In 1995, a Sundance ceremony on a traditional Indigenous territory turned into a standoff with a farmer, resulting in both the RCMP and Department of National Defence being sent in.
The siege at Gustafsen Lake, B.C. was the largest paramilitary assault in modern Canadian history against Indigenous people, whose inherent rights and title are to be protected under the Constitution of Canada and Royal Proclamation of 1763.
After the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report, this open letter from a participant in the Sundance defence is more urgent than ever. Wolverine, 83, is a Secwepemc Elder who attended residential school from 1938 to 1948. He led land defenders through the siege at Gustafsen Lake. As a farmer, he currently runs the program Nourish the Nation, through which he grows organic foods to feed the front lines.
The Right Honourable Justin Trudeau Office of the Prime Minister 80 Wellington Street Ottawa, ON, K1A 0A2
The Honourable Jody Wilson House of Commons Ottawa, ON, K1A 0A6
December 30, 2015
Dear Mr. Trudeau,
My name is Wolverine. I am also known as William Jones Ignace. I am an 83 year old father, grandfather, great grandfather, and an Elder of the Secwépemc Nation in what is called British Columbia.
I am a farmer. This, past summer I cultivated 8 acres of organic food to nourish the people in my Nation and other Nations as well.
I am a long time defender of the inherent jurisdiction of Indigenous peoples to steward our traditional homelands.
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, aka Gustafsen Lake, B.C. in 1995, an event which cast a deep shadow on the relationship between the Canadian government and Indigenous nations and which, to this day, has not been adequately investigated.
In 1995, after a long history of peaceful attempts to have Secwepemc sovereignty respected, Indigenous people from the Secwépemc Nation and their supporters took a stand on sacred Sun Dance lands at Ts'Peten. The incident began after a local settler rancher, Lyle James, began demanding that the sacred Secwepemc Sun Dance Camp leave land to which he claimed ownership. Approximately 24 Sun Dancers set up camp to defend Ts'Peten.
I was one of those people.
Beginning in August 1995, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police surrounded the Ts'Peten defenders. Over the next month police, politicians, and media escalated the situation to make this siege the most expensive and largest domestic paramilitary operation in Canada's history: armoured personnel carriers, .50 calibre machine guns, land mines, and an astonishing 77,000 rounds of ammunition were directed at us.
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.
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. According to the Royal Proclamation of 1763, Aboriginal title to the land exists inherently and will continue to exist until it has been ceded by treaty with the Crown. The land on which the Ts’Peten standoff occurred was, and remains to this day, unceded territory. The land at Ts’Peten was never handed over by the Secwépemc Nation to Canadian control through treaty or otherwise, and is therefore land that cannot have been sold to settlers by the Canadian or British Columbian governments.
The use of Canadian paramilitary forces against the people of the Secwépemc 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 Secwépemc Nation. This abrogation has has yet to be properly investigated, and remains one of the largest stains on relations between Indigenous Nations and the Canadian state. A public federal inquiry is long overdue into the actions of the RCMP, the Canadian government and the provincial government of British Columbia.
In recent months, Mr. Trudeau, you have called for a renewed, Nation to Nation relationship with Indigenous Nations, promising a new era of recognition, rights, respect, co-operation and partnership, rooted in the principles of the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. According to that Declaration, Indigenous people have the right to be safe from being forcibly removed from their lands and territories.
Even now, aggressive resource extraction and the destruction it inevitably brings, regularly occurs on Indigenous lands, without the consent of Indigenous peoples. Indigenous lands, which, according to the very agreements that founded the nation of Canada, do not belong to Canada to be given away without the free, prior, and informed consent of the Indigenous people of those lands, who have never relinquished their rights.
In order to build this Nation to Nation relationships, Indigenous people must know that they can continue to pursue peaceful processes for protecting their sovereignty, without the threat of state sanctioned violence being used against them. The use of police and RCMP intimidation and force as a method to settle land claims in favour of the Canadian national and provincial governments is antithetical to the creation of a healthy and just partnership between nations. If Indigenous people are prevented from asserting their rights to sovereignty, true reconciliation cannot occur.
The time has come to honour your commitment to Indigenous people, and to a reconciliation between our nations. 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.
Wolverine, William Jones Ignace