The Gustafsen Lake Standoff

The Gustafsen Lake Standoff was the result of a variety of different First Nations interests coming to the forefront of Canadian society again, with Oka still fresh on the minds of many Canadians. Percy Rosette asked rancher Lyle James to preform a Sun Dance his land around Gustafsen Lake in 1994, part of the Lyle’s ranch. The permission that Lyle James gave Rosette was on the condition that no permanent structures were made on the “legal” land of the rancher. Rosette’s partner Mary Pena was an outspoken First Nations’ land claim advocate. Later James found out Rosette had built permanent structures, sparking the conflict between the ranchers and the government by extension, and the occupiers (Shrubsole, 2011, 5).

In June 1995 other indigenous groups joined Rosette and Pena at Gustafsen Lake. They were presented with an eviction notice where ranch hands appeared to threaten them, armed, and stuffed the eviction notice onto their spear. Their religion was felt to be under attack by racist farmhands. RCMP officers acted as moderators between the two groups (Shrubsole, 2011, 7). The 1995 Sun Dance leader Splitting the Sky called for armed defence against the government elected officials and the ranchers. Occupiers were characterized as rebels in media. “Legitimate” First Nations groups move in to talk down occupiers however their leader Ovide Mercredi, currently National Chief for the Assembly of First Nations, failed to gain traction. Protesters were warned that it was the beginning of a full-fledged RCMP action (Canadian Press, 1995a).

Allegedly shots were fired towards forest ministry workers in the area and that led the RCMP towards securing the area around the camp on August 27th 1995. This was characterized as an Indian ambush of the forestry workers and RCMP officers, furthermore denounced as a criminal act by “legitimate” First Nations source Mercredi (Canadian Press, 1995b). On September 11th, RCMP used an explosive device on a truck being driven by occupiers. That started a firefight, where the RCMP used their Armoured Personal Carrier’s against the occupiers. On September 17th 1995 the standoff ended peacefully when medicine man John Stevens led the remaining protesters out of the camp (Shrubsole, 14). 14 indigenous and 4 non-indigenous people were charged after the protest, 15 people were sentenced for their participation (Henton, 1996). Notably James Pitawanakwat fled to the U.S. and sought asylum, succeeding in having it granted to him. The U.S. Judge insisted that the Canadian government launched a disinformation campaign to prevent the Canadian people from realizing how political events unfolded at Gustafsen, or even hiding that they were political in nature. (Mofina, 2000).

This was one of the largest RCMP policing actions costing taxpayers an estimated 10 million dollars and calling upon a variety of military personnel and 400 RCMP officers. An estimated 7 thousand rounds were spent by the RCMP in multiple exchanges of gunfire (Henton, 1996). The disinformation campaign and the alleged coverup allow us to observe the relationships and dynamics of power concerning the Canadian government and First Nations groups. U.S. courts in granting Pitawanakwat political asylum become a good narrative to examine and contrast how the Canadian government and media may deploy rhetoric to destroy the credibility of the First Nations protesters.

Reference List:

Canadian Press. (1995a, August 27). Mercredi Seeks to Help End Dispute. The Toronto Star, pp. A3.

Canadian Press. (1995b, August 28) 2 Officers Shot in Indian Ambush. The Toronto Star, pp. Cover, A4.

Henton, Darcy. (1996, July 8) Trial to offer details of B.C. armed standoff. Toronto Star, pp. A9.

Mofina, Rick. (2000, November 23) U.S. Court Refuses to Extradite Canadian Native. National Post, pp. A4.

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