen 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".
- "Gustafsen Lake". BC Geographical Names.
- Mahony, Ben David (2001), "Disinformation and smear" : the use of state propaganda and military force to suppress aboriginal title at the 1995 Gustafsen Lake standoff, p. 198, hdl:10133/189 Masters Thesis. University of Lethbridge. Faculty of Arts and Science.
- Land Title & Survey Authority of British Columbia (2009), Online Cadastre Application, retrieved 2009-10-21. Use "Find Location", "Place Name", "Gustafsen Lake".
- Shrubsole, Nicholas (2011). "The Sun Dance and the Gustafsen Lake Standoff: Healing Through Resistance and the Danger of Dismissing Religion". International Indigenous Policy Journal 2 (4).
- Boncore, John (2001). The Autobiography of Splitting the Sky. BC.
- Shrubsole, Nicholas (October 2011). "The Sun Dance and the Gustafsen Lake Standoff: Healing Through Resistance and the Danger of Dismissing Religion". International Indigenous Policy Journal 2 (4).
- "Perhaps it’s the old newsman in me, but I’m uneasy about the reporting. Journalists have been kept away from the scene by the RCMP & the native occupiers could not tell their side of the story because Mounties have cut off their means of communication". Johnson, William. “RCMP Should Avoid Waco-Style Shootout In B.C.” Montreal Gazette. Tuesday, August 29, 1995
- Vancouver Sun, 12 September 1995, A1
- Olympics' Top Cop Helped Blow up Truck at Gustafsen Stand-off, Geoff Dembicki and Bob Mackin, Vancouver 24 Hours, Today, TheTyee.ca. October 19, 2009
- Boncore Hill, John. From Attica to Gustafsen Lake (2001).
- Glavin, Terry. "How the Circus Came to Gustafsen Lake," in The Albion Monitor. 14 November 1995. Also found in This Ragged Place: Travels Across Landscape. Vancouver: New Star Books, 1996. 108-121.
- Lambertus, Sandra. Wartime Images, Peacetime Wounds: The Media and the Gustafsen Lake Standoff. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press). 2007.
- ---- “Terms of engagement, an anthropological case study of the media coverage of the 1995 Gustafsen Lake standoff” [Thesis], University of Edmonton, Alberta, 2000.
- Matas, Robert (September 17, 2005). "Hoped-for sundance film to tell the story." The Globe and Mail, A10.
- Schmierer, Cam. "Showdown at Gustafsen Lake." The First Nations Drum, September, 1996. Re-published in Smoke Signals from The Heart: Fourteen Years of the First Nations Drum. Vancouver: Totem Pole Books, 2004. 161-4.
- Shrubsole, Nicholas. "The Sun Dance and the Gustafsen Lake Standoff: Healing Through Resistance and the Danger of Dismissing Religion." International Indigenous Policy Journal 2(4) 2011.
- Switlo, Janice G.A.E. Gustafsen Lake: Under Siege. Exposing the truth behind the Gustafsen Lake Stand-off. (Peachland, B.C.: TIAC Communications Ltd.) 1997.
- Ts'peten (Gustafsen Lake) Document Archive
- Chronology of the Standoff
- Macleans Article on Gustafsen Trial
- The Case of USA versus Pitawanakwat (PDF)
- Evidence presented to address Canada's request to extradite James Pitawanakwat
- Overview of the Gustafsen Lake Stand-off