The Crown contended that the defendants unlawfully occupied private property belonging to a rancher, Lyle James, and intentionally shot at police - or aided and abetted those who did - to advance a political agenda. The accused maintained that the disputed lakeside campsite was sacred territory, never ceded by natives, which they occupied peacefully each year in order to hold a spiritual ceremony known as the Sundance. In 1995, some natives stayed on the land longer than usual. Defence lawyers told the court that the Sundancers became fearful after hostile ranch hands, serving a trespass notice, threatened to hang "a red nigger." They said the occupiers fired warning shots in self-defence when unknown intruders - who later turned out to be members of an RCMP reconnaissance team dressed in camouflage gear - neared the site.
In the largest paramilitary operation in B.C. history, costing an estimated $5.5 million, 400 heavily armed RCMP officers surrounded the camp, backed by helicopters and armored personnel carriers supplied by the military. On Sept. 11, thousands of rounds were discharged in a 45-minute blaze of gunfire. Six days later, the natives and their supporters, who had no backing from any mainstream native organization, surrendered.
The jury acquitted 12 of the 16 defendants accused of mischief endangering life, but convicted them of the lesser charge of mischief to property over $5,000 - punishable by jail sentences of up to 10 years. Three of the accused were totally exonerated, including 25-year-old Joseph (JoJo) Ignace, who has the intelligence of a six-year-old child as a result of fetal alcohol syndrome. He and his father, William (Wolverine) Jones Ignace, 66, whom the Crown called "the apparent leader of the armed standoff," faced the attempted murder charges. Wolverine could still spend life in prison after being found guilty of mischief endangering life, weapons possession, discharging a firearm to resist arrest, and using a firearm in the commission of an indictable offence. Three co-defendants - natives James (O.J.) Pitawanakwat, 25, and Edward Dick, 23, and white supporter Suniva Bronson, 30 - also face possible life imprisonment after the jury convicted them of mischief endangering life and weapons charges.
Throughout the trial, Wolverine and his supporters argued that Canadian courts have no jurisdiction over disputes involving Indian land never ceded through treaties. Instead, they say such matters should be heard by an impartial third-party tribunal. It is a controversial view, shared by native-rights lawyer Bruce Clark who spent two months in jail during the trial on contempt charges after calling an early Gustafsen hearing a "kangaroo court." The defendants also accused the police of dirty tricks. Defence lawyer George Wool - a retired RCMP officer who wears black cowboy boots under his robes - introduced an RCMP training video shot during the standoff in which officers openly discuss "disinformation" and "smear campaigns." But the officers testified their words were meant in jest, and denied suggestions they were plotting to manipulate the media and discredit the natives.
After last week's verdict, Sgt. Peter Montague, the RCMP media relations officer assigned to Gustafsen Lake, insisted that police acted responsibly. "We were dealing with a group of people who took the law into their hands and resorted to violence to do that," he said. "It's our mandate, our responsibility, to go in there and deal with those very serious situations." But others remained skeptical. "As far as I am concerned, the real tragedy here is that the convictions and the acquittals really aren't going to speak to the conduct of the RCMP when this was going on," said defence lawyer Don Campbell, who called for a public inquiry. "I think that one thing we learned was that this was an avoidable situation, that this could have been easily resolved by careful negotiations at the time." Added Campbell: "I hope that if the RCMP takes anything away from this, it is that these things do not need to be escalated into a paramilitary operation."
Wolverine, who has been held in custody since his arrest, remained defiant in the wake of the convictions. "We stood on constitutional and international law, which the judge refused to hear," he said in a statement released to Maclean's through an intermediary. "We were wrongfully convicted. That's fraud, treason and genocide." To many Canadians, including natives who favor negotiation over confrontation, Wolverine is now simply a convicted criminal. But to a group of supporters who stood and raised their fists in an angry salute as he left the courtroom, he has become a martyr to the cause, a true political prisoner.
Maclean's June 2, 1997
Author SCOTT STEELE in Surrey
Shawnadithit grew anxious waiting for her uncle, Longnon, to return to camp at the junction of Badger Brook and the Exploits River, deep in the wilds of Newfoundland...