History lesson: the Ts’Peten (Gustafsen Lake) standoffs

An open letter from Secwepemc elder Wolverine (also known by his colonial name William Jones Ignace) to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been making the rounds on social media recently. Wolverine was a major figure in the Ts’Peten (Gustafsen Lake) standoff between the RCMP/Canadian Armed Forces and Secwepemc Sundancers and their allies in British Columbia in 1995. In his letter, Wolverine urges the Prime Minister to launch a national inquiry into the standoff.

His letter is powerfully eloquent and well worth reading in full, as are his protege Harsha Walia’s comments on the man and his legacy. I’m quoting him at length but I strongly urge you to read the whole thing:

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 (Gustafsen Lake), British Columbia in 1995, an event which cast a deep shadow on the relationship between the Canadian government and Indigenous nations, 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 Secewpemc nation and their supporters took a stand on sacred Sundance lands at Ts’Peten, aka Gustafsen Lake. The incident began after a local white rancher, Lyle James began demanding that the sacred Secwepemc Sundance Camp leave land to which he claimed ownership. Approximately 24 Sundancers set up camp to defend Ts’Peten. I was one of those people.

Beginning in August 1995, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) surrounded the Ts’Peten Defenders. Over the next month police, politicians, and media escalated the situation to make the siege the most expensive and largest domestic military 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 the land defenders. 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 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 Secwepemc 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 Secwepemc 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 Secwepemc Nation.

This abrogation 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.

I will freely admit that I had never heard of this major event in modern Canadian history. I consider myself to be fairly well-informed about governmental wrongdoing, violations of civil liberties, and police brutality. And yet the most extensive (and expensive) paramilitary operation ever conducted in (so-called) Canada has managed to elude my notice – and, more likely than not, yours as well.

There are many reasons for this, including a deliberate disinformation campaign by the RCMP, which essentially shut down the transmission of the Indigenous perspective to the media while amplifying a false Statist narrative that the land defenders were savage violent terrorists. This narrative, amplified by government (then-B.C. Justice Minister Ujjal Dosanjh: “Where’s the other side of the story? There is only one side of the story. There is no other side.”) prevailed in the public consciousness, aided and abetted by a willingly cooperative mainstream media who happily parroted the RCMP’s perspective.

If you’re interested in learning more about this seminal event in our modern history, I’d encourage reading up on it here. This series on the Two Row Times is also excellent.

I’d like to especially highlight the central argument of Wolverine’s letter to Trudeau, an argument which cuts right to the heart of our neophyte Prime Minister’s pledge to establish earnest nation-to-nation relations with this country’s numerous Indigenous peoples: much of this land that we currently occupy is unceded territory.

This holds particularly true in British Columbia, including, by unanimous admission of city council, the entirety of Vancouver. This is a fact which is much more widely acknowledged today than it was twenty-one years ago when this standoff occurred, and given the current composition of the Supreme Court, it’s entirely possible that the appeals to that body by three of the accused in the Ts’Peten affairs on grounds of the RCMP’s lack of jurisdiction would be heard today, though it wasn’t then.

The essential point here, for Trudeau and his supporters, is that respecting Indigenous treaty rights and cultivating genuine nation-to-nation relations requires, on a fundamental level, an acknowledgement of the wrongs of the past, and, what’s more, making an effort to right those wrongs, to the extent that this is within the capacity of the State.

Quite clearly, there is nothing that can be done to truly ameliorate or compensate for the deliberate policy of genocide that was pursued by the Canadian government for far too long. But at this point, even a simple admission on the part of the State that it has done profoundly wrong things in the past and it is unwilling to perpetuate that behaviour going forward would be a welcome change.

As addiction support groups repeatedly, cliche-edly, and correctly point out, the first step to recovery is admitting that you have a problem. And when it comes to colonial violence, Canada continues to have a problem. Hopes continue to run high that the new Trudeau administration can begin to turn the tide on this issue. That remains to be seen, but for now, rallying behind Wolverine’s call for an inquiry into this still-raw injustice is a great place to start.


Off-Topic Tuesday is when I write about whatever the hell I want to. You can reach me atmatt@thealfalfafield.com or leave a comment below.

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Readers may find Gustafsen lawyer Bruce Clark’s experiences in the courts to also be of interest:
‘Contempt of Court’ and ‘Conduct Unbecoming’
http://dissidentvoice.org/author/bruceclark/

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