(Reprinted with permission from The Montreal Gazette on Tuesday, August 22. William Johnson is the paper’s national affairs columnist.)
OTTAWA – Now, wait a minute. We don’t need a Waco-style shootout scene in this country. Nor do we need an Oklahoma City-style guerilla war against innocent people— including the police. Nor do we need a deceptive propaganda campaign.
As I was writing this yesterday afternoon, events at the James ranch on Gustafsen Lake seemed to be moving toward a violent confrontation. If someone is killed there, all of Canada will have taken a turn for the worse.
Sunday evening, shock waves rippled across the country at the announcement by the RCMP that two of their men had been shot in the back, saved only by their bulletproof vests.
The newspapers yesterday played it big: “Indians fire at Mounties in B.C.” reported The Gazette across the top of Page A1. “Rebel Natives ambush Mounties,” reported The Citizen in Ottawa. The Globe: “Mounties hit in Indian standoff: bulletproof vests save fleeing officers; B.C. minister calls for surrender without amnesty.”
The accounts were vivid: “Indian rebels ambushed an RCMP team yesterday with a hail of bullets that hit two officers near an armed camp on private land,” stated the Canadian Press report carried by The Gazette.
Perhaps it’s the old newsman in me, but I’m uneasy about the reporting. Journalists have been kept away from the scene of the action by the RCMP and Native occupiers could not tell their side of the story because the Mounties have cut off their means of communication.
the Canadian Press account carried a dateline at 100 Mile House, B.C., a good distance from the scene of the “ambush.” The reporter stated as fact that “Indian rebels ambushed an RCMP team with a hail of bullets.” Professionalism would have required that he add: “according to an RCMP official.”
Here you have a confrontation, a war of nerves, a propaganda campaign in a remote area of British Columbia. Reporters should not take sides and decide who is right. They do have a responsibility to the public to be cautious, to recognize that both sides have an interest in manipulating them, but only one side really has access to them and controls what they are told.
Something, perhaps my gray hair, tells me that the story of an “ambush” in a “hail of bullets” fired by semi-automatic weapons doesn’t stand up. When an ambush involves crossfire from two sides on unsuspecting targets—the story told by the Mounties—one would expect that someone would get hurt If there is no wounded Mountie to photograph and show the pictures of, if there is no bullet-torn clothing to hold up at a press conference, I begin to sense that there is more or less to the “ambush” story than what reporters so confidently reported.
Yesterday, Bruce Clark, the lawyer for the Indians occupying the perimeter on the James ranch, flew from Ottawa to Williams Lake, B.C., to communicate with his clients. He has been cut off from them by the RCMP’s action in preventing the use of the radiotelephone from the camp.
I spoke to him in Vancouver where he was between flights. “Shooting police officers in the back is entirely inconsistent with everything that my clients are doing,” he told me. “It seems fundamentally inconsistent with my clients’ philosophy as I understand it, which essentially has been a defensive posture in order to precipitate a legal hearing. So I must go and get instructions and clarify the situation.”
Clark did not suggest that his clients would not use their weapons if the police mounted an assault on their camp. “Both constitutionally and at common law, and under the Criminal Code, a person is entitled in self-defence to resist force with force.”
The dissidents, advised by Clark, maintain that Indian land in B.C. was never surrendered, that their right to self-government is constitutionally entrenched and they want a hearing for their legal case before an impartial tribunal, that is, one that is neither Indian nor Canadian. They maintain that the RCMP has no jurisdiction over them on Indian land.
Whatever the merit of their legal position, a satisfactory solution will hardly be reached by a Waco-style shootout.