Albion Monitor /News
[Editor's note: For more background on these events, see our 1995 coverage of Native protests that summer.]

B.C. Sundancers Aquitted in 1995 Military Standoff

by Pearce Bannon
Special to the Monitor

Innocent on most serious charges, but guilty of "mischief to property"
In a courtroom near Vancouver, a jury recently returned a verdict in a 10-month trial for 14 Natives and four white supporters involved in a one-sided standoff with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police that has been compared to the U.S. - Branch Davidian confrontation in Waco, Texas.

On May 20, cheers broke out in a packed courtroom in Surrey, British Columbia when the jury foreman read the first verdict: not guilty for mischief causing actual danger to life. Twelve of the 16 people fighting that charge, which carries a maximum penalty of life, were acquitted.

Cheers were quickly silenced, The Vancouver Sun noted, when the foreman read out the second verdict -- guilty of the lesser charge of mischief to property over $5,000. Sentencing for that offense can range from complete dismissal to 10 years in jail. Crown prosecutor Lance Bernard has said he will ask for jail time for all convicted. In total, 14 of the 18 people charged with mischief to property were found guilty.

William "Wolverine" Jones Ignace -- who police tagged as the leader of the standoff -- and his son 25-year-old Joseph "JoJo" Ignace were found not guilty on charges of attempted murder. JoJo, who has the intelligence of a six-year-old due to fetal alcohol syndrome, and two other accused were exonerated of all charges.

But the senior Ignace, 66, may be spending the remainder of his years behind bars after being found guilty of mischief endangering life, weapons possession, discharging a firearm to resist arrest, and using a firearm in the commission of an indictable offense. At Wolverine's sentencing hearing on June 20, prosecutors recommended he be sentenced to 16 to 23 years in prison. The judge still hasn't rendered a decision.

The largest paramilitary operation in British Columbia's history
The charges originated from a dispute over private land at Gustafsen Lake, in in British Columbia's isolated Cariboo region about 300 miles northeast of Vancouver.

The confrontation began in June 1995 when rancher Lyle James tried to evict Natives who had been holding annual Sundance religious ceremonies on his property since 1989. Some of the Sundancers stayed on the land after the ceremony, saying it was never ceded by Natives. Mr. James obtained an injunction to force them to leave and the RCMP were called in when the Natives refused.

The dispute escalated in August 1995 when police sealed off the site after shots nearly hit an RCMP officer. Soon after, close to 400 police were posted nearby, backed with helicopters and armored personnel carriers supplied by the military. Canada's highest-ranking Native leader, Chief Ovide Mercredi of the Assembly of First Nations, tried to mediate an end to the stalemate but failed.

Failed negotiations and shooting -- including one firefight where thousands of rounds were exchanged over 45 minutes -- peppered the standoff which ended with defendants' peaceful surrender on September, 17, 1995. Shots were also fired at a police helicopter and two officers were hit in the back during an apparent ambush but were saved from harm by their bullet-proof vests.

RCMP officials estimated the standoff -- the largest paramilitary operation in British Columbia's history -- cost them $5.5 million (Canadian).

Wolverine and his supporters argued Canadian courts have no jurisdiction over disputes involving Native lands never ceded through treaties
The British Columbia Supreme Court building was chosen for the trial because it has the province's highest security, including floor-to-ceiling bulletproof glass in the courtroom. Outside, spectators were made to walk through a metal detector before entering the courthouse.

Throughout the trial, Wolverine and his supporters argued Canadian courts have no jurisdiction over disputes involving Native lands never ceded through treaties, said Maclean's magazine. Instead, they say such matters should be heard by an independent third-party tribunal.

Facing life sentences are three co-defendants -- Natives James Pitawanakwat and Edward Dick and white supporter Suniva Bronson -- after being found guilty for mischief endangering life and weapons charges.

Several jurors including the foreman cried after the verdicts -- 39 acquittals and 21 convictions -- against the 18 people charged were read out in court. The foreman, himself of Native ancestry, held an eagle feather, a sign of strength among many Native people, while reading the verdicts.

During the 176 days of the trial, which began last July, jury members heard testimony from 86 witnesses and considered 278 pieces of evidence. They deliberated for nine days before reaching their decisions. British Columbia Supreme Court Justice Bruce Josephson praised jurors for their "thorough and careful" deliberations. Defense lawyer Manuel Azevedo told reporters the verdicts were a "good compromise."

"They acquitted on the major charges and returned convictions on the lesser charges," said Mr. Azevedo. "The message should be, we need to start respecting Indian people."

But RCMP officials say they acted responsibly during the standoff. "We were dealing with a group of people who took the law into their hands and resorted to violence to do that," said Sgt. Peter Montague.

Defense lawyer Don Campbell, who defended five of the defendants, took issue with the Mountie's claim, saying video tape evidence shows that on at least two occasions, police shot first.

Campbell, who has called for a public inquiry of the RCMP's handling of the standoff, described Gustafsen Lake as an "avoidable situation" that could have been resolved through peaceful negotiations. "I hope that if the RCMP takes anything away from this, it is that these things do not need to be escalated into a paramilitary operation," he said.

Pearce Bannon is an Ontario - based freelance journalist

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Albion Monitor June 28, 1997 (

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