BY BEVERLY BERNARDO AND JOE YOUNG
l00 MILE HOUSE, British Columbia - The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) are surrounding a group of about 30 Natives and their supporters at Gustafsen Lake, about 500 kilometers north of Vancouver. They are threatening to use force to end the occupation of about two square miles of territory the Natives, who call themselves the Defenders of the Schuswap Nation, consider sacred.
In an ominous move, the cops brought in at least four armored vehicles September 5 to reinforce their siege, which began three weeks earlier.
For a number of years, Natives have been using the area to carry out a sundance religious ceremony. Until this year they had an agreement with Lyle James, the rancher who owns a 180,000 hectare cattle ranch in the area, which is in the traditional territory of the Canoe Creek band of the Shuswap nation.
On June 13, James and 12 of his employees stormed the Native campsite and attempted to serve an eviction notice. The day after, two employees of the Forestry Service claim, the Natives fired on them. James demanded that the RCMP clear the Natives off the site.
The confrontation at Gustafsen Lake followed a series of Native roadblocks in this province over land claims in the past few months. In British Columbia, except for a small area, treaties were never signed with Native people. For several years now negotiations have been taking place between many Native bands and the federal and provincial governments, but not a single land claim has been settled.
"We don't endorse taking up arms, but these (the Gustafsen Lake group) are frustrated people like many of our people," Frank Bucher, vice president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, said.
Government officials have threatened the occupiers. Federal Indian Affairs Minister Ron Irwin said, "They cannot behave with this illegal activity in Canada." B.C. attorney general Ujjal Dosanjh insisted, "This is an issue of law enforcement and I speak as the top law enforcement officer in the province."
The big-business media campaign against the Natives and their supporters has heightened a sharp polarization in the area for and against the Natives at Gustafsen Lake. On August 27, about 25 local residents demonstrated against Bruce Clark, the occupiers' lawyer, carrying signs like, "We support the RCMP."
In an August 24 press release signed by faithkeeper Percy Rosette, the occupiers outlined their proposals for a "peaceful resolution to a crisis which has been going on for 139 years." They said they would agree to lay down their arms after receiving a guarantee of diplomatic immunity from prosecution for all members of the camp, and audiences between their lawyer Clark and the Queen's privy council and the governor general of Canada to achieve a ruling on the legitimacy of their claims.
On August 26, the RCMP cut off all radio and phone communications for those in the encampment. The following day the RCMP alleged that protesters fired on and hit two RCMP officers in the back, but because the officers were wearing flak jackets they received only bruises. However on August 31, Clark was allowed into the camp and emerged with an affidavit by Tonde Halle, a freelance camera operator who has been staying in the camp. Halle says the police fired first.
Protests against an RCMP attack and in support of Native claims to the occupied land have taken place in cities across Canada. In Washington, D.C., Natives from several tribes demonstrated August 29 in front of the Canadian embassy. One demonstrator carried a sign that read, "Honor native treaty rights - No Waco at Gustafsen Lake."
Activists opposed to police intervention have been gathering in 100 Mile House, 35 kilometers from the occupation. Neither the press nor anyone else are allowed past a police barricade about 20 kilometers from this site. Outside the Red Coach Inn in 100 Mile House, Shari Bondy, whose husband is in the encampment, showed Militant reporters the bulletin board where messages of support from the Canadian Federation of Students, Canada Alliance in Solidarity with the Native Peoples, First Nations Environmental Network, and other groups are posted.
Beverly Bernardo is a laid-off member of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees and Joe Young is a member of the United Steelworkers both in Vancouver.
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