Secwepemc Elder Wolverine
William Jones Ignace
– February 16, 1932 – March 22, 2016 –
Photo from Ts’Peten land defence, 1995, with Wolverine (centre).
“Tuesday, March 22nd, 2016 our Secwepemc War Hero and Elder Wolverine William Jones Ignace passed on to the Spirit World at his home in Secwepemc Territory. Wolverine earned his Battle Honours at Ts’Peten, Gustafsen Lake Siege in 1995, where he and other Warriors successfully survived a military attack launched by the Canadian government, in defence of his unsurrendered Secwepemc Lands. He leaves with us a great legacy of Indigenous Resistance, Struggle and Victory. He is widely respected and loved, not only by his family, community and Secwepemc Nation, but throughout the World as well. Wolverine lit the fires of Freedom in the hearts and spirits of countless Peoples fighting for Indigenous Lives, Lands and Rights. Wolverine will be greatly missed by Indigenous Warriors on the frontlines from Alaska to South America.
“Wolverine sincerely expressed a deep will for the Peoples to continue the important and crucial work in fighting for our unceded Secwepemc Territory, including the demand for a National Inquiry into the siege at Gustafsen Lake. As well as to carry on his Nourish the Nation Garden, to feed the frontlines.” — Ts’Peten Defence Committee
Wolverine rose to become an historic personality in the fight against colonialism, racism and the lawlessness of the Canadian state with his physical and legal defence of Secwepmec claims to sovereignty, for land title as well as jurisdiction over their lands during the 1995 Gustafsen Lake siege and later during the criminal trials and appeals arising from the illegal, racist and colonial assault by the Canadian state against the Ts’Peten Defenders. For many years before 1995 Wolverine studied profoundly the lawful rights of Indigenous peoples and traveled widely speaking about this subject to Indigenous peoples throughout the Americas, even to the United Nations. He repudiated the unlawful European colonial assertions of “right of discovery” and “terra nullius” used to wipe out the inhabitants and annex the lands of Indigenous countries throughout the “Americas.” He upheld and vigorously argued for the sovereignty of all the Indigenous peoples, for their land title with full juridical authority over them.
When the BC NDP government in 1995 headed by Premier Michael Harcourt and Attorney General Ujjal Dosanjh ordered some 400 RCMP to surround a small Sundance Ceremony comprised of 17 Indigenous people including children and four non-Native people on a grassland next to Gustafsen Lake, Wolverine had already submitted a court action on the question of title, sovereignty and jurisdiction, which went even further than the Delgamuukw case (Supreme Court 1997). The rancher who claimed a lease over the land where the Sundance was in progress had never made an issue of their presence in previous years. It was only made an issue after Wolverine filed his claim and the state got involved to defeat the claim. How the rest of the story played out indicates it was a provocation to criminalize the legal fight over the question of sovereignty and jurisdiction.
Gathering to mark the 20th anniversary of the Ts’Peten Defenders’
defence of their lands and rights, September 15, 2015.
The story of what took place at Gustafsen Lake is still not known well enough in BC and throughout Canada or the world. Four hundred RCMP fired over 70,000 rounds of ammunition at the camp over several days, luckily only wounding one person. They set a mine which blew up a pick-up truck used by the camp to fetch water. The Canadian Armed Forces Joint Task Force 2 entered the siege through an illegal arrangement between Dosanjh and the Chrétien Liberal government of the day. The media in collaboration with RCMP Sergeant Peter Montague, infamous for his videotaped remark “smear campaigns are our speciality,” bombarded the public with lies and disinformation day in and day out. The army lent the RCMP four “Buffalo” armoured vehicles and used helicopters against the land defenders in the name of “suppressing terrorism,” all at public expense. Wolverine was subsequently brought before a heavily-armed court in shackles and placed in a bulletproof glass box as if he were a terrorist. In one of the most egregious travesties of justice ever seen in Canada, the court ignored the evidence and gave Wolverine an eight-year prison sentence.
This is why, although at the end of his days with cancer, Wolverine issued a call on the 20th anniversary of Gustafsen Lake for an official inquiry into the RCMP and government violation of federal, constitutional and international law in dealing with the lawful stand of Wolverine and his comrades that were defending unceded Secwepemc territory.
Indeed, what stands out most prominently throughout the life and work of Wolverine was his persistent and principled stand that the annexation of Indigenous countries, lands and peoples by the Anglo-Canadian state violated the rule of law, domestic and international. He defended this courageous stand in 1997 in front of Appeals Court Justice Allan McEachern, who tried to persuade Wolverine and his co-defendant, James “OJ” Pitawanakwat, to abandon their appeal based on the rule of law — sovereignty and jurisdiction — and take up instead arguments based on self-defence and “colour of right” which McEachern strongly suggested would result in his being freed from his eight-year jail sentence.
Wolverine would not budge and persisted with his legal argument based on jurisdiction. The BC Appeals Court rejected it; the Supreme Court of Canada refused to review it. Wolverine went back to prison. OJ fled to the United States and filed for political refugee status. Through the meticulous work of Dacajeweiah (Splitting the Sky) and his co-worker, Anthony Hall, Oregon Judge Janice Stewart ruled OJ was a political refugee from Canada. This strong slap on the face of the Canadian state was never appealed by Canada. His right to return to Canada remains one of the ongoing unresolved issues arising from the 1995 struggle.
Wolverine’s lifelong principled and unyielding defence of Indigenous nations’ rights to sovereignty, land title and jurisdiction reminds us of the historical task to destroy “root and branch” the basis of Anglo-Canadian colonialism. This remains a major practical political task as we take up the renewal of the political process and engage in modern nation-building. Regardless of the population ratio of Indigenous peoples to non-Indigenous settlers now residing in Canada, a modern constitution must give pride of place to the principles for which Wolverine so persistently fought.
Wolverine was a dearly beloved elder of the Secwepemc Nation, whose southern homeland straddles the South Thompson River, site of the largest sockeye salmon run in BC. An organic farmer as well as a fighter for Indigenous peoples’ sovereignty and jurisdiction over their unceded lands, he and his wife Flo always brought abundant quantities of food from their organic gardens to the activists taking up their various land claim struggles against the resource monopolies and governments. They traveled far, such as in 1992 when they took food to the activists at the blockade of the Cree Nation at Wiggins Bay, Saskatchewan to stop clear cutting of their forests.
The life work of Wolverine among many others of his generation in defence of Indigenous sovereignty, land title and jurisdiction, has made an important contribution to the younger generation as well as to opening the eyes of Canadians to the tasks that continue before us. The old Canada represented by the RCMP, the racist parliaments and eurocentric court system must give way to the new.
Wolverine’s life and work contributed to that fight for the new. May his spirit join that of his comrade and fellow fighter Dacajeweiah (Splitting the Sky) and all the other Indigenous freedom fighters of times past. May his spirit inspire generations of new fighters for the human-centred Canada which is striving to be born.
2. Detailed accounts of these historic moments can be found in The Autobiography of Dacajeweiah, Splitting the Sky, John Boncore Hill, from Attica to Gustafsen Lake written with She Keeps the Door (Sandra Bruderer) and at this website.
3. Voir TML Weekly, January 9, 2016.