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Native Officers Ignored - RCMP determined to "set an example" at Gustafsen

The following interview with RCMP constable Bob Wood was aired July 16th, 1997, on the 'Rational Show' on Vancouver's CO-OP Radio CFRO FM 102.7. An edited version of that program follows:

CFRO: Before the RCMP mobilized the largest contingent of RCMP officers in Canadian history at Gustafsen Lake, three Native RCMP officers were negotiating between the people in the camp, the ranchers, and the RCMP. Shortly before a resolution was to be negotiated, the Native officers were pulled out of Gustafsen Lake and then the events which we now know took place.

[The three officers had arranged a meeting of all concerned parties which they felt would lead to a peaceful resolution. This was set for August 21, 1995. Three days before the scheduled meeting the Native RCMP were removed from their Gustafsen assignment, a heavily armed "covert probe" of camouflaged, non-native RCMP was inserted into the camp and the operational plan was in motion. Another Native officer G.A. Findley was told later that the decision to remove the Native officers had been made "a long time ago," according to a letter by Findley 95.10.09 - S.I.S.I.S.]

CFRO: Bob Wood was one of these RCMP officers at Gustafsen Lake and he has recently quit the force. Good Evening, Bob Wood.

Bob Wood: Good Evening.

CFRO: You were sent into the camp with 2 other Native officers two months before the standoff with the RCMP. Why were the Native officers sent in?

BW: The Native officers were sent in to negotiate with the Natives that were in the camp. Originally, I was sent in by myself as a result of Natives that were squatted... or staying on the land there and refusing to move. It became a point of negotiation to talk them into leaving the land. And so because they were Natives they preferred to deal with Natives and so the three of us were sent in to act as negotiators.

CFRO: It seems that because the RCMP chose to send in Native officers at that time they wanted a peaceful resolution. Why do you think that changed?

BW: I have no idea why it changed. But we did everything in our power to come up with a peaceful resolution.

CFRO: What was your impression of the defendants when you first went into the camp?

BW: When we first went into the camp the impression was that they were there for a specific reason which was a Sundance. It was a spiritual ceremony they planned on having.

CFRO: Did you meet the ranchers at the same time?

BW: Yes.

CFRO: What was your impression of them?

BW: They were concerned because they wanted these people off their property. They'd asked them to leave and of course the Natives had refused to leave. They were upset and they wanted the RCMP to do something about it.

CFRO: So how were people responding to you at that time?

BW: Well when we first went into the camp there was some animosity by the Natives. Number one, they didn't care for the fact that the police were getting involved. There's no denying it - they didn't like the uniforms and that didn't help the situation at the time. The ranchers themselves were of course pushing for us to ... you know... remove them from the land. At that particular time it couldn't be done because it actually was a civil matter when it first started out.

CFRO: What sorts of things were being negotiated or talked about?

BW: When we first went in we were trying to find out all the reasons they were on the land and how long they planned on being there. And we were also trying to find out what the Sundance consisted of, how many people had been invited to attend, and just basically trying to get all the facts together so we knew what we were negotiating about.

CFRO: At the time you were basically pulled out of the camp or asked to leave Gustafsen Lake, what was happening between the camp and the RCMP?

BW: By the time the Native officers had been pulled out of the camp, the Sundance had occurred. Everything was basically finished. There was a handful of Natives left in the camp. Actually I think they would have just left on their own. Maybe a little more negotiation - it would have been settled peacefully.

CFRO: I think there was a resolution meeting of some kind scheduled to take place before you were pulled out?

BW: Yes there was.

CFRO: What was your expectation of that meeting?

BW: The expectation or hope was that it would put an end to the occupation of the farmer's land and that the Natives would have left peacefully.

CFRO: What advice did you give to the RCMP?

BW: The advice we the Native officers gave the RCMP was not to send in the Emergency Response Team (ERT)... not to... you know... start anything... a show of force because we were pretty well assured that it was over with.

CFRO: We know what happened after that. The RCMP went on to mobilize and bring in all that force. Do you think the RCMP used Gustafsen Lake to set an example of some kind?

BW: I can only give you my opinion and in my opinion - yes, since they ignored the advice of the three Native officers, myself included, that were in there. Their minds were made up. They were going to set an example - whoever was in there, they were going to remove them by force to set an example that: "you can't do that." But as I say, at that particular time I didn't see the need for it.

CFRO: You've been an RCMP officer for six years and involved in corrections for 16 years altogether. Have you ever been pulled out of a situation that you've been a participant in since the beginning?

BW: No. Just Gustafsen Lake.

CFRO: From a personal perspective it must have felt that there was some question about your professionalism. How did that feel?

BW: Actually it felt like it was a slap in the face. It was an insult to my intelligence. In other words I wasted 2 months of my life negotiating, talking, gathering information, trying to come up with a peaceful resolution to the problem and then - what ever was pulled by upper management - [I] was ignored. It was of no importance.

CFRO: After the stand-off, the non-native officers who were involved received counseling for stress they experienced. You didn't. Why was that or why do you think that was?

BW: I get the feeling we weren't important. There were three of us involved in there on almost a daily basis. For two months before the news media was aware, before people were aware what was happening we were in there. In a dangerous situation we spent two months of our lives trying to solve the problem and were totally ignored. Once we were pulled and the ERT went in - they got the privilege of being debriefed by psychologists - we didn't. We just basically felt we weren't important enough.

CFRO: As a member of the RCMP had you ever experienced problems of this kind before - where your judgment was being questioned? Anything like that?

BW: Never.

CFRO: Why did you want be an RCMP officer in the first place?

BW: Well I felt I had something to offer. As a matter of fact the RCMP approached me. I was working in corrections and because of my rapport with Native inmates some of the members that used to come into the prison and work with me asked me to turn in an application, which I did. And I switched from corrections to the RCMP.

I felt I had something to offer Natives to ensure that they received policing that they deserved. My intention was to work on Native reserves, where this normally doesn't happen. And that's exactly what I did and my career with the RCMP was working Native reserves as a First Nations police officer.

CFRO: It must be a hard decision to resign?

BW: It was very hard. I always felt that I was a good policeman. I always worked to the best of my ability. It was a career I had always wanted... and it was a big, big decision to have to quit. But with the treatment I received - I guess what I was doing wasn't important enough. There was no support for it.

CFRO: Do you think Gustafsen Lake is a watershed of some kind in terms of how the RCMP is going to deal with Native civil disobedience in Canada?

BW: I certainly hope not. I certainly hope that isn't the tact they take in the future. Again, I can't speak for the RCMP but... my God! There was a lot of time, money, undue stress and life endangerment caused by that operation... and again there was no need for it. So I certainly hope that isn't their plan for the future.

CFRO: Based on what you experienced up there, having been inside the camp and talking to people inside and at the RCMP level, why do you think this happened? What triggered it?

BW: I really don't know what triggered the decision for the RCMP to go in finally with force. I do know what triggered the standoff in the first place. The Natives that were there had been there years before, with the rancher's permission to have a Sundance. This particular time they didn't really have his permission but they had decided for religious reasons that was the place they were going to have it regardless of whether he gave them permission or not.

CFRO: Based on your experience with the RCMP, do you think it's possible for Native people - I'm thinking of the Native people who were in the camp - for Native people to receive fair treatment from Canada's police force the RCMP in these kind of situations?

BW: You're asking a member that quit the force because he wasn't given fair treatment.

CFRO: That's why I'm wondering.

BW: I got out of the force because of the way they treated me and you're asking me whether or not other Natives will get fair treatment from the force? Its almost a foregone conclusion... My feeling is no they're not going to get fair treatment unless things change drastically. I'm not saying things can't change. There's some mighty fine people out there working in the force, but unfortunately their voice is small...

CFRO: Thank you very much