Overview of the Gustafsen Lake Stand-off
Gustafsen Lake or Ts’Peten, a region close to 100 Mile House in British Columbia, in Secwepemec (Shuswap) territory, was the location of a stand-off in 1995 between the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and sundancers and their helpers (Sundancers) conducting religious ceremony that lasted more than thirty days. Gustafsen Lake has been called the “largest paramilitary operation in Canadian history.”1
The Gustafsen Lake Stand-off stemmed from the longstanding conflict over Aboriginal land occupied by non-Aboriginal settlers without having first signed treaties. People who came to Gustafsen Lake for the Sundance chose to stay in defense of the land as events unfolded during the ceremonial period. They said the land is unceded and unsurrendered to the Crown. The RCMP and government representatives attempted to remove the Sundancers, or “Ts’Peten Defenders,” as tensions escalated between the Sundancers, a local rancher, government agents, and Aboriginal leaders who disagreed with the Sundancers’ tactics and legal and religious views.
The siege at Gustafsen Lake has become a controversial event in Canadian history due to government militarization, RCMP smear campaigns, and successful efforts to spread misinformation about the Sundancers. The media were strategically excluded from all but official RCMP accounts of events, resulting in highly skewed reporting. Supporters of the “Ts’Peten Defenders” view the stand-off at Gustafsen Lake as symbolic of the continued efforts of the state to forcibly and violently assimilate Indigenous peoples. Gustafsen Lake is largely underrepresented in mainstream recollections of British Columbian and Canadian histories.
Gustafsen Lake occurred as another militarized stand-off was underway at Ipperwash/Aazhoodena.
Starting in 1989 as part of a multi-year period cycle of ceremonial commitment, Sundancers would assemble every summer at a specific site near Gustafsen Lake, or Ts’Peten, to conduct the Sundance. The site was in ancestral Secwepemc territories and was prepared and respected as sacred by the Sundancers under the guidance of the designated Faithkeeper and camp spiritual leader Percy Rosette. The site was encompassed by grazing rights held by a non-Aboriginal American rancher, Lyle James, who used the land as cow pasture. James and the Sundancers had reached an agreement that the Sundancers would assemble at the Sundance arbour area every summer for the Sundance cycle period, provided they would not erect any permanent ceremonial structures.
In 1995, however, tensions escalated between the rancher and the Sundancers. The Sundancers had erected a fence to keep James’s cattle from defecating within the Sundance ceremonial arbour site, and James was not happy. James requested that the camp occupants leave, to which they explained they were unable to do until the Sundance was complete. The Sundancers claimed that to breach or interrupt a multi-year Sundance commitment is a very serious matter. The Sundancers recall one night when cowboys on horseback rode through the camp and aggressively insulted and harassed them. Two RCMP officers, Native people chosen in keeping with the sensitive nature of the ceremony and prepared site, were then stationed at the Sundance to observe and keep the peace. The RCMP held the position that the conflict was of a personal nature between James and the Sundancers, and therefore they would observe, and not become directly involved. Approximately twenty to thirty of the Sundancers, which included non-dancing participants, stayed on: men, women and children. The Sundance itself went ahead without incident.2
The conflict between James and the Sundancers raised larger questions about the land and outstanding Aboriginal title; The Sundancers declared the land unceded and unsurrendered, particularly as to the nature of the interest in the land that James had obtained from the Crown. As time went on, the RCMP observers suggested that the Sundancers should vacate the site to avoid any further conflict with James. The Sundancers responded that they would not leave until their rights to the land were recognized, some saying they were prepared to die if necessary to protect the land. The Sundancers were concerned about the need to continue to use the site for their religious and spiritual purposes so as to complete the commitment period and Sundance cycle.
Jones William Ignace, also known as Wolverine, and John Hill, also known as Splitting the Sky, became the spokespeople for the occupants. Their assertion that they were willing to die for their land caused some to consider them to be agitators looking for a conflict. However lawyer Janice Switlo interprets their actions as a sort of last resort:
When it was stated about Jones William Ignace, ‘Wolverine,’ that the only way he would be removed from the Sundance site would be in a ‘body bag,’ it simply reflected the fact that throughout history there have been only two ways in which the government has dealt with Aboriginal peoples who refuse to leave their land: either by pay-off/bribe or by murder. Both are contrary to the Honour of the Crown. Wolverine was not prepared to become a ‘sell-out’ and betray his beliefs and the Creator, which left the only other alternative.3
Some local First Nations people, however, including the local chief and council, distanced themselves from some of the more vocal occupants. They asserted that most of the Sundancers rejected violence, and that those who were aggressive were transient agitators who would not have to face the day-to-day consequences of their actions within the community.4
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. Switlo, who visited the site shortly after the stand-off ended, speaks of being shocked at seeing all the trees leveled by gunfire at the height of her nose, precisely where the Sundancers said they had been bunkered down, praying, while the gunfire occurred above them.5
By August 1995 the RCMP had been called in to deal with the situation directly — up until then, the RCMP had refused to get involved other than as observers. It is now generally recognized that the RCMP’s deployment of approximately 400 officers, along with increased government involvement both provincially and federally, marked the turning point of the conflict.
The RCMP sent a camouflaged Emergency Response Team (ERT) 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, a Sundancer fired a warning shot into the bush.6 The RCMP thus made the determination that the Sundancers were armed and dangerous. They instructed the Native RCMP observers to not re-enter the camp and began to make plans for further action.7 Meanwhile, many of the Sundancers feared for their lives. One called the RCMP to report the camouflaged individuals but at the time the RCMP did not reveal that it was in fact their own ERT. The RCMP would phone back once the ERT mission was over, revealing the men as RCMP officers.8
Several other meetings had been initiated involving local elders, chiefs and councillors. At one point Ovide Mercredi, then Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), arrived to negotiate and attempt to bring the “Ts’Peten Defenders” out of the camp. Many of these meetings were largely unsuccessful, as the campers did not always trust that the negotiators shared their values or were willing to fight for their Aboriginal title.
On August 24, 1995, a press release signed by Rosette read, “The Shuswap people, who remain true to the Creator and the Land of our Ancestors, seek a peaceful resolution to a crisis which has been going on for 139 years.” You can read the press release here: http://sisis.nativeweb.org/gustlake/aug2495.html
In response, the RCMP cut off all communications to the camp.9 The RCMP had set up a public media centre in nearby 100 Mile House, where they issued press releases and updated the media on events. As a result, the media reports were skewed, deliberately presented by the RCMP in a way to make the campers out to be “terrorists,” “militants,” “criminals,” “thugs.”10 This rhetoric re-focused the dispute from one about land claims to one about trouble-making radicals that the RCMP needed to quell. As this was the only information coming out of Gustafsen Lake, some journalists became rightly suspicious. As reporter William Johnson wrote in:
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..11
(You can read the rest of his article here: http://www.kstrom.net/isk/canada/gust/gus02.html.)
Then-Attorney General Ujjal Dosanj would infamously state, “Where’s the other side of the story? There is only one side of the story. There is no other side.” This remark reflected the media’s portrayal of events, rendering invisible the larger issues of outstanding grievances related to Aboriginal title. Dosanj’s quotes also indicate his refusal to deal with the matter in his role as a politician, instead viewing it as a strictly criminal matter that should be dealt with as such.
The September “Firefights”
There were several more shooting incidences reported with varying stories and degrees of accuracy. On September 4, 1995, the RCMP reported that campers had opened fire on them. The RCMP and Dosanj would use these allegations to justify a request to the Department of National Defense to send armoured personnel carriers to Gustafsen Lake, along with other equipment and personnel, including land mines; meanwhile, the RCMP had denied to the media that they would bring in military personnel or military equipment.12
The shooting indecent of September 4 was later found to be a fabrication. The RCMP officers were driving in a convoy when one truck’s sideview mirror cracked with a loud noise. The RCMP officers may have genuinely believed at the time they were being shot at, but the courts later determined the mirror had been hit by a tree branch or similar object and, given the “frayed nerves” of the officers, they responded by shooting into the bush.13 Switlo points out that media associations such as the Canadian Press irresponsibly and inaccurately reported that “Indian rebels ambushed an RCMP team with a hail of bullets.”14
During this time, many members of the public, including journalists, became nervous that the RCMP’s plan to move into the camp and remove the protestors could escalate into another Oka crisis. Around this time, another First Nations land dispute, the Ipperwash crisis was happening across the country in Ontario. Across the world, Indigenous groups were beginning to notice. Many international Indigenous leaders, as well as a former Attorney General of the United States and noted human rights activist, (William) Ramsey Clark, wrote to Canadian politicians asking that the violence not escalate.
The RCMP and military, however, had set land mines around the camp.15 The RCMP advised the campers not to leave the site or face possible death. Switlo says that the irony of the huge militarized police presence and “siege” was that the Sundancers were surreptitiously entering and exiting the camp regularly despite this warning.
Another shooting incident occurred on September 11, 1995 between RCMP officers in an armoured personnel carrier (APC) and the Sundancers. Two of the Sundancers, a young non-native woman and a young native male, James Pitawanakwa, were driving in a pick-up truck on their way to get water, when there was a sudden explosion. The truck had hit an IED (improvised explosive device), or a landmine, planted by the RCMP as instructed by military advisors. The young woman watched in horror as her pet dog who had jumped out of the back of the truck was shot multiple times and killed in front of her by ERT officers who were occupying the APC.16 The two fled as the APC began to ram the front of their truck, and they began to swim across the lake. They were shot at by ERT officers despite being unarmed, and the young woman was hit in the arm. At this time, shots were fired toward the ERT officers, and a firefight ensued for 45 minutes.17 While some of the shots were attributed to Wolverine, it was later stated in court that the majority of the firefight was likely gunfire between two APCs whose obscured views in the bush meant they were simply firing at each other. Rosette reprimanded the RCMP for initiating the incident, pointing out that the RCMP were “firing first again.”18 The RCMP would later report this incident to the media in a press conference that emphasized the criminal elements to the campers’ actions while downplaying the RCMP’s role in initiating this incident.19
The End of the Stand-off
Throughout the conflict, a number of the Sundancers left the camp, partially as a result of negotiations with respected leaders. Switlo claims it was her agreement to represent the Sundancers, made on September 16, 1995 at the request of Rosette and others who had left the camp to meet with her in Kamloops, British Columbia, that finally ended the stand-off. After the meeting, the Sundancers she had met returned to the camp to join those who had remained at the camp to walk out together on September 17, 1995.20 Despite previous assurances by the RCMP that they would be safe and treated with respect, eighteen people were arrested. Fifteen were found guilty for crimes relating to causing mischief, possessing weapons, and assaulting a police officer. Those arrested attempted to appeal their charges to the Supreme Court of Canada to no avail. Splitting the Sky was not among those charged. A few hunting rifles had been found at the site. The Sundance arbour and area was destroyed by fire before Rosette could attend to his duties to properly restore the site. The Sundancers allege it was a deliberate fire set by outsiders, and have described it as being like a church with its sacred items set on fire.21
Pitawanakwa was sentenced to four years in prison, but was released on parole after one year. Upon his release, he fled to the United States, still fearing for his life after having been shot at during the stand-off. The Canadian government sought his extradition for violating his parole. American Justice Janice Stewart, however, refused the extradition, claiming that his charges were “of a political character,” given that Pitawanakwa was one of several “native people rising up in their homeland against the occupation by the Canadian government of their sacred and unceded tribal land.”22
Misinformation & Smear Campaign
The court proceedings that followed the stand-off later confirmed that RCMP had deliberately spread misinformation. A video of RCMP officers discussing smear tactics against the campers was later submitted as evidence in court, and today can be viewed on Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rjoqaFg5ZjY
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. On the other hand, Switlo acknowledges its positive outcomes, stating that the lessons learned at Gustafsen Lake have served to prevent further improper use of both military and police force regarding Aboriginal land issues.23 However, the general lack of public understanding when it comes to Aboriginal rights and title continues to present challenges when land disputes arise.
Many people, Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal, from the region or otherwise, have requested a public inquiry into the events at Gustafsen Lake. Some believe that the military and/or its equipment was deployed illegally and their role downplayed so as to avoid negative consequences for the RCMP and the government agents involved. Regardless, many agree that the government abused its power and responded to the conflict with excessive force. To this day, the government has refused to undertake a public inquiry.
By Erin Hanson.
Books & Articles
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.
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.
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.
Settlers in Support of Indigenous Sovereignty– “The Ts’peten (Gustafsen Lake) Stand-off.” http://sisis.nativeweb.org/gustmain.html
This website contains a collection of materials relating to the stand-off, including transcribed newspaper articles and chronologies.
Films & Documentaries
Above the Law: deception at Gustafsen Lake (1997) Directed and produced by Mervyn Brown.
Above the Law 2: a critical look at Gustafsen Lake (2000) Directed and produced by Mervyn Brown.
There are also many interviews and independently-made documentaries available on Youtube.
1 Warrior Publications, “Standoff at Ts’Peten /Gustafsen Lake, 1995.” Available online at warriorpublications.com/?q=node/39
2 Janice G.A.E. Switlo. Gustafsen Lake: Under Siege. Exposing the truth behind the Gustafsen Lake Stand-off. (Peachland, B.C.: TIAC Communications Ltd.) 1997. 101.
3 Switlo, 105.
4 Sandra. Lambertus. Wartime Images, Peacetime Wounds: The Media and the Gustafsen Lake Standoff. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press). 2007.38-40, 43.
5 Janice Switlo, personal communication with the author Erin Hanson, October 29, 2010.
6 Lambertus, 43, 223 note 27.
7 Lambertus, 43.
8 Lambertus, 43.
9 Switlo, 118.
10 Lambertus, 127, 152-165.
11 Johnson, William. “RCMP Should Avoid Waco-Style Shootout In B.C.” Montreal Gazette. Tuesday, August 29, 1995. Reproduced in Switlo, 119.
12 Lambertus, 89.
13 Lambertus, 85-7.
14 Switlo, 119.
15 Switlo claims the RCMP called this an “Early Warning device” but that the RCMP later admitted to the media it was a land mine. Switlo, 127.
16 Switlo, personal communication.
17 Lambertus, 107.
18 Vancouver Sun, 12 September 1995, A1. As quoted in Lambertus, 112.
19 Lambertus, 109.
20 Switlo, personal communication.
21 Switlo, personal communication.
22 As quoted by Mofino, Rick. “U.S. court refuses to extradite Canadian native.” the National Post. 23 November 2000, A4.
23 Switlo, personal communication, November 4, 2010.