William ‘Wolverine’ Jones Ignace has written to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to ask for a national public inquiry into the Ts’Peten/ Gustafsen Lake Standoff. This confrontation between the RCMP and Ts’peten Defenders took place on unceded Secwepemc (Shuswap) territory near 100 Mile House in the interior of British Columbia in August-September 1995.
A University of British Columbia summary states, “The Gustafsen Lake Stand-off stemmed from the longstanding conflict over Aboriginal land occupied by non-Aboriginal settlers without having first signed treaties. …There are several widely disparate versions of events that have been expressed over time. It is agreed that there were several instances of gunfire during the occupation, although where it came from, and who it was aimed at, depended largely on who was telling the story.”
Their summary adds, “[On Aug. 18], the RCMP sent a camouflaged Emergency Response Team on a reconnaissance mission to determine how many weapons might be held in the Sundance camp. Sundancers eventually noticed the camouflaged figures watching them from the bush. Unsure of who they were and nervous they may be more cowboy vigilantes [that had aggressively insulted and harassed them], a Sundancer fired a warning shot into the bush.” On Sept. 11, the RCMP detonated an explosive device on an access road and heavily damaged a truck driven by two of the land defenders.
On Sept. 17, the standoff ended peacefully when the land defenders surrendered to the police. The standoff was one of the largest police operations in Canada, involving 400 tactical assault team members, 5 helicopters, 2 surveillance airplanes and 9 armoured personnel carriers. By the end of the 31-day standoff, the police had fired up to 77,000 rounds of ammunition. The UBC summary notes, “Gustafsen Lake continues to serve an example of a situation where excessive police, military, and government control were deployed in what many believe should have been a peaceful and political matter.”
Wolverine was a leader in this and in July 1997 he was sentenced to 8 years in prison (he was released in early 1999).
On Jan. 3, he repeated in his letter a request that has been made many times over the past twenty years that the Government of Canada agree to a national public inquiry into Gustafsen Lake. As noted in a CBC news report, those calling for an inquiry hope to hear back from the federal government by Jan. 17.
In that letter, he stated, “I am an 83-year old father, grandfather and great grandfather, and an Elder of the Secwepemc nation in what is called British Columbia. …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. …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.”
Wolverine adds, “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.”
He highlights, “Despite the twenty 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. …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.”
Wolverine then concludes, “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.”
For a CBC radio interview on this issue, please click here.
Photo: Wolverine holds his letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.