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Settler Work: Understanding the Gustafsen Lake Standoff

Twenty-six years later, Gustafsen Lake remains unexamined and governments unaccountable for the largest show of military force against Indigenous land defenders in Canadian history.

November 20, 2021

12-minute read

Each edition of the Monitor's Settler Work series explores a new area where we, as settlers, need to address the harms that colonization has caused and continues to cause to First Nations, Inuit, and Métis (FNIM) communities. Through this journey, it remains important that we continue to bear witness to the ongoing investigations of former residential “school” sites across the country. While these searches have largely fallen out of public discourse, the work continues and the number of graves revealed is rising. It is critical that we continue to show up for the communities impacted by these discoveries, give them space and support for their grief.

While the 1995 Gustafsen Lake standoff might seem like an odd event to do a case study on in 2021, this conflict between the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and Ts'peten Defenders connects deeply to Canada’s colonial past. It also reflects the current, ongoing violence faced by land and water protectors across the country, as well as Indigenous defenders in other countries fighting against Canadian petro projects and extractionist industries. Twenty-six years after the initial conflict, Canada is overdue to examine how the RCMP, B.C. and federal government escalated their response so disproportionately that they involved four hundred tactical officers who fired a total of 77,000 rounds of live ammunition at, planted landmines around, and brought bodybags for each of the 18 Ts'peten Defenders.

Legal and Historical Background

The Gustafsen Lake Standoff took place in the summer of 1995 but the roots of this conflict can be traced back to Confederation.

The Royal Proclamation of 1763: Originally issued by King George III at the end of the Seven Years War, the Royal Proclamation officially claimed British territory in North America. It “explicitly states that [Indigenous] title has existed and continues to exist, and that all land would be considered [Indigenous] land until ceded by treaty.” Further, the Proclamation prohibited settlers from claiming land that had not first been purchased by the Crown from the Indigenous community who had claim to it, and then sold to the settlers. In effect, the Proclamation established that only the Crown could buy land from First Nations.1

The Proclamation is protected by Section 25 of the Constitution Act, which guarantees “(a) any rights or freedoms that have been recognized by the Royal Proclamation of October 7, 1763; and (b) any rights or freedoms that now exist by way of land claims agreements or may be so acquired.”2

B.C. joined Confederation 1871: This decision was taken without consulting any of the First Nations in the affected area. The only treaties that B.C.'s first Governor, James Douglas, signed were with Nations on the southwest side of Vancouver Island. Meanwhile, the Lands and Surveyors Commissioner reduced First Nations’ territories to a fraction of what had been agreed to with the Crown representatives.

Without treaties, title for the majority of the province was left unresolved.

The Indian Act of 1876: Prime Minister John A. MacDonald and his government passed the Indian Act, which is still in existence today.3 The Act took control of unceded "Indian Hunting Grounds," in blatant violation of the Royal Proclamation. But it went further.

“When Indigenous political organizing became more extensive in the 1920s and groups began to pursue land claims, the federal government added Section 141 to the Indian Act.” Section 141 made it illegal for Indigenous people to hire lawyers or seek legal counsel, preventing them from using the legal system to restore their land rights. These laws expanded to prohibit gathering in groups of more than three or leaving the reserve without a pass.4

Indigenous communities in Canada would be unable to pursue justice through the Supreme Court system until 1970. In B.C., First Nations would be made to wait until 1993 to negotiate treaty rights, with the exception of the Nisga'a Nation and Treaty 8.5

In 1884, the Indian Act was amended to include the “Potlach Ban.” The purpose of this ban was to prevent the spread of Indigenous culture, by outlawing Indigenous people from engaging in cultural practices including potlatch and dances.6 A further amendment in 1927“ banned all forms of dance and the wearing of traditional costumes off reserves anywhere on the Prairies and in British Columbia.”7 The ban was in place until 1951.

"We've gone to the Hague twice, the Queen twice, testified to the UN three times, which led up to this standoff, cause we see there was no justice here for our people. Only thing we had left was to hold our ground at the sacred sundance" - Wolverine

Gustafsen Lake incident

The Gustafsen Lake standoff, or Gustafsen Lake incident, was a confrontation between the Ts'peten Defenders and the RCMP in the summer of 1995.8 Ts'Peten/Gustafsen Lake is located in Secwepemcul’ecw (unceded Secwépemc/Shuswap territory) near 100 Mile House in the interior of British Columbia.

Most of the prime land in this region was seized and redistributed to European settlers following the implementation of the Indian Act. As a result, the area around Ts’Peten has been home to the James Cattle, the Empire Valley Ranch and, most notably, the Gang Ranch. This colonization and privatization of the land left “[e]ach of the main communities of Dog Creek and Canoe Creek [situated] on approximately 50 hectares of land, most of it rocky slopes and gravel.”9

Starting in 1989, Sundancers began meeting at Gustafsen Lake for a 10-day annual Sundance ceremony, after spiritual leaders and elders including Shuswap Faithkeeper Percy Rosette had seen visions of Gustafsen Lake as a Sundance site. At the time, American cattle rancher Lyle James had grazing rights to over 922 hectares for $1314.00 per year and was using the land to feed his animals. First Nation spiritual leaders met with James to share their plans for an annual ceremony.

During the 1995 ceremony, James’ cattle continually entered the Sundance grounds, interrupting the participants and defecating on the sacred grounds. The Sundancers built a fence to keep the animals out.

As a result of the RCMP imposing a media blackout, reporting about Gustafsen Lake repeated framing from the RCMP, calling the Defenders “terrorists” and claiming that they had a “cult mentality.”

Several days later, on June 13, James and 12 ranch hands arrived at the site and read an eviction notice to the Sundancers. The ranchers proceeded to occupy the land, record the Sundancers, and threatened them with rifles and whips. Shortly after this intrusion, the Sundancers issued a press release with four demands for a peaceful resolution.

The RCMP implemented a media blackout, preventing journalists from interviewing Defender camp participants. As a result, reporting about Gustafsen Lake repeated framing from the RCMP, calling the Defenders “terrorists” and claiming that they had a “cult mentality.”

In mid-August, the RCMP sent unidentified, camouflaged, fully armed men into the forest around the camp to surveill the Defenders. Not knowing who they were, the Defenders shot at the camouflaged men in the woods. The RCMP also cut the camp’s phone line so that they could no longer communicate with their lawyer.

In early September, the RCMP brought nine armoured personnel carriers (APCs) to the site, along with four hundred tactical assault team members, five helicopters, and two surveillance planes. By September 15, 1995, the then-Attorney General of B.C. faxed the Solicitor General of Canada requesting additional sniper rifles for the standoff. By the end of the 31-day standoff between the Defenders and the RCMP, the police had fired up to 77,000 rounds of ammunition. There were 18 Ts'peten Defenders at the occupation.

On September 11, a truck driven by James “OJ” Pitawanakwat, a Ts'peten Defender, exploded when it hit a landmine buried by the RCMP. As Pitawanakwat and his passenger fled, the truck was rammed by an APC and officers shot and killed the dog that was also fleeing the vehicle.

Finally, on September 17, the remaining Defenders surrendered peacefully to the RCMP. Fifteen were charged and found guilty of crimes related to mischief and possessing weapons.10 William 'Wolverine' Jones Ignace, a leader with the Defenders, was sentenced to five years in prison for his role in the standoff. Pitawanakwat was sentenced to four years but released after serving one. Upon his release, he fled to the United States where he was granted asylum. After reviewing the Gustafsen Lake standoff and resulting charges, American Justice Janice Stewart ruled that Pitawanakwat’s charges were “of a political character” and that he was part of an Indigenous movement “rising up in their homeland against the occupation by the Canadian government of their sacred and unceded tribal land.”11

"Smear campaigns are our specialty"

This comment, made by RCMP media contact Sergeant Peter Montague, was revealed by an internal police video during the Gustafsen Lake trials. While Montague would assert during the trial proceedings that this statement was taken out of context, researcher Ben Mahony found that this approach was, in fact, part of the RCMP playbook "to discredit the Defenders' legal position by exaggerating their violent tendencies, using a technique RCMP officers referred to as "disinformation and smear."12  Mahony argues that the tactic of "disinformation and smear" was critical for the RCMP and provincial and federal governments "because the Ts'Peten Defenders' compelling legal position posed a threat to state legitimacy."13

Where we are now

Shortly before his death in 2016, Wolverine wrote a letter14 to Prime Minister Trudeau and then-Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould requesting an inquiry into Gustafsen Lake. Wolverine believed that a public inquiry into the 1995 incident would allow Pitawanakwat to leave the Saginaw Chippewa reservation in Michigan where he currently resides and return home15 to his Anishinaabe community on Manitoulin Island.

Similar tactics of media blackouts and extreme police and military violence have been and continue to be used against land defenders from coast to coast. The ongoing blockades against old growth logging at Fairy Creek in B.C. have experienced both media blackouts and violence towards journalists who attempt to cover police violence. A coalition of media outlets had to launch a court challenge in the Supreme Court of British Columbia to regain access to Fairy Creek. The coalition “alleged the RCMP has ‘intentionally excluded’ journalists from the area as it conducts arrests in secret.”16

When ending the injunction against the Fairy Creek protests, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Douglas Thompson declared the RCMP’s “actions are unlawful.”17 xʷ is xʷ čaa Kati George-Jim, a T'Sou-ke land defender at Fairy Creek in an interview with the CBC pointed out that the old growth defenders, many of whom are Indigenous, have been pepper sprayed, dragged, tackled18 and approximately 1,100 have been arrested.19 It seems that Indigenous dissent in Canada continues to be met with swift and disproportionate force.

This experience is not limited to Fairy Creek and Gustafsen Lake. A 2019 investigation by the Guardian revealed that “notes from a strategy session for a militarized raid on ancestral lands of the Wet’suwet’en nation” showed commanders of the RCMP arguing that “‘lethal overwatch [was] req’d’—a term for deploying an officer who is prepared to use lethal force.”20

This month, Indigenous elders, legal observers and journalists were arrested en masse by RCMP officers enforcing a Coastal GasLink injuction in Gidimt'en territory.21 

There's been precedents set, even their own courts agree with it. And yet they criminalize us, and they marginalize us, and they make us look like thugs in our own communities to get away with the lies. They're still doing it today. - Brian Grandbois

Where can we go from here?

The United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Canada officially endorsed in 2016, states:

Article 8
2. States shall provide effective mechanisms for prevention of, and redress for:
(a) Any action which has the aim or effect of depriving them of their integrity as distinct peoples, or of their cultural values or ethnic identities;
(b) Any action which has the aim or effect of dispossessing them of their lands, territories or resources;
(c) Any form of forced population transfer which has the aim or effect of violating or undermining any of their rights;
(d) Any form of forced assimilation or integration;
(e) Any form of propaganda designed to promote or incite racial or ethnic discrimination directed against them.

Article 10
Indigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories. No relocation shall take place without the free, prior and informed consent of the Indigenous peoples concerned and after agreement on just and fair compensation and, where possible, with the option of return.

Article 11
1. Indigenous peoples have the right to practise and revitalize their cultural traditions and customs. This includes the right to maintain, protect and develop the past, present and future manifestations of their cultures, such as archaeological and historical sites, artefacts, designs, ceremonies, technologies and visual and performing arts and literature.

Article 26
1. Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired.
2. Indigenous peoples have the right to own, use, develop and control the lands, territories and resources that they possess by reason of traditional ownership or other traditional occupation or use, as well as those which they have otherwise acquired.
3. States shall give legal recognition and protection to these lands, territories and resources. Such recognition shall be conducted with due respect to the customs, traditions and land tenure systems of the Indigenous peoples concerned.

Article 29
1. Indigenous peoples have the right to the conservation and protection of the environment and the productive capacity of their lands or territories and resources. States shall establish and implement assistance programmes for Indigenous peoples for such conservation and protection, without discrimination.

Article 32
1. Indigenous peoples have the right to determine and develop priorities and strategies for the development or use of their lands or territories and other resources.22

From the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action:

We call upon the Government of Canada, on behalf of all Canadians, to jointly develop with [Indigenous] peoples a Royal Proclamation of Reconciliation to be issued by the Crown. The proclamation would build on the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and the Treaty of Niagara of 1764 and reaffirm the nation-to-nation relationship between [Indigenous] peoples and the Crown. The proclamation would include, but not be limited to, the following commitments:

  • Reconcile [Indigenous] and Crown constitutional and legal orders to ensure that [Indigenous] peoples are full partners in Confederation, including the recognition and integration of Indigenous laws and legal traditions in negotiation and implementation processes involving Treaties, land claims, and other constructive agreements.

We call upon federal, provincial, territorial, and municipal governments to repudiate concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous peoples and lands, such as the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius, and to reform those laws, government policies, and litigation strategies that continue to rely on such concepts.

We call upon the corporate sector in Canada to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a reconciliation framework and to apply its principles, norms, and standards to corporate policy and core operational activities involving Indigenous peoples and their lands and resources. This would include, but not be limited to, the following actions:

  • Commit to meaningful consultation, building respectful relationships, and obtaining the free, prior, and informed consent of Indigenous peoples before proceeding with economic development projects.

  • Ensure that [Indigenous]peoples have equitable access to jobs, training, and education opportunities in the corporate sector, and that [Indigenous]communities gain long-term sustainable benefits from economic development projects.

  • Provide education for management and staff on the history of [Indigenous]peoples, including the history and legacy of residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Treaties and [Indigenous]rights, Indigenous law, and [Indigenous]–Crown relations. This will require skills based training in intercultural competency, conflict resolution, human rights, and anti-racism.23

The final word on next steps rightfully belongs to Ts'peten Defender Wolverine, as excerpted from his letter to Trudeau and Wilson-Raybould:

“According to [UNDRIP], Indigenous peoples 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 never relinquished their rights. In order to build this Nation to Nation relationship, Indigenous peoples 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.”24

Three things settlers can do today:

1) Find the land and water defenders in your area and see what they are asking settlers to do to support their work;

2) Write to your MP and ask for an inquiry into Gustafsen Lake;

3) Share this article with three people who might not know about Gustafsen Lake.


The Wolverine quote at the top of this article and the Brian Grandbois quote near the end are both from a short documentary from Ts'Peten Secwepemculecw, Long Live Wolverine: Gustafsen Lake Anniversary, available on YouTube. For more information on the Ts'Peten Defence Committee's calls for a Federal National inquiry into the Ts'Peten Standoff, please visit their website.





7 ibid.


10 https://indigenousfoundations....

11 ibid.

12 Mahony, B.D. (2001). "Disinformation and smear:" The use of state propaganda and military force to suppress aboriginal title at the 1995 Gustafsen Lake Standoff. Department of Native American Studies, University of Lethbridge. Retrieved from:

13 ibid.












To Learn More About Gustafsen Lake

Gustafsen Lake Inquiry Website, Ts'Peten (Gustafsen Lake) Defence Committee http://www.gustafsenlakeinquir...

Overview of the Gustafsen Lake Stand-off, First Nations and Indigenous Studies, University of British Columbia. https://indigenousfoundations....

The Gustafsen Lake Crisis, Statements from the Ts'Peten Defenders https://archivesrevolutionnair...

The full timeline of the Gustafsen Lake standoff can be found here.

Topics addressed in this article

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