Paul Weinberg

TORONTO, Dec 20 2000 (IPS) — Canadian aboriginal activist and parole violator James Pitawanakwat is cooling his heels across the border in the US state of Oregon living with his family and going regularly to church while the government here and the US Justice Department try to figure out how to get him back to Canada.

They have already tried court proceedings but US District Court Judge Janice Stewart last month gave Canada the equivalent of an international black eye when she denied a request by the Canadian government to have Pitawanakwat extradited to Canada to serve the rest of a three-year prison sentence.

She likened Pitawanakwat and other natives fighting for land rights in this North American liberal democracy to Basque separatists in Spain and Tamil dissidents in Sri Lanka, noting that all were engaged in liberation struggles.

The Canadian government is widely expected to appeal with the assistance of US government lawyers, but it will be another one to two months before the US Justice Department decides on its next move. One option being explored, says a spokesperson in Washington wishing to remain anonymous, is for US lawyers to re-file the extradition bid with a new judge at a higher level in the US court system.

How Pitawanakwat got to where he is today began in the summer of 1995. He was part of a group of about 40 native activists holding an annual traditional ceremony near Gustafsen Lake within the interior of the province of British Columbia.

Following some harassment by local whites, there was a confrontation with officers from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and Canadian military personnel stationed at a nearby base camp. About 77,000 police bullet holes were discovered in the trees around the site. No one was killed on either side in the event, which ended peacefully after negotiations.

Pitawanakwat, who had fired shots at a RCMP helicopter and was subsequently sentenced to three years in prison for mischief, had been on day parole when he fled across the border into the US state of Oregon. Another participant at the Gustafsen Lake standoff, Splitting the Sky, suggests that Pitawanakwat fled because he felt unsafe amidst the polarised climate of native/white relations in British Columbia.

Brad Morse, a former executive assistant to the Canadian minister of Indian Affairs suggests that the Canadian government “didn’t treat [the case] with the level of seriousness it warranted”. He adds that this is the first time that a US judge has applied the political offence argument in US law in an extradition case involving a Canadian.

Judge Stewart noted in her deliberation that evidence provided by Pitawanakwat, and not disputed by Ottawa, demonstrated that the Canadian police and military mounted a serious operation at Gustafsen Lake to suppress “a challenge to Canadian jurisdiction over unceded tribal lands”.

Pitawanakwat submitted “uncontradicted evidence”, continued Judge Stewart, “that the Canadian government engaged in a smear and disinformation campaign to prevent the media from learning and publicising the true extent and political nature of the events”.

The Oregon judge also noted that Gustafsen Lake was one of a series of incidents during the summer of 1995 across Canada where natives, through protests, road barricades and occupations of parks and private property, were “affirming their sovereignty” and putting new pressure on Ottawa and the provincial governments to take their land rights more seriously.

“Those treaty negotiations may not have occurred or been successful without the impetus provided by the Gustafsen Lake incident and other incidents by native people during the summer of 1995,” stated Judge Stewart.

The Gustafsen Lake protestors dismissed the elected tribal governments on native reserves as “collaborators” of the Canadian federal government.

This radical stance, which also pushes for international recognition of aboriginal sovereignty in Canada, resonates among a growing number of native people and even some newly elected chiefs, frustrated with the status quo of immense poverty and rich elites in their communities, says Splitting the Sky.

At the same time, incidents like Gustafsen have created a backlash in British Columbia, particularly in the rural and resource rich interior, says Brad Morse, who now teaches law at the University of Ottawa.

British Columbia is the only Canadian province where no treaties were ever signed with white European settlers in the last century. Now their descendants, who are in the majority and still feel threatened by the growing native militancy, have been voting in large numbers for the right-wing federal Reform party (now called the Canadian Alliance), which is opposed to the treaty settlements or any “special status” for aboriginal people in Canada.

Others like Splitting the Sky would rather confront the direct hostility of the Canadian Alliance than the federal Liberal government in Ottawa, which he says talks on the one hand of settling native land claims but then conducts “a covert war” against activists.

Anthony Hall, a professor of Native American studies at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta bemoans the lack of scrutiny in Canada with regard to the role of a secretive Canadian military reconnaissance unit, the Joint Task Force II during the Gustafsen Lake incident. This unit also played a role in smart bomb targeting in the recent war in Yugoslavia.


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