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.