Gustafsen Lake: Rebels and Dancers

The media coverage over the Gustafsen Lake standoff represents the paternalistic, dismissive attitude the Canadian government and police have of First Nations people. In analyzing media coverage of the Gustafsen Lake Standoff key dominate narratives include the government’s use of National Chief Ovide Mercredi to provide a disingenuous divide between First Nations people of Canada, the over-representation of violence, and the repeated assertion that the Defenders of Shuswap, the protesters, were “rebels” ignoring the crux of their argument in protesting. Overwhelmingly, Mercredi’s involvement in being brought to negotiate with the protesters on Gustafsen Lake is highly critiqued as a failure to reign in his own people. That view is made possible due to his representation as a hegemonic leader of all First Nations people in news-media. However it is problematic to make such an assumption about First Nation leadership. Repetitively, news commentators refuse to acknowledge the reason for such an occupation in the first place. The themes presented were often reduced to the fear of First Nations becoming violent, justifying future RCMP action against First Nations protests. This highlights how there is a limiting discourse on Aboriginal protest, by use of institutions like law and ongoing racism. The dissenters who show contempt for the Canadian government’s ability to use its laws against them are made further irrelevant politically by being characterized as “rebels”. This is language that denies sovereignty and assumes the right of the Canadian government to exert coercive force onto First Nations people.

Ovide Mercredi was the National Chief on the Assembly of First Nations The Assembly was feared to heavily dependent on the government of Canada for funding during the Gustafsen Lake standoff. This contributed to the failure of negotiations with the militant leader, Wolverine, who distrusted Mercredi (Wilson, 1995). The opinion of the Shuswup Defenders was informed by the assembly of First Nations’ affiliations with the government of Canada and that Mercredi was a Cree chief. It is important understand that the Cree are not representative of the varied and diverse nations of indigenous people, Cree territory does not extend into the Rocky Mountains, and Mercredi may not represent the interests of Splitting the Sky’s Shuswup people. In addition even Mercredi’s views are in conflict when comparing news paper sources and his video interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. During the video he is allowed to go in depth with own opinions of the events as they unfold at Gustafsen. He was more understanding of why First Nations people would act violently, and refused to give an opinion in the false binary the reporter gave him (Gartner, 1995). In contrast in the papers a predominate quote is; “‘To me,’ said Mercredi, ‘there is only one issue: Are they prepared to end this confrontation in a non-violent way.’” (Canadian Press 1995c). Quotes like these serve to depolitize and confuse what Mercredi’s opinion is. First Nations agents and governmental bodies may comply with the government in fear of losing existing political leverage against colonialism. The news holding First Nations groups and elders responsible for the actions of other First Nations has the effect forcing a political divide serves colonial interests. The fear of violence hung heavily over the Gustafsen Lake standoff when many comparisons were made to the Oka Crisis. Mecredi discussed with reporters and was quoted in newspapers as a replay of the crisis was a primary concern to him, enhancing the climate of fear and detracting from the issue of sovereignty at hand.

At some points it is estimated that there were 30 people in the camp after Wolverine suggested that a RCMP attack was imminent, however some newspapers estimated 5-15 occupiers (Brenard, 1995b). The number of officers participating in the standoff however numbered in the hundreds. This was justified through discourse in media detailing how the protesters were “powder kegs”, and references to the “rebel” and “renegade” nature of participants (Wilson, 1995; Brenard, 1995b). An aspect of the occupation left deciding unexplored was why the protesters were armed originally, that is to avoid forced eviction and angry posses of ranch hands. In order to stage an Aboriginal protest that would not be immediately repressed Splitting the Sky called for arms. Because of the colonial origins of Canada and property ownership the ability to protest lawfully is limited for First Nations, and those unwilling to participate in the land-claim resolution process and are targeted. Additionally credibility is denied by authorities such as attorney general Ujjal Dosanjh:

“‘This is an issue of law enforcement and I speak as the top law enforcement officer in the province and in that role I have very little to do with politics,’ Mr. Dosanjh said. He also rejected suggestions that the province appoint an independent mediator to deal with the rebels ‘Negotiate with who? Mediate with who?’” (Canadian Press, 1995d).

These serve to represent an important attitude against occupiers, they are an enemy to be crushed rather than a people to understand. Law is used to repress dissent when breaking the law discredits First Nations’ causes so completely. Attempts to disrupt or actions that go against colonialism can be ignored like this. Institutional and structural racism are at play here influencing the decisions of politicians choosing not to engage with the protesters politically.

The use of the terms “rebel”, militant, and “primitive” all serve to provide disinformation on the occupiers’ cause on Gustafsen Lake. The protesters are often described in ways of how other groups have disowned them and in terms of how misguided they are, “Mr. Mercredi met late yesterday with Cariboo Tribal Council chiefs and planned to visit the rebels today at their primitive camp in a cook’s ranch cabin.” (emphasis mine; Canadian Press, 1995a). During an interview with Mercredi they attempt to ostracize the protesters by calling them ¨outsiders¨ to the supposedly more legitimate First Nations communities (Wilson, 1995). This language sets up a body of First Nations that are complacent in existing within the colonial structure of Canada, and ones that are rebelling against it. Rebelling only occurs within a structure of governance however, which serves to historize First Nation resistance to colonialism by ignoring ongoing fights for sovereignty.

“‘They’re committing a criminal act by interfering with the operation of James Cattle Co. ranch,” said Staff Sgt. Martin Sarich. [T]hey’re also in possession of prohibited weapons and when you’ve got that number of criminal offences, one can’t turn a blind eye to them.’” (Brenard, 1995b).

Indigenous self governance and sovereignty are taken away from the meaningful information presented in the news-media, by focusing on a legal and moral report of Gustafsen a colonial agenda is enacted. Another claim used in depolitizising coming from the then premier of B.C. Michael Harcourt reads: “Mr. Harcourt also said that the militant group is part of a so-called new world order cult” (Canadian Press, 1995a). The need to point out that what the occupiers are doing is illegal is especially strange because it seems clear to the Defenders of Shuswup realize this. References to that fact ignore the systemic reasons for the protest to take place, and reinforce the image that First Nations are doing it for fun or under cult-like influences.

The news articles construct a narrative of violent, scary, and angry First Nations “rebels” for the Canadian public to consume and encourage police action, while at the same time securing a place for docile “good” First Nations that comply. Splitting the Sky’s objective for Sun Dance participants to secure sacred ground for themselves, physically and spiritually declaring sovereignty from the Canadian government, were ignored in the production of colonial positive values. This includes delegitimizing and ignoring the systemic causes of the event by reacting solely with use of coercive force. The militant First Nations had resorted the only way to sustain protest at the Gustafsen Lake without being forcibly removed, by arming themselves. A monolithic unified First Nation is presented by Canadian newspapers as opposed to the diverse First Nations peoples that exist in the occupied land of Canada, and used to the advantage of the Canadian colonial project distorting what is said by Mercredi too. Past police actions are thrown up in the air as vaguely threatening events that would be sure to create a chilling effect on future protesters, threatening to make Gustafsen Lake another example. The media tactics that took place supporting over four hundred police members’ blockade against five to fifteen dissenters show Gustafsen Lake to be an important symbolic project undertaken by Canada in limiting discourses over First Nations sovereignty.

Reference List:

Canadian Press. (1995a, August 25). Shots fired at native standoff. The Globe and Mail, pp. A7.

Canadian Press. (1995c, August 25). Mounties reject rebel Indian surrender offer. Reuters, pp. LBA.

Canadian Press. (1995d, August 29). Mercredi makes last-ditch attempt to end standoff: Police try to open communication. The Vancover Sun, pp. Front, A1.

Gartner, Hana. (1995, September 11). Prime Time News [Television broadcast]. Toronto, ON: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

McNamee, Bernie. (1995, September 14). CBC Radio [Radio broadcast]. Toronto, ON: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Michael Brenard. (1995b, August 23). Showdown likely if B.C. Natives don’t get off land. Winnipeg Free Press, pp. A3.

Wilson, Nancy. (1995, August 25). Prime Time News [Television broadcast]. Toronto, ON: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.



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